The Morrison government is spending $55.6million over six months reopening an immigration detention centre on Christmas Island.
The government intends to relocate 250 detainees deemed of ‘bad character’ who cannot be deported during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sixteen detainees have already been sent to the island, with another 15 on their way.
Christmas Island has previously housed asylum seekers and, more recently, people returning from the Chinese city of Wuhan in the early stages of the pandemic.
The centre is also holding a Tamil family fighting deportation to Sri Lanka after being taken from the Queensland town of Biloela.
Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram said global travel restrictions were making it difficult to deport convicted criminals and people whose visas were cancelled on character grounds.
‘Where ordinarily people would be put onto a scheduled aircraft to go back to the country they came from, we’re now having to take people straight into detention out of prisons,’ he told a Senate inquiry on Tuesday.
‘That’s actually getting us very close to capacity in our mainland detention centres.’
Mr Outram says only people who fail the legislated character test will be sent to Christmas Island, as opposed to refugees or anyone seeking asylum.
There are roughly 1500 people detained in Australia’s onshore immigration centres.
Personal visits have been suspended throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with some detainees forced to eat meals in their rooms to meet social distancing requirements.
Mr Outram said dining areas had been reconfigured to meet health regulations.
‘Some meal services, though, are having to be given to people in their rooms to facilitate that social distancing,’ he told the committee.
Some programs and activities have also been scrapped.
There have not been any cases of coronavirus recorded in immigration detention centres.
Lawyers and advocates have called on the government to release some people to community detention to mitigate the risk of an outbreak.
Mr Outram said the department was constantly looking at whether people needed to be in detention, but he was not aware of anyone released in response to coronavirus concerns.
Last week, the Federal Court ruled a 68-year-old man must no longer be held at an immigration detention centre in Melbourne due to the risk of him catching coronavirus.
The commission would not confirm whether the man had been removed following the interim order.
More broadly, Mr Outram talked up his department’s infection controls and response plans.
‘It’s been a Herculean effort to this point to keep COVID-19 out of our detention network,’ he said.
Anyone with flu-like symptoms is being tested and isolated, with new arrivals into detention also placed in quarantine.