Immigration detention centres a significant COVID-19 risk

17 April 2020

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) urges the Australian Government to urgently release vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers from immigration detention centres as part of its public health response to COVID-19.

‘We need to act swiftly to ensure the health and safety of men and women currently held in onshore immigration detention centres,’ said RANZCP President, Associate Professor John Allan.

‘This is an already traumatised population, many of whom have severe mental health problems and are at increased risk of further depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

‘Many also suffer from other complex and chronic physical conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), respiratory illness and auto-immune diseases which put them in the high risk category for COVID-19.

The RANZCP believe it is incumbent upon government to ensure public health recommendations such as physical distancing, self-isolation and quarantine apply to all people.

‘We have concerns about the transparency around the regime of testing currently in place for COVID-19 and the medical oversight of protection measures for those in detention, especially those at high risk of acquiring the virus,’ said Associate Professor Allan.

‘This is a time when physical distancing and other restrictions to everyday practices are essential, and yet we know people in detention are often required to share crowded spaces which may limit their capacity to adequately protect themselves.

‘Unfortunately, we have learnt from experiences in other settings just how dangerous living communally, sharing rooms and bathroom facilities, and spending time in close physical proximity to others can be for people during this crisis.

‘It is important take urgent action to avoid the public health risk of clusters developing inside detention and to reduce the size of these populations – if the COVID-19 virus makes its way into these centres it could spread very quickly amongst this vulnerable population.

‘The threat of an outbreak poses a significant risk to the lives and health of not only the people living in such conditions, but also to the staff working in these facilities and by extension the wider community.

‘The planned release of people from detention into community-supported accommodation, accompanied by appropriate community-based services and safety net supports, will help to prevent infection and the spread of COVID-19.’

This is a public health issue of the first order and the RANZCP look forward to working together with the government on this issue, like we have successfully on many other matters arising in recent weeks, to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all people.

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.