ASRC Submission to Senate Inquiry finds mobile phones are a lifeline in immigration detention

ASRC’s submission to the Senate Committee on the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020 raises alarm on human rights abuses that will result from extended search, seizure and screening powers without a warrant that the amendment would give authorised officers in immigration detention.

The Minister and authorised officers in detention facilities already have considerable search and seizure powers:

  • officers can already search detainees for weapons, things that could help to escape from detention, or evidence to justify visa cancellation.
  • Officers can conduct strip searches of detainees if they suspect on reasonable grounds that a detainee has a prohibited thing. 
  • Officers can confiscate (“seize”) prohibited things found during searches. 

The amendment would allow officers to conduct searches on any or all detainees and their property, as often as they like, without requiring that any threshold of suspicion or reasonable grounds be met. Such measures will not need to be targeted or limited only to those considered a risk. The Minister will be authorised to direct officers to exercise seizure powers in relation to:

  • A person or class of persons (eg all transitory persons).
  • A specific thing or class of things (eg all mobile phones).
  • A specific detention facility or class of facilities (eg all APODs).
  • Any other circumstances specified by the Minister (eg for a certain period of time).  

The ASRC believes this amendment is an unnecessary and alarming overextension in what is already an arbitrary, discriminatory and unchecked detention regime run by the Minister of Home Affairs.

There have been hundreds of unanswered complaints made to the Department of incidents of authorised officers using force, solitary confinement and arbitrary transfers to isolate people who speak to the media, engage in protests or experience mental health deterioration and incidents of suicidality. 

The ASRC is highly concerned that the amendment will lead to the confiscation of mobile phones from detainees without reasonable cause to silence, isolate and punish people without any independent oversight of decisions nor consideration of the mental health impact of confiscation.

Due to COVID19 restrictions, people held in detention have not had visits from family members, friends and supporters or their lawyers since 20 March. 

ASRC caseworkers and lawyers provide critical independent legal, medical and social services via mobile phones to more than 50 clients held in detention across the country. 

Mobile phones are the primary means of contact for people held indefinitely in detention and the main form of independent support to maintain mental health and legal rights. While the Minister says that if phones are banned, detainees will still have access to detention centre landlines, without mobile phones, detainees whose movements are constrained within the detention centres will not be able to alert anyone outside the centres to issues such as their urgent need for medical assistance, or protection, or to track movements of detainees being moved into solitary confinement cells or between detention centres when they are randomly transferred or face removal from Australia, often without notice.

Director of Advocacy and Campaigns, Jana Favero said: “Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton wants to be able to confiscate mobile phones from detainees without needing a warrant, which means officers will not need any grounds for removing a phone.  If this Bill is passed, the already dimmed lights in detention centres will go out and be replaced by darkness. 

“If this amendment is successful, the Minister will be even more power to target, punish, isolate and harm the mental health of entire groups of people, by confiscating mobile phones from entire groups in times of crisis, blocking access to legal representation and independent medical and social care when people most need it to survive.”

“This is a dangerous and life-threatening amendment and the ASRC recommends that Parliament reject it entirely and progress towards independent oversight of the detention system to uphold people’s human rights.” 

Read the full ASRC submission here

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