Potential Impact of COVID-19 on Stateless Persons

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a serious impact on people all over the world, particularly in relation to the most vulnerable. Stateless people face disproportionate risks in relation to the virus. Because they lack proof of nationality, stateless persons often cannot access healthcare and other social welfare services, meaning they are without crucial safety nets to support them during this crisis.

Stateless persons are at high risk of being placed in immigration detention all over the world because they generally lack identity documents or valid residence permits. The most recently available government statistics show that there are currently 45 stateless people in Australian immigration detention facilities. The Commonwealth Department of Health identifies people in detention facilities as one of the groups most at risk of contracting the virus; doctors and peak medical bodies have also raised concerns about the potential risk of spread of COVID-19 within these centres.

In March, The Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and the Australian College for Infection Prevention and Control released a statement urging the Commonwealth Government to consider releasing people held in detention into suitable housing in the community. The peak professional bodies note that people held in crowded conditions in detention cannot practice adequate social distancing or self-isolation.

This week, Academics for Refugees, Doctors for Refugees and Librarians for Refugees have written an open letter to the Australian Government, calling on the Australian Government to take immediate measures to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 amongst vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers.

The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) along with people held in immigration detention has also raised concerns about insufficient protections available inside detention centres to protect people from the virus, noting some detainees have compromised immune systems and chronic medical conditions, placing them at higher risk of serious infection. Research has found that those detained in Australian immigration facilities for more than 24 months have particularly poor health. The average period of time people currently spend in detention is 513 days, with 23% of people having been detained for more than 730 days, or 2 years. Shortages of basic hygiene items including soap and hand sanitiser in detention facilities have been reported. Last month, a security guard at a Brisbane hotel being used as a place of detention for approximately 80 people tested positive for the virus, increasing fear amongst people held in detention facilities that they are very vulnerable to a potential COVID-19 outbreak.

In addition to the 45 stateless persons held in immigration detention in Australia, we know that there are at least 107 stateless persons in community detention and approximately 1,060 living in the community on Bridging Visas. The Refugee Council of Australia has identified the heightened vulnerability of people living in community, stating that, ‘people seeking asylum who are living in the community without access to financial support and Medicare are some of those at greatest risk for the COVID-19 and also those that cannot adhere to public health requirements like self-isolation’. RCOA is calling on the federal government to ensure all people seeking asylum can access Medicare and financial support as a public health measure to protect them, and by connection, the broader Australian community in this pandemic.

Internationally, advocates are deeply fearful about the situation of Rohingya people living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Crowded conditions and lack of sanitation, including severely limited access to clean water, presents serious challenges to preventing COVID-19 transmission in the event of an outbreak, which could have catastrophic consequences. There are currently no health facilities in the camps to manage positive cases.

The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion is urging states imposing restrictions on access to medical assistance based on citizenship or legal status to immediately lift them. They note that stateless persons will be particularly vulnerable to contracting and transmitting COVID-19 and may be denied treatment unless governments around the world address this issue as a matter of priority. Last week, the UNHCR issued a joint statement urging governments to ensure that all people – including refugees and migrants – are afforded healthcare in the face of this global challenge.

Throughout this challenging period, the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness will be closely monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on stateless persons, particularly in Australia.

Published 10 April 2020