Home affairs attempts to avoid oversight in immigration detention must be rejected

Media Release

1 September 2020

Human rights and legal organisations are today calling on Federal Parliament to reject new laws that would allow the Morrison Government to stifle criticism of immigration detention, reduce transparency and cut off crucial support for the people detained in immigration detention.

The Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020 is being debated today in Parliament.

The Bill would give sweeping, unchecked powers to the Minister for Home Affairs to ban almost any item in detention, including mobile phones, and allow private security contractors to search for and seize items from individuals or whole groups of people in immigration detention without cause.

The Government is attempting to cut this crucial form of contact for people in detention at the same time that all in-person visits have been halted since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Removing mobile phones will rip away people’s ability to communicate with family and friends, stay connected with their community and access legal representation, all of which will heavily impact mental health and safety.

David Burke, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre:

“Abuse thrives behind closed doors. At its heart, these proposed laws are an attempt by the Government to stop us seeing what is really happening in immigration detention. Parliament must reject this unjustified and harmful attack on transparency.”

“Because of existing COVID-19 restrictions, people in detention are being blocked from seeing their loved ones in person. People’s personal phones have become an even greater lifeline to their family, friends and legal support. Instead of fighting to remove this crucial support, Minister Dutton should be working to urgently release people from detention into safe housing in the community, where they can self-isolate and follow public health advice.”

Jana Favero, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre:

“Three years after the first listing of this Bill, the Morrison Government has still not provided any evidence as to why these new powers are needed or that current powers are insufficient. This is yet again another attempt by Minister Dutton to increase his power while diminishing accountability and transparency of his Department.

“This Bill is a deliberate attempt to silence people in detention and avoid accountability for ABF conduct inside detention centres. As parliamentarians debate this bill I urge them to consider the importance of phones to them as they sit in Canberra – to connect to social media, news and information, with family, loved ones, staff and constituents. Phones are a lifeline to people in detention.”

Sarah Dale, Centre Director & Principal Solicitor, RACS:

“We must not forget that many of the men and women who are held in detention will have experienced persecution, trauma and oppression at the hands of their Government or powerful individuals in their home countries. And here they are in Australia, a country where they sought protection, effectively being forced into silence by our leaders.

“Instead of working to cause further harm by cutting off their lifelines – their phones, the Government should be releasing people from immigration detention into the community so they can safely protect themselves from COVID-19, something which is not possible in the conditions which they are held.”

George Newhouse, CEO National Justice Project:

“The National Justice Project fought the Minister for two years to ensure that people retained the use of their mobile phones as a vital link to the outside world and now he wants to take them away by overruling a court decision through parliament.

“Let’s be clear, that beautiful family from Biloela would be in Sri Lanka today if they had not been able to communicate with their lawyers by telephone and we would not be able to see their mistreatment at the hands of guards in detention. The Minister has sufficient power and control to regulate detention centres – this is just an act of cruelty. Unfortunately, if the detainees lose their phones I fear that lives will be lost.”

David Manne, Executive Director, Refugee Legal:

“The Bill to ban mobile phones in detention must be stopped. The proposed ban is a completely unnecessary, unconscionable and dangerous incursion on basic rights. Mobile phones are a critical lifeline for people detained to access legal assistance and to maintain proper contact with family and other supports. We know first-hand that access to a mobile phone can be the difference between someone successfully seeking asylum in Australia or being deported to danger without accessing that right. The proposed laws lack any justification, threaten fundamental liberties, and should be rejected by the Senate.”

Graham Thom, Amnesty International Australia

“Due to COVID-19 the men and women in detention have not been able to receive any visitors, including family members, since March. During this time independent monitoring bodies, who provide some checks on the way individuals detained are treated, have also been unable to inspect the centres. Mobile phones have been the only lifeline for those detained when it comes to contacting friends and family and currently is the only way to provide any accountability and transparency regarding the treatment of those detained.

“Having visited detention centres around Australia over the last 20 years it is clear the ability for those held to access mobile phones has had a crucial impact in limiting the mental impacts of being detained. Removing this vital lifeline will have disastrous consequences.”

Amy Knibbs, Human Rights Campaigns Director, GetUp

“Most of us couldn’t survive a single day without our phones, yet this Bill aims to confiscate the only lifeline people in immigration detention have. We call on all MPs to stand up for transparency and accountability of the Government in what otherwise could turn into a detention black hole.

“The myriad abuses of power that have been exposed in these facilities may never have seen the light of day if the people inside were not able to contact journalists, medical and mental health services and, most importantly, their families – and for that, they need their mobile phone.”

Media contact:
Michelle Bennett, Communications Director, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519
Marcella Brassett, Media Manager, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, 0411 026 142

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