A Virtual Rally

By AMSA Crossing Borders 

On Sunday, April 5, AMSA Crossing Borders called for refugees and people seeking asylum to be released from immigration detention centres into community detention, in an effort to protect this vulnerable population from COVID-19. Hundreds of Australian Medical students engaged in the virtual Palm Sunday Rally. Supporters shared photos of themselves holding up posters with the hashtag “#detentionharmshealth” on social media platforms in lieu of marching in person. The rally also went global, with Medical Students from many countries including Bangladesh, Qatar, Rwanda, India, Tajikistan and Indonesia joining through the International Federation of Medical Students Associations.

This year’s rally focussed attention on the impact of COVID-19 on refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia – particularly the risk of spread in detention centres and income support for those in the community. [1]

AMSA believes that all communities have the right to the best attainable health. In the current pandemic, the health of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australian detention facilities must not be neglected. AMSA therefore joins the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases (ASID), the Australian College of Infection Prevention and Control (ACIPC) and Doctors for Refugees in calling for all detainees to be released from detention urgently to prevent rapid Covid-19 transmission. [2]

This is in line with AMSA’s policy on Refugee and Asylum Seeker Health, which takes the position that “it is unacceptable for Australia to sacrifice the physical or mental health of any refugee or asylum seeker in order to achieve other political or policy goals,” and

“The Australian Government must cease its practice of mandatory, prolonged, indefinite detention, in order to minimise the detrimental effects on refugee and asylum seeker health.” [3]

People in detention facilities are one of the groups most at risk of contracting the virus. The close proximity of living spaces and shared facilities is not conducive to adequate social distancing between detainees. As of 29 February 2020, there were 1440 people in Australian immigration detention facilities. [4]  Furthermore, the employees of the centres risk transmitting the virus between the detention centres and the wider community.  As Professor David Isaacs wrote in a recent petition to the Department of Home Affairs, “Failure to take action to release people seeking asylum and refugees from detention will not only put them at greater risk of infection and possibly death, it also risks placing a greater burden on wider Australian society and the health care system.” [5]

Current measures including “increased cleaning of communal, high-traffic areas and common touchpoints” [6] are, in our view, insufficient to prevent the devastating impact of an outbreak in any of the centres. The “absolute minimum necessary step” according to Australian Infectious Disease experts is that “detainees should be held in single rooms with their own bathroom facilities.” [7] Doctors for Refugees have an open letter with 980 signatories at the time of writing, calling the Government to start “immediately using alternatives to detention to provide those who are currently in immigration detention with appropriate alternative accommodation in the community.”[8] AMSA endorses the expert opinion that release is the most effective way to mitigate the health impacts on detainees and the public health of all Australians.

The Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) is the peak representative body of Australia’s 17,000 medical students. AMSA’s Crossing Borders for Health is a transnational medical student initiative which aims to remove barriers to health care for refugees and asylum seekers.

Find out more about us and the Palm Sunday Rally through our social media outlets:

FB: AMSA Crossing borders

Instagram: @amsacrossingborders

[1] Palm Sunday Justice For Refugees – Virtual Event – 5th April 2020 – Social Media campaign and Online Actions. Refugee Action Network, 2020, April 4. Available from: http://www.refugeeadvocacynetwork.org.au/?p=1820

[2] Holt, R, Vasefi, S. ‘We are sitting ducks for Covid 19’: asylum seekers write to PM after detainee tested in immigration detention. 2020, March 24. Available from:  https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/mar/24/we-are-sitting-ducks-for-covid-19-asylum-seekers-write-to-pm-after-detainee-tested-in-immigration-detention

[3] Policy Document Refugee and Asylum Seeker Health Position Statement. Canberra: Australian Medical Students Association: 2019. Available from : https://www.amsa.org.au/sites/amsa.org.au/files/Refugee%20and%20Asylum%20Seeker%20Health%20%282019%29.pdf

[4] Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary, 29 February 2020. Department of Home Affairs: 2020, February 29. Available from:


[5] Australian doctors call for refugees to be released amid coronavirus fears. SBS: 2020, April 2. Available from: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/australian-doctors-call-for-refugees-to-be-released-amid-coronavirus-fears

[6] Moore, S, Ton, W. Palm Sunday refugee rally goes online. AAP: 2020, April 5. Available from https://www.news.com.au/national/breaking-news/advocates-rally-online-for-refugee-release/news-story/cb1badfa60f92ae268761502865cdfbb

[7] Davis, J, Russo, P. ASID ACPIC Joint Statement COVID-19 and detainees. Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases: 2020, March 19. Available from: https://www.asid.net.au/documents/item/1868

[8] Open Letter to the Australian Government: Controlling COVID-19 in Immigration Detention and the Community. Doctors for Refugees: 2020, April 7. Available from:



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