COVID-19 compounds poor mental health of people in immigration detention

30 June 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought risks, dangers and impacts for the whole community, but it has had specific and severe consequences for vulnerable populations such as asylum seekers and refugees.

‘This is an already traumatised population whose mental health and wellbeing has been further affected by COVID-19 and the wide-ranging restrictions and changes in response to it,’ said the President of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), Associate Professor John Allan.

There has been ongoing concern from medical experts about asylum seekers and others held in closed immigration detention in crowded conditions, where adequate physical distancing, sanitation and hygiene practices are difficult or impossible to enact.

‘We have seen this compounded by a withdrawal of face-to-face consultations for a population already isolated and in need of specialist mental health treatment and support,’ said Associate Professor Allan.

‘Travel and personal restrictions implemented in response to the pandemic have exacerbated the uncertainty, lack of support and deleterious effects of detention, while other COVID-related policies have negatively impacted access to onshore health services and community and welfare supports – some of which ground to a halt.’

Chair of the RANZCP Asylum Seeker and Refugee Mental Health Network Committee, Dr Kym Jenkins, expressed concern about a shift towards the use of general facilities such as hotels as designated places of detention, especially for people with serious existing mental health and other developmental problems.

‘Many of these alternative places of detention are exceptionally restrictive environments which lack dedicated facilities for exercise, recreation and activity, and where access to open space and mental health care is severely curtailed,’ said Dr Jenkins.

‘These are not appropriate places of detention, as the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Commonwealth Ombudsman attest, and they should only be used in exceptional circumstances and for a very short period of time.

‘Yet we know of individuals detained in these conditions for several months, with reports of people confined to hotel rooms for most of their day with only small periods permitted outside under strict security escort.

‘The levels of distress for people held this way are very high, and there is widespread concern about the lack of standards, services and supports, including about the training of staff and guards in these settings.’

Dr Jenkins affirmed clear community alternatives to keeping people locked up in immigration detention facilities and emphasised the importance of access to health services, community supports and social and financial safety nets.

‘Prolonged detention is a known cause for mental ill-health and the damaging effects of immigration detention have been shown to worsen with the length of continued incarceration, however and wherever that is undertaken.

‘All people have the right to not be subjected to arbitrary mental suffering, the highest attainable standard of mental health care and support, and the right to take part in daily cultural life as part of a community.

The RANZCP urges the government to release people in detention facilities who do not pose a significant security or health risk into suitable community housing, and to enable them to manage their health and wellbeing and successful integration into the community.

ENQUIRIES: For more information, or to arrange an interview call Sarah Carr on +61 437 315 911, or email

For all other expert mental health information, visit Your Health in Mind, the RANZCP’s consumer health information website.