All visits to people held in immigration detention in Australia will be halted from Tuesday in a bid to stop the coronavirus outbreak from reaching the detention network.
An Australian Border Force (ABF) officer told detainees at Brisbane's Kangaroo Point hotel on Monday afternoon that the government had decided to ban visits in light of increased community transmission of COVID-19, audio leaked to BuzzFeed News reveals.
"We have taken the decision to cease visits to all immigration detention facilities effective from tomorrow," the officer said. "We did not make this decision lightly."
The officer said the decision was made in light of social distancing and other measures introduced across Australian states and territories. "The change is to keep you and staff safe," she said. "The changes are consistent with those being implemented broadly across the community."
Visits to prisons across Australia have also been banned.
The ABF officer told detainees they could ask staff for help to arrange audiovisual equipment if they needed to have a visit from a professional, like a lawyer.
Dozens of men held in the Kangaroo Point hotel and Melbourne's Mantra Bell City hotel in Preston will have their access to fresh air either completely cut off or dramatically curtailed in further measures to protect them from the virus.
Currently, the men in those hotels, which are deemed as "alternative places of detention" or APODs, can go on excursions to the nearby detention centres in Melbourne and Brisbane. For those in the Melbourne APOD, this is the only time they can go outside. In the Brisbane APOD, it is their only access to a gym.
Men in both hotels were told on Monday afternoon that those visits will also stop from Tuesday. The ABF officer at the Kangaroo Point meeting said this was "in line with social distancing".
Asad*, a Somali refugee who has been held in the Mantra Bell City hotel in Melbourne for the past five months, told BuzzFeed News the cancellation of visits to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) facility was "terrible".
"The reason we go there is that we get sunlight that we don't have in the hotel. We have fresh air that we don't have in the hotel," he said. "Now we can't go outside at all."
Men in the Melbourne hotel have access to a gym inside the hotel complex for two hours in the day. At the MITA, they can use volleyball and basketball courts and soccer fields.
Asad said the changes had not addressed the main concern shared by the detainees: that detention staff were not adequately protected from or tested for COVID-19 and could bring it into the detention facilities where men live at close quarters.
"We are inmates, whether we are in detention or we are in APODs," he said. "We can't get the virus unless it comes from outside. The only thing that can contact with us is through the staff."
One man held at the Kangaroo Point hotel told BuzzFeed News he was still concerned about social distancing within the hotel. Around 80 men eat in the mess room at the same time. The men also receive "points" — which they use to buy supplies — for attending activities in the activity room in the hotel, such as English classes. Sometimes over 20 people attend classes.
Another man, who has been detained at BITA for more than eight months since being medically evacuated to Australia from Nauru, told BuzzFeed News he would go on a hunger strike to protest the government's handling of the risk of a coronavirus outbreak in detention.
Infectious disease experts have called on the government to release people who do not pose a serious security or health risk to the community from immigration detention.
A Serco officer working at the Kangaroo Point hotel tested positive for COVID-19, detainees were told last week. On Monday afternoon, the ABF officer told detainees there that the 14-day exclusion period had passed and no contacts of the staffer had tested positive.