Dutton’s bid to ban mobile phones in immigration detention centres could be unconstitutional | Australia news


A proposed law that would allow Peter Dutton to ban mobile phones in onshore immigration detention centres would damage refugees’ mental health and may be unconstitutional, a Senate committee has been told.

The acting immigration minister, Alan Tudge, argued in parliamant in May that the bill, which would also allow him and the home affairs minister to declare phones and other items “prohibited”, was needed to stop the spread of drugs and contraband items in detention centres.

Tudge claimed phones were an “unacceptable risk” and had been used to facilitate escape efforts, bring drugs into detention and organise criminal activity.

But civil society organisations have pointed out that any ban could apply to everyone in detention, including over 100 refugees brought to Australia from offshore detention under the medevac law.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International are among the organisations to raise concerns about the bill.

In recent years, the proportion and number of immigration detainees who have been convicted of crimes have grown due to strict visa cancellation and refusal laws. But there also more “highly vulnerable” people in detention who pose no risk, the Refugee Council has said. The average length of detention in onshore facilities is now 18 months.

The UN refugee agency said in a submission to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, which is examining the bill, that phones were a “lifeline” for refugees in detention and were as important as basic needs such as water, food and energy. The AMA said detainees were a “high-risk” group for suicide and self-harm and that removing phones would make it difficult to maintain contact with people who supported their mental health and wellbeing.

“Any measure that could increase feelings of desperation, despair and disconnection among detainees … must be thoroughly examined with caution,” the AMA said in its submission.

A number of groups pointed out that detainees have been more isolated during the Covid-19 pandemic as they have not been allowed visitors. Detention centres have also been subject to less oversight in the past few months as visits have been restricted.

The Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales said there was a “reasonable” chance a constitutional challenge to the law would succeed because of its effect on freedom of expression. A ban on phones would make detainees reluctant to communicate with others about their conditions of detention or other political issues, for fear their communications were being monitored.

Serco, the security company contracted to run Australia’s onshore detention centres, argued the bill was necessary to protect its officers from being intimidated by detainees who publish footage of them on social media channels.

A small number of anonymous Facebook pages and YouTube channels share footage of detention staff, including guards and medical workers, sometimes including their full names.

“In some cases, staff member families have been targeted and subject to ongoing harassment,” Serco’s submission states. It said that in 2019 this behaviour gave rise to four workers’ compensation claims and 60 reports. Serco staff had applied for intervention orders in NSW and Victoria to stop detainees posting “prejudicial and often slanderous material” on social media websites, it said.

Last year an Australian Human Rights Commission report found that only a small proportion of detainees were using mobile phones inappropriately. The commission’s submission said if the bill passed it should be amended to rule out a blanket ban on phones.

The bill would also significantly expand guards’ power to conduct searches, including strip-searches.

A similar bill was introduced to parliament in September 2017, but lapsed when parliament was dissolved before the 2019 election.

The federal court ruled in 2018 that an Australian Border Force ban on phones, which was not backed by legislation, was unlawful.

The committee is expected to hold a hearing on the bill in early July.



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