‘I felt scared. I felt I had lost all rights’ – our submission about public housing lockdowns

‘I felt scared. I felt I had lost all rights’ – our submission about public housing lockdowns

Monday, 24 August 2020

Our client Hassan learned that his family of six wouldn’t be able to leave their public housing unit for five days when police arrived outside his building in Flemington.  

‘We didn’t receive any notice or information that this was going to happen to us…so I could go get food for my children they like and would eat, or anything else we needed to last the hard lockdown,’ Hassan said. 

‘I came to Australia from Dijibouti, in East Africa, in 1995. At home, we speak Somali, Arabic and French. The information the Department gave us was little and all of it in English,’ he said.  

The Victorian Ombudsman is investigating the treatment of more than 3000 residents, many of whom are from disadvantaged, refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse communities, who were detained under police guard from 4 July. 

Disaster Legal Help Victoria (DLHV) is a partnership between Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), the Law Institute of Victoria, the Federation of Community Legal Centres, the Victorian Bar and Justice Connect. DLHV made a submission to the Ombudsman’s inquiry, highlighting that during disasters including the current pandemic, legal help can be vitally important– but is often not front of mind for many people.  

‘Our community was already dealing with the difficulties caused by the pandemic. For clients such as Hassan who suddenly found themselves in an extremely stressful situation, the need for appropriately translated and culturally sensitive information about what was happening and their rights, was really important’, said Rowan McRae, VLA’s Executive Director of Civil Justice, Access and Equity.  

The submission notes that official communications, including written and verbal directions from government, police and authorised officers, were not made available in diverse community languages, or with the assistance of interpreters in a timely manner. As a result, many residents did not understand the nature of the hard lockdown, the risk of COVID-19, their legal rights, or where to seek assistance. 

‘I felt like we were being treated like prisoners, trapped in our own homes,’ said Hassan. ‘It was the first time I had seen a police presence like this ever in Australia or back in Africa let alone at home, I felt scared. I felt I had lost all rights.’ he said. 

While DLHV aimed to ensure residents of the towers had access to help, there were barriers.  ‘Many residents of the towers speak languages other than English. There are people living with disabilities. Getting the right information to these groups was very hard during the lockdown,’ said Rowan. 

‘I feel like if I was provided proper notice and in my language, I could ... be prepared and informed, and this distress could have been avoided,’ said Hassan.  

Our recommendations 

  1. Better incorporation of legal supports like DLHV into government responses to crises.
  2. Include DLHV and similar services, as well as community members (particularly from marginalised and culturally and linguistically diverse groups, and First Nations communities) in planning and preparation for disaster response. 
  3. Provide funding to support organisations offering legal help to people and communities affected – including making translation and interpretation services readily available.
  4. Provide funding to improve co-ordination in the justice sector so services can be delivered swiftly and responsively.  

‘We’re confident that these recommendations would put Victoria on a good path to improve its ability to respond not just to pandemics, but to a wide variety of disasters that people face,’ said Rowan.

More information

Read our Submission to Victorian Ombudsman investigation into the treatment of public housing tenants in lockdown – coordinated legal assistance in response to emergencies (pdf, 203.91 KB) or the accessible Word version (57.55 KB)

Read about the Victorian Ombudsman's investigation into the treatment of residents during the public housing 'hard lockdown'.

Read Hasan's story.


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