Advocates hit Dutton with COVID-19 legal challenge

By Jerome Doraisamy|21 April 2020

A legal challenge against Minister Peter Dutton and the Department of Home Affairs has been filed on behalf of a refugee in immigration detention for alleged failure to protect him from coronavirus.

The Human Rights Law Centre has filed a legal challenge in the High Court, arguing that Minister Dutton and the federal government are breaching a duty of care to the individual refugee by failing to provide conditions that allow him to protect himself from COVID-19.

In a statement, HRLC said that the man has a number of underlying health issues including asthma, a heart condition and diabetes that place him at increased risk of severe illness or death if he contracts COVID-19”.

“The Australian government medically transferred the man, who is a refugee, from Manus Island to Australia for treatment in early 2019,” it said.

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“There are almost 1,400 women and men who remain in immigration detention. People are often eating in crowded food halls, sharing bathrooms and can be sleeping in rooms with up to six people. Infectious diseases experts have called for people to be released, warning that detention centres risk spreading COVID-19 like cruise ships.”

Grata Fund has provided financial protection against an adverse costs order to allow the case to proceed.

This is one of many cases, human rights legal organisations say, that may need to be brought on behalf of people who are at risk of coronavirus whilst in immigration detention.

“Despite clear medical advice – and unlike other countries such as Great Britain, Belgium, and Spain – the Australian government has not reduced the numbers in detention. Without urgent action from Minister Dutton, human rights legal organisations are concerned that people will have to rely on court proceedings to ensure their safety,” HRLC argued.

According to HRLC legal director David Burke: “Minister Dutton has a legal duty to protect the people in the government’s care in immigration detention. Instead, he is choosing to hold men and women in crammed detention centres that make it impossible to practice physical distancing.”

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“Medical experts have been clear that the people in these detention centres, especially those with underlying health issues, are at severe risk from COVID-19. We are asking Minister Dutton to listen to the medical experts – just like the government is asking all of us to do – in response to this public health crisis. He can avoid placing lives at risk by simply releasing people into safe housing where they can socially isolate.”

The challenge is being supported by other advocates, with Jane Leibowitz from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s Asylum Seeker Health Rights Project saying: “Leading experts have made it very clear that the current situation is unsafe. We should not need to take these issues to court to make sure the government is doing the right thing.”

Elsewhere, Refugee Advice & Casework Service centre director and principal solicitor Sarah Dale said that many of the people held in immigration detention are vulnerable and have underlying health conditions.

“Whilst medical advice tells us to social distance and isolate, these people remain crammed into detention facilities. We strongly urge Minister Dutton and the Department of Home Affairs to follow critical medical advice and release people from these precarious facilities, into supportive community placements,” she posited.

“There are no measures sufficient to ensure detention facilities will be safe. There has never been a more critical time to support the health and wellbeing of all people in Australia, including people who came here seeking protection.”

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Advocates hit Dutton with COVID-19 legal challenge
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