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7am producer Elle Marsh on who is responsible for protecting the detainees, and why the government should have seen this outbreak coming.

Inside Australia’s most dangerous hotel



As Australia wraps up its hotel quarantine program, one group of people will remain confined in hotel rooms indefinitely: people seeking asylum.

For the past year the Australian government has been forcibly detaining asylum seekers in an inner-city Melbourne hotel.

They have no access to fresh air and limited space to exercise. 

Then Covid-19 hit. The virus spread rapidly through the building, infecting many who are immunocompromised and unvaccinated. 

The outbreak has raised serious questions regarding the safety and treatment of those inside.

Today, 7am producer Elle Marsh on who is responsible for protecting the detainees, and why the government should have seen this outbreak coming.

 

Guest: Producer for 7am, Elle Marsh.

 

Show Transcript

[Theme music starts]

 

RUBY:

 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am

 

As Australia wraps up it’s hotel quarantine program, one group of people will remain confined in hotel rooms indefinitely: people seeking asylum.

 

For the past year the Australian government has been forcibly detaining asylum seekers in an inner-city Melbourne hotel.
 

They have no access to fresh air, and limited space to exercise. 

 

Then Covid-19 hit. The virus spread rapidly through the building, infecting many who are immunocompromised and unvaccinated. 

 

The outbreak has raised serious questions regarding the safety and treatment of those inside.

 

Today, 7am producer Elle Marsh, on who is responsible for protecting the detainees, and why the government should have seen this outbreak coming.

 

It’s Thursday, November 25. 

 

[Theme music ends]

 

RUBY:

 

Elle, this story that you've been working on, it's about a hotel in Melbourne... Park Hotel. So, could you start by just telling me about the hotel and who is in it right now? 

 

ELLE:

 

Yes, so Park Hotel is this 1970s beige five storey building on Swanston Street, just on the outskirts of Melbourne's CBD, and it's a few blocks from our office in Carlton.

And since the end of last year, the hotel has been used to detain asylum seekers and refugees. 

 

Most of these men arrived by boat and so were sent to offshore detention centres. They then came to the mainland to receive medical treatment in Australia, but rather than living in the community they’re being detained indefinitely in these hotels.

Archival tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

“My name Ahmad Zahir Azizi, I’m from Afghanistan. In 2015 I was come from Afghanistan to Australia because I was...”

 

ELLE:

 

And I've been speaking to a number of the men inside the hotel, including Azizi. He's a 35 year old refugee from Afghanistan who's been detained by Australian immigration for over eight years. 

 

Archival tape -- Elle Marsh

“What was it like when you first arrived at Park Hotel? Can you describe to somebody that doesn't know what Park Hotel is like, what it's like in there?” 

Archival tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

“Whereas at first when I came to Park Hotel - the first time it's as good. After one week, after one week..”

 

ELLE:

 

He told me that when he was first transferred to the hotel, he thought it was OK. He'd been suffering from migraines and the room had dark blinds and was quieter than the previous detention centre he had been in. But as time went on, he began to think he might never be released.

Archival tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

“Daytime, I am whole days 24 hour, I stay in my room.” 

 

ELLE:

 

Another detainee describes the facility to me as the torture hotel. They spend each day trapped inside their hotel room without fresh air.

Archival tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

“All people is very tired in the park hotel. Long time, more than eight years people is living in the detention centre. All people’s minds, it doesn't work very well.”

 

ELLE:

 

Refugee organisations, advocates and medical groups are already extremely critical of the use of hotels to detain asylum seekers. But there was particular concern about Park Hotel. 

 

RUBY:

 

OK, so what is it about Park Hotel that has got refugee advocates concerned specifically? 

 

ELLE:

 

Well, before it was Park Hotel, it was known as Rydges. And early in 2020, as part of Victoria's hotel quarantine programme, Rydges was found responsible for the outbreak that started Victoria's second wave. 

 

RUBY:

 

OK, so the same building just with a different name was the hotel that sparked the deadly COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne last year. 

 

ELLE:

 

That's right. 

Archival tape -- Reporter

“In just five hours. Hundreds of thousands of Melburnians will be in lockdown again, Victoria has had 73 new coronavirus cases and most are in hotspot areas…”

 

ELLE:

 

That was the wave of COVID-19 we saw in the middle of last year, when Melbourne was plunged into its longest lockdown: 112 days. 

Archival tape -- Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews

“From 6pm tonight, I am declaring a state of disaster... From 8pm tonight, a curfew will be implemented.”

 

ELLE:

 

The virus spread throughout the community, including into multiple aged care facilities, leading to hundreds of deaths. 

Archival tape -- Reporter

“It's the result of a second wave it's claimed was sparked by a lack of care in the state's quarantine hotels.”

 

ELLE:

 

The outbreak prompted an inquiry into Victoria's hotel quarantine program,

and after months of investigating how the virus got out and the conditions within the hotel, the enquiry found that around 90 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Victoria since late May 2020 were attributable to the outbreak at Rydges. 

Archival tape -- Reporter

“The hotel Rydges on Swanston as the source of 90 per cent of Victoria's current infections. It's ground zero for Melbourne's deadly second wave..”

ELLE:

 

The final report was scathing. It found that there was insufficient regard paid to infection prevention control standards across the entire programme, but particularly at Rydges.

Archival tape -- Commissioner of the report

“We found two rubber gloves, a facemask, a children’s toy in there, the bathroom was moldy”

 

ELLE:

 

There was poor use of PPE from security guards, a lack of training for staff and the enquiry also thoroughly documented some of the problems with using hotels to quarantine COVID positive patients. For example, no access to fresh air and no natural ventilation, such as being able to open a window or have a balcony. 

 

Archival tape -- Protestors 

 “Shame! Shame! Not enough justice!”

 

ELLE:

 

But the same week the final report was released, roughly 60 asylum seekers were forcibly moved under heavy police guard into the hotel. 

Archival tape -- Protestors

“Free, free the refugees! Free, free the refugees!”

 

ELLE:

 

And there was great concern that if Covid got into this hotel, there would be very little to stop it from spreading throughout this vulnerable group.

 

RUBY:

 

OK. So the very same week that the enquiry into Victoria's hotel quarantine programme released its report into rydges, which found all of these problems, asylum seekers were actually moved into the very same facility. And then just recently, and I suppose, unsurprisingly, COVID began spreading through the hotel again. So, tell me about this most recent outbreak. 

 

ELLE:

 

So around early October, a few men started to experience symptoms of COVID-19. Azizi was one of the men who began to feel sick around this time.

Archival tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

“I’m feeling sick... Night time I was go to the bed, morning time when I wake up I go to the shower, when I come back from shower to my room... I’m feeling very cold. I have headache, throat, chest pain…”

 

ELLE:

 

But when he requested to see a nurse, they said there was no need to get tested or isolate. 

Archival tape --

“One of the nurses check me and say, ‘No, you not have Covid,’ just gave me two Panadol and send me back to my room. When it's after two days or three days, I'm feeling is very bad. I go to shower, I fall down in the shower.”

 

ELLE:

 

One of the detainees told me that he saw bins in the corridors overflowing with medical waste. One man told me he waited six feverish hours for Panadol. They told me that there was a lack of medical care and staff for the Covid patients.

 

Archival tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

 

“For two weeks, I was in the quarantine room, for two weeks I didn't see the doctor. They are not giving me Panadol also, too.”

 

ELLE:

 

By the end of the month, almost half of the detainees had tested positive to COVID 19. 22 out of the 46 men. And some of them are still recovering. 

 

So it really left me asking: Why would these men have been put in this hotel that only a year ago was deemed an unsafe place to quarantine people with COVID-19 and who exactly decided to put them there? 

 

RUBY:

 

We'll be back after this. 

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

RUBY:

 

Elle, we've been talking about the outbreak of COVID-19 amongst asylum seekers who are detained at Park Hotel at the moment. Over the last few weeks, you have been looking into why it happened and also who is responsible for these men being detained in this particular facility in the first place. So what have you found? 

 

ELLE:

 

So the men inside Park Hotel, detained by the Australian Border Force agency, which runs Australia's immigration detention facilities. I called and sent questions to the Australian Border Force and the Home Affairs Minister. I wanted to find out who chose to use this particular hotel as a detention facility and why and what reasonable steps were taken to prevent an outbreak at Park Hotel. 

 

But when it comes to getting answers from the ABF, the whole operation is shrouded in secrecy. The Australian Border Force didn't answer any of my questions directly. Instead, it pointed me to a statement about the outbreak last month, which said quote: ‘standard departmental protocols are being followed in relation to a positive diagnosis, including contact tracing, quarantine, testing and cleaning in conjunction with the Victorian Public Health Unit.’

 

So I contacted Victoria Health to see what role they had in looking after these men, and they said it's a Commonwealth run facility. Please direct your questions to the Commonwealth, which in this instance is the Australian Border Force. 

 

RUBY:

 

OK, so going round in circles there, but we know from the inquiry about Rydges that there were all of these problems... Poor cleaning practises, a lack of training, poor use of personal protective gear by security guards. And all of these things contributed to the outbreak, which then led to the second wave in Victoria. So have these problems identified by the enquiry been fixed or are they the same things that have contributed to this recent outbreak among refugees at the same facility? 

 

ELLE:

 

So it does seem like there were a lot of similar issues raised about the Park Hotel outbreak last month that were also raised about Rydges last year.

 

I should note that the hotel is now run by different management, and there's different staff and contractors for the facility now, but when I spoke to a number of experts in infection control and public health they said that some of issues raised in the inquiry were the same problems that could have contributed to the outbreak last month.

 

Archival Tape -- Geoff Hanmer

 

“No hotel in Australia is really designed as a quarantine facility…” 

 

ELLE:

 

I spoke to Geoff Hanmer, an adjunct professor of architecture. He's an expert on ventilation systems, and over the past 18 months has been looking at how COVID spreads in buildings like aged care facilities, educational facilities and hotels.

 

Archival Tape --Geoff Hanmer

 

“Park Hotel in particular is mechanically ventilated, but it's quite an old hotel. And so exactly what standard it complied, or it complies with, it’s a little bit uncertain.”

 

ELLE:

 

And when I asked him why the Australian Border Force might have used the former quarantine hotel to detain COVID positive detainees, he said he couldn’t see any excuse as to why government would detain men there

 

Archival Tape -- Geoff Hanmer

 

“I’d suggest inertia and a certain amount of stupidity might be an explanation. 

 

Once Covid breaks out in any facility, the prudent thing is to remove people from the facility and take them to air gapped accommodation. And unless it was your plan to actually infect these people, then that's what you'd do.” 

 

RUBY:

 

And Elle, you try to speak to Border Force to ask why this particular facility was being used, given everything that we know and everything that's public about the problems there. It sounds like they didn't answer your questions, but can we glean anything about their rationale, about why Park Hotel is being used right now? 

 

ELLE:

 

Well, not really. And I think that speaks to this broader issue about how the Home Affairs Department and the ABF operate. There's a lack of accountability and a lot of secrecy when it comes to how the government runs its detention centres. 

 

For example, we still don't know exactly how the virus got into Park Hotel or how many staff also contracted the virus. I think the thinking behind the government's actions is opaque, but what we do know is that many of the men in Park Hotel have been recognised as refugees, and we know the detrimental impact indefinite detention is having on them. 

 

RUBY:

 

So how are they? When did you last speak to Azizi? 

 

ELLE:

 

So when I spoke to his Azizi last week, he said that he had some good news. He told me that he had been released along with three other men. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

 

“When it’s the first time I come out from the Park Hotel. I go out, because I'm Muslim, first time I was go to the mosque, I, I look for my backside. Where is the security? I can't believe it really is what happened for me this time? No, I'm not free!”

 

ELLE: 

 

It's been a huge couple of weeks for Azizi. He's now staying in accommodation on the outskirts of Melbourne. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

 

“This time is really very, very different for me. When I go to the mosque, inside the mosque, outside the mosque, I see this way, that way. I say, ‘Oh wow, that is very nice day, and very good day for me because I have free.’

 

Many times I called ‘free! Free! Free!’ I was call.” 

 

ELLE:

 

Azizi has been detained for more than eight years, and while he is incredibly happy to be released, it's bittersweet.

 

Archival Tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

 

“When I’m released, I’m really happy. But I'm really sad for my friend, who are still is in the Park Hotel. This is very sad for me.” 

 

ELLE:

 

Around 40 men remain in Park Hotel. Many of these men are immunocompromised and not fully vaccinated. Some are still recovering from COVID-19 and others terrified of catching it.

 

Archival Tape -- Park Hotel Detainees

 

“We are not safe! We are not Safe! We are not safe!” 

 

ELLE:

 

But COVID-19 is only one of the many health risks that these men face. They have no idea when and if they will ever be released.

 

Archival Tape -- Park Hotel Detainees

 

“Help us, Help us! Help us, help us! Help us, help us! Help us, help us!”

 

ELLE:

 

These men have been each other's families. They've spent every day for years together, and until they're all released, Aziz says he can't truly be happy. 

 

Archival Tape -- Ahmad Zahir Azizi

 

“They are not criminal, they have a family. It's very hard for their people and enough. And again, I say, please enough, enough. Let them out from detention centre.”

 

RUBY:

 

Elle, thank you so much for your time. 

 

ELLE:

 

Thanks. 

 

RUBY:

 

You can read Elle's story about the Park Hotel outbreak in this weekend's edition of The Saturday Paper.

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

[Theme music Starts]

 

RUBY:

 

Also in the news today... 

 

The federal court has ruled in favour of Defence minister Peter Dutton in his defamation case against refugee activist Shane Bazzi over a tweet that labelled the minister a “rape apologist.”

 

On Wednesday the court ruled the tweet was defamatory and for Dutton to be awarded $35,000 in damages.

 

And New Zealand has announced it will reopen the border to fully vaccinated Australians from January 16.

 

Australians will be required to spend seven days in home quarantine upon arrival instead of completing 14 days in government quarantine that other travellers and returning kiwis are required to complete. 

 

This is 7am - I’m Ruby Jones. See you tomorrow.

 

[Theme music Ends]

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Elle Marsh is a features and field producer at 7am, a daily podcast from The Saturday Paper.