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Issue #1769      March 15, 2017

Defending detainees’ lifeline

An out-of-hours special Federal Court hearing today (Sunday, February 19) granted an injunction to prevent Serco and Border Force from seizing mobile phones from detainees in onshore immigration detention, just hours before the order was to come into effect.

Detainees in immigration detention faced blanket removal of their mobile phones. Lawyers at the National Justice Project, representing over 140 detainees, brought today’s case to get the injunction.

The action in the Federal Court follows the Federal Circuit Court granting of an interim injunction to one Villawood detainee.

What is at stake?

Border Force announced in November that phones and SIM cards of all detainees would be confiscated from midnight on February 19. Detainees were concerned that mass searches would commence while advocates like Pamela Curr assert that the confiscations of personal property are illegal.

Who is affected?

Asylum seekers in detention centres in Melbourne, Sydney, Yongah Hill and Christmas Island were threatened with confiscation of their mobile phones.

Until now people who arrived by air have had the right to mobile phones as long as they have no camera or recording facility. (People who came by boat have no right to a mobile for reasons never explained).

Border Force changes to existing policy would see all phones confiscated and anyone found in onshore detention with a phone potentially punished.

Why does this matter?

Long term refugee advocate Pamela Curr says:

“Mobile phones are a legal lifeline. They are a preventative factor against dangerous health crises, depression and suicides. People in locked detention need mobiles to be able to contact a lawyer or migration agent for timely legal advice.

“It is essential that people make contact with legal advice as beyond these times the applications are out of time.

“Landline phones can be accessed if the person has a phone card which is purchased from the canteen with points but these phones are not private and can be closed down at any time. People need mobiles to talk to friends and family when they are feeling lonely depressed and hopeless.

“The MITA population has increased significantly but the number of interview rooms for legal representatives remains at two making it harder for lawyers to access their clients in time and leaving lawyers and migration agents to haggle for an interview space to see a client and prepare an application.

“Some report being given only one hour because of space restriction”, Curr added.

Meanwhile, refugee advocates have rejected claims by Commissioner Quaedvlieg that the use of mobile phones is linked to criminal behaviour.

“The mobile phone ban is part of militarising the detention centres, and is part and parcel of a suite of punitive policies being rolled out by Border Force,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.

“The attempted ban on mobiles goes along with the routine use of handcuffs to attend medical appointments and arbitrary movements of detainees to remote detention centres and cruel changes that severely restrict visiting arrangements.”

The phones are a life-line to people cut off from family, legal assistance and community support. The claim that landlines in the detention are adequate “is a joke”. It is impossible for people to call into Villawood, for example.

“The Commissioner’s glib reference to running a ‘custodial facility’ hides the fact that immigration detention is administrative detention not a correctional facility. Asylum seekers in detention are not guilty of any crime.

“The government’s decision to keep 501 cases, so-called ‘criminal deportees’, in immigration detention is a case of double punishment. People who have finished their sentence imposed by the courts are being held on the whim of the Immigration Minister.”

Refugee advocates have long argued that 501s and asylum seekers should not be held in the same detention facilities. There are good arguments why neither should be in detention at all and that taking mobile phones off people can only add to strains and tensions inside the detention centres.

“The existing ban on asylum seekers who arrived by boat having a phone is absurd and inconsistent,” said Rintoul. “Everybody should have a phone.

“The Commissioner has no credible evidence that phones have been used in criminal behaviour. He has no evidence that phones are a focus of any ‘stand-over’ behaviour in detention centres.

“But the arbitrary searches of detainees’ rooms for ‘contraband’ that may arise from banning mobile phones certainly falls into the category of stand-over behaviour by guards. There have been fights over fans in hot weather, too. But as in all cases, the fights are more a product of the punitive conditions in detention than with food, fans, or mobile phones.

“The serious use of drugs in detention is mostly associated with the criminal behaviour of security guards than the use of mobile phones by detainees.

“The Commissioner also tries to associate mobile phones with escapes. This is another attempt to cover up Serco and Border Force’s own security failures.

“It would be far simpler to end detention. But as long as detention exists, detainees should have mobile phones.

“We reject any idea that detention centres should be run like Guantánamo Bay.”

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