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Refugees protest detention conditions in a Melbourne hotel, Australia, April, 2020. © 2020 Private

In Australia, as people grumble about closed beaches and extended isolation at home due to the coronavirus, spare a thought for those in immigration detention.

In recent weeks, I’ve received anxious messages from a 32-year-old Sri Lankan refugee, detained in a Melbourne hotel for nine months. After more than six years in Papua New Guinea, authorities transferred him and dozens of others to Australia for medical treatment. The Home Affairs Department has declared some hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane as “alternative places of detention” for “low risk” refugees and asylum seekers.

They are under 24-hour guard, confined largely to their rooms, sharing the bedroom and bathroom with a roommate. A joint letter by some 1,200 healthcare professionals says these hotels represent “a very high-risk environment” for the coronavirus to be transmitted.

“We’re constantly worried,” the Sri Lankan refugee told me. “We see Australians returning from abroad protesting the conditions of their quarantine in hotels for 14 days. At least for them it will end in 14 days. We don’t know when it will end for us.”

Like many Australians, they check the news nonstop for the latest virus updates. But these men have already been confined for months: they can’t stockpile food or toilet paper, and they have no control over who walks in the door. In March, a guard working at a Brisbane hotel used as a makeshift detention center tested positive for the virus, adding to their fears.

For the 1,400 people held in Australian immigration detention facilities, COVID-19 poses a higher risk because they live in close proximity to each other, prohibiting the social distancing that helps prevent the virus’ spread. On March 25, the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture urged governments to “review the use of immigration detention and closed refugee camps with a view to reducing their populations to the lowest possible level” to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

Authorities in Belgium and the United Kingdom have released hundreds from immigration detention; Spain has said it will also do so. In the United States, some judges have ordered the release of people from immigration detention because of underlying health conditions or the risk of transmission. The Australian government should do the same, finding alternatives to immigration detention, especially for people with underlying health conditions, older people, and those who pose minimal security risks.

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