The Australian government will reopen the detention facility on the remote territory of Christmas Island to house people currently in immigration detention on the Australian mainland.
The Australian Border Force confirmed on Tuesday evening that people currently in immigration detention woud be “temporarily” transferred to the centre at North West Point on Christmas Island, where Australians returning from Wuhan were held in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.
Those transferred would include up to 200 detainees from Western Australia’s Yongah Hill detention centre, the Australian reported. The transfer would create space for detainees in eastern states to be transferred to Western Australia to avoid the risks of coronavirus infection in Sydney and Melbourne. After a period of quarantine in Yongah Hill, those detainees could be sent to Christmas Island.
On Wednesday, the Australian Border Force said on Twitter that no refugees would be transferred to Christmas Island. It said that only “those convicted of serious criminal offences” would be transferred there.
In response to criticism that Christmas Island lacked specialist medical care, Border Force said the contractor IHMS would provide primary and mental health clinics onsite, and other medical care would be provided by visiting specialists or referral to the Australian mainland.
The West Australian had earlier reported that refugees and asylum seekers would be transferred to Christmas Island from Victoria as early as this month, but later removed references to asylum seekers.
In a statement on Monday evening, Border Force said Christmas Island was being reopened “to relieve capacity pressure across the detention network in Australia”.
“With required Covid-19 distancing measures in place within the detention network, this is placing the detention network under pressure.
“The cohort being transferred consists of those who have been convicted of crimes involving assault, sexual offences, drugs and other violent offences. This cohort is detained because of their risk to the Australian community.”
Refugees and their advocates have raised concerns about the risks of infection and outbreaks in immigration detention settings, particularly as Melbourne has endured a brutal second-wave outbreak.
A staff member at the Mantra hotel in Preston, where around 65 refugees and asylum seekers who were transferred to Australia from offshore detention under the medevac law are detained, tested positive to the virus last month.
While Victoria has turned to extreme measures to contain its outbreak, Western Australia has very few cases and Christmas Island has remained coronavirus-free.
Despite the coronavirus risks, Mostafa Azimitabar told Guardian Australia he feared being sent to Christmas Island.
Azimitabar, an Iranian refugee who medically transferred to Australia from Papua New Guinea and is now detained in the Mantra hotel, said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I don’t like to see any fences. Inside this room where I am spending nearly 24 hours a day, I feel this is better than to be inside fences,” he said. “The irony is that I have been transferred to Australia for medical help but these fences cannot improve my health.”
He was nervous about the impact being detained on Christmas Island could have on his mental health, having seen that Iranian Fazel Chegeni killed himself there.
He would feel “huge sadness” being moved away from the friends he has made in Melbourne. “When they walk past, they wave at me, they give me hope. But if they take me to a remote island I feel that they are killing my soul,” he said.
Azimitabar said Melbourne’s stage four lockdown and curfew meant it was an opportune moment for the government to transfer refugees to a remote area without facing interference from protesters.
Refugee advocates, who have called for detainees to be released into the community, criticised the decision to reopen the facility as a dangerous response to the Covid-19 risks.
“The government clearly knows people are at risk in their crowded immigration detention centres – it beggars belief that they are going to such extraordinary lengths to avoid a humane and logical solution,” said the Human Rights Law Centre’s David Burke.
“By reopening detention facilities on a remote island, thousands of kilometres from specialist medical care, minister Dutton has chosen a dangerous and cruel response to a public health crisis.”
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s advocacy director, Jana Favero, said the organisation was “highly concerned” by the reports. The centre’s clients were experiencing “rapidly deteriorating mental and physical health” and needed to be released to go into lockdown to protect themselves, she said.
“Instead of following the advice of medical professionals, the government is resorting to removing people offshore to Christmas Island, intentionally out of sight and far away from their case workers, legal representation and community support networks, risking mental health even further,” Favero said.
The controversial Christmas Island detention facility was closed in 2018, only to be reopened the following year as the government threatened to send sick refugees from Manus Island and Nauru there instead of the mainland. That never happened, but the centre was kept in “hot contingency” with more than 100 staff.
In February, Australians evacuated from Wuhan in China because of the coronavirus outbreak were sent to Christmas Island to quarantine for two weeks before returning to the mainland.
The Tamil family of asylum seekers known as the Biloela family have been detained on the island for almost a year, but not in the facility that is being reopened.
Mother Priya Murugappan was recently returned to the island after travelling to Perth for medical care that was not available on the remote island.
Supporters of the family argued the transfer showed there was insufficient medical care available on Christmas Island, which does not have a tertiary-level hospital.
At the end of May, the latest date for which official statistics were available, there were 369 detainees at Yongah Hill. Guardian Australia understands that 15 New Zealand men who had been held at Yongah Hill were returned to New Zealand on Tuesday.
• This story was amended on 5 August 2020 to remove a reference to the possibility of refugees being transferred to Christmas Island, following the statement from Australian Border Force.