Immigration centre vax rates 'appalling'

COVID-19 vaccination coverage at Villawood detention centre lags behind the NSW average.
COVID-19 vaccination coverage at Villawood detention centre lags behind the NSW average.

Fewer than one in five people detained in Australia's immigration centres were fully vaccinated at the end of August, despite public health experts warning of the risk of COVID-19 in detention.

Vaccination rates in immigration detention were about 20 percentage points lower than the national figures.

At Sydney's Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, in the hotspot Canterbury-Bankstown council area, vaccination coverage was lagging behind the NSW average.

The numbers are "pretty appalling", says UTS Law senior lecturer Anthea Vogl, who received the data under freedom of information.

"The numbers trail significantly behind the community even though levels of vulnerability and susceptibility to infection are much higher than in the general community," Dr Vogl said.

She believes the government should be "much more transparent" about the way it is handling COVID-19 in detention.

"At a bare minimum, how the program is being rolled out and levels of vaccination should be publicly available," she said.

At the end of August, 525 detainees had received their first dose and 239 were fully vaccinated.

Official numbers show there were 1481 people in detention one month earlier, the most recent date for which data is available. The detention population has remained relatively stable for the past few months.

Therefore about 35 per cent of detainees were partially vaccinated and 16 per cent were fully vaccinated on August 31.

On the same date, 58.71 per cent of eligible Australians had received a first dose and 35.03 per cent were fully vaccinated.

At Villawood, 263 detainees had received a first dose and 204 were fully vaccinated. That's around 54 per cent first dose coverage and 43 per cent second dose coverage.

The NSW average at that date was 68.2 per cent first dose coverage and 37.1 per cent second dose coverage.

Coverage will have increased since this data was captured as the vaccine rollout continued.

In a statement, Australian Border Force said a planned vaccination rollout across the immigration detention network started in early August and has reached all facilities.

"The (Home Affairs) Department and ABF continue to work closely with the Health Department and the Detention Health Service Provider to vaccinate all consenting persons held in immigration detention," a spokesperson said.

Kalu John Okeke, a Nigerian refugee who's been detained at Villawood for five years, told AAP he was offered the vaccine recently.

"We didn't have the opportunity because we don't have rights here," he said.

Though detention staff had taken expressions of interest, they only started to administer vaccines when Sydney's outbreak became very serious, he said.

Home Affairs said no detainee in the detention network has tested positive to COVID-19, adding that a range of "preventative measures" have been implemented.

But Dr Vogl said the late start of detention vaccinations led to an "absurd situation" where refugees and non-citizens could have been vaccinated if they were released from detention, but were excluded from from the rollout because they were "in a situation of incarceration".

Detainees became worried as they saw the Delta variant spiral out of control around Villawood.

"All the officers come in and out I don't know where they've been last night," Mr Okeke said.

He initially refused to have the jab because he did not know how it worked and had heard "many stories" about it.

But he was persuaded when his doctor explained that his kidney illness meant he was at higher risk of COVID-19.

Some 247 detainees - or about 17 per cent of the population - were identified as particularly vulnerable to the disease in September 2020, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Infectious diseases experts urged the government in March 2020 to consider releasing low-risk detainees to address the risk of an outbreak in the crowded detention system.

However, the detention centre population has slightly increased since the pandemic began.

"(Home Affairs) should have prioritised very high rates of vaccination in detention, and the data clearly reveals a failure to even do that," Dr Vogl said.

Australian Associated Press