I WhatsApped Refugees To Ask Why They're So Freaked Out About The Government Taking Their Phones Away

    A proposed law would make it easier for detention guards to seize phones from immigrants. We started a group chat to find out how refugees feel about it.

    There are about 1,400 people in immigration detention in Australia and, at the moment, they're pretty much all allowed phones.

    But that could change if the government passes a law it reintroduced to parliament last week, which would make it easier for detention guards to search detainees and confiscate items, including mobile phones.

    The government has tried to ban phones in the past but a court held it was illegal. This law would override that decision.

    Refugees, asylum-seekers and other immigrants in detention are anxious about the proposed law, and almost 50,000 people have signed a petition opposing it.

    I wanted to ask refugees in detention why they were so afraid of their phones being taken away. After all, acting immigration minister Alan Tudge says it wouldn't be a blanket ban and that they'd have access to landline phones and computers anyway.

    So I started a group chat on WhatsApp with a few guys in detention. The original plan was just to screenshot the conversation and publish it, but because English is not these refugees' first language it ended up being faster and easier for everyone to swap voice memos as well as text. So what follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity, with some screenshots thrown in to give you the vibe of it all.


    Hannah Ryan / BuzzFeed News

    Me: Hey guys, thanks very much for agreeing to do this group interview over WhatsApp. I'm excited!

    So the reason why I wanted to do the interview, and to do it this way, was because the government has introduced a new law. The law would make it easier for guards to remove phones from people in detention and search you for phones and other objects.

    I know a lot of guys in detention are not happy about the idea of phones being taken away, so I wanted to speak to you and get your perspective on why phones matter to you.

    Let's start with some introductions? Could you please each tell me in just a couple of sentences a little bit about you: your name, where you're from, where you're currently living, and where you were before. Whatever you're comfortable sharing! And if you want to take a selfie too to include, please do.

    Abdulla: Abdullah Moradi Sabz Koohi. I'm from Iran. I'm in the Kangaroo Point Hotel in Brisbane. I was in Manus Island detention center.

    Me: Thanks Abdulla. How long have you been in Kangaroo Point?

    Abdulla: I first arrived to Brisbane's detention centre, BITA. I've been in the hotel for nine months.

    Amin: My name is Amin Afravi. I'm Arab, from Iran. I'm in Brisbane, in the Kangaroo Point hotel now. I was in Papua New Guinea for six years suffering.

    Farhad: I am Farhad Bandesh, Kurdish refugee, musician, guitar maker, poet and artist. I am in the MITA detention centre in Melbourne, I was at the Mantra detention hotel for 9 months. Serco forcibly removed me from there.

    Me: Yeah, I remember when that happened a few weeks ago.

    Farhad: Seven years ago I had to leave my land. When I came to Australia in 2013 the Australian government exiled me to Manus Island with more than a thousand asylum seekers. I was there for six years and I suffered through horrific conditions, torture and trauma and much pain. On 25 July 2019 once again I was transferred, this time to Australia for medical treatment under the medevac bill. I am still waiting for medical care.

    Hannah Ryan / BuzzFeed News
    Hannah Ryan / BuzzFeed News

    Me: So, I've seen a lot of fear and frustration from refugees in detention about the possibility of phones being removed. Obviously you guys all have WhatsApp and your phones have cameras. What else do you use the phones for?

    Abdulla: I use my phone to call my lovely family, lawyers, journalists.

    Amin: I use my phone to search the internet, read books and most importantly to video call my family and my little son to see them.

    Abdulla: Yes, I video call too.

    Me: How old is your son Amin? He's back home in Iran, right?

    Amin: He's just 9 years old. When I left Iran, he was 2 years old.

    Me: Seven years, that's a long time

    Abdulla: Very sad bro

    Me: 😢

    Amin: Yes, I'm trying my best to make him know me as his father. I'm trying to show him myself in video calls so he will recognise me as his father.

    Farhad: My phone is critical. It's the way I keep in contact with my family, my friends, all of my loved ones. I feel like I am still alive and have hope when we are in contact. It shows me that beyond the fences there is hope.

    I use it to stay in touch with people who support my case, for legal assistance and I also use it to produce art, to record my songs, music, and poetry. It keeps me active and collaborating with fellow musicians, writers, artists and producers.

    Hannah Ryan / BuzzFeed News

    These are things that keep me alive and are so important for my mental health. Without this, hope, care and support is taken away and the suffering this will create is unbearable. There will just be prison, fences and no hope.

    Me: When people have argued about this law, the government says that detainees will have access to landline phones, shared computers etc. Even if mobile phones are taken away.

    Amin: Do you think it's going to be enough for me? I need to see my son in a video so I can show him who his father is. How can I show him myself when I talk to him on a landline phone?

    Farhad: I think if the government take the phones away from us we won't survive. More emotional pressure, suffering will be on us and there will be too much desperation and unfortunately I can see more self-harm will happen in the detention centres.

    Abdulla: We want phones to send documents to lawyers, consult specialist doctors in my country and see my family to make them happy.

    Me: OK guys, thanks for what you've said so far. I know a few of you have to go and do your daily protest now. Let's pick this conversation back up later.


    Me: Hey! Good afternoon. Let's get back into it! So I want to know — what kind of phones do you guys actually have? Where do you get the phones, how much data do you have?

    Hannah Ryan / BuzzFeed News

    Abdulla: [My phone cost] 4210 Papua New Guinean Kina (about $1800 AUD).

    Me: That sounds like a pretty bloody good phone. I think my phone was $1000 lol

    Abdulla: I spent the money from my compensation to buy the phone.

    Amin: I have a Samsung S10 plus. I got with the help of some nice Aussie people.

    Amin: I use a $30 a month deal.

    Me: And how many hours a day do you estimate you use your phone. Do your phones measure your screentime?

    Supplied

    Abdulla's voice memo.

    Abdulla: Yes, I use my phone from 10am when I wake up until 1am. I use it for texting my friends, texting my family or calling my family, I use it for Facebook, reading the news, I call my lawyer.

    Supplied

    Amin's voice memo.

    Amin: Well, usually, most of the day, because we have nothing to make ourselves busy with here. Otherwise we would go crazy, because the situation in here, it's really bad, so we are just trying to focus on something that will improve our mental health. So we're just trying our best to, I don't know, play games, read books or contact our family or talk to other people. To get ourselves away from this situation.

    Me: OK. So what kind of things do you use to distract yourselves? Are you watching Netflix, playing games? Do you play Animal Crossing?

    Supplied

    Amin.

    Amin: Yes, for myself, mostly I play games and watch Netflix. Sometimes I will download movies because they're not on Netflix, so I download them straight away and I'll watch them to distract myself and stay healthy, as long as I can. Because the situation in here, it's a kind of drill in my mind. Every second of it. But I'm trying to focus on my own issues and try to control everything, try to control my life, to not go crazy.

    Supplied

    Abdulla.

    Abdulla: We spend more than 23 hours a day inside our room. We just go outside for the protest, 30 minutes, and we also go outside to have our meals, lunch and dinner, maybe 20 minutes. In total we are outside our rooms for 45 minutes or one hour. We're always inside the room and using the phone.

    Me: Can you give me an example of a film you watched recently? Are they Iranian films? And if you didn't have the phone, could you watch TV or movies in the activity room or something?

    Amin: Well I'm watching action or funny movies to distract myself from my situation here like 👇👇👇

    Supplied

    Amin's screenshot.

    Me: Homeland! I just finished the latest season, seems like you did too?

    Amin: Yes, I've been following the show for three or four years. It’s interesting and I really like it. So it’s kind of helping me with my situation in here, and yeah, very much following and watching all the seasons.

    Abdulla: Bro, can you please send me this series? I want to see a new movie.

    Amin: And on the TV, you know, they're showing movies from before we were even born. We don’t enjoy old movies. So we're trying to look at the latest movies like, I don’t know, funny movies like Kevin Hart movies or action movies like Fast and Furious — these kind of movies.

    Me: I wanted to ask you about the protests as well. You've both joined in on the protests at Kangaroo Point. They have been shared a lot on social media — both pictures taken by journalists and outside protesters, but also pictures taken and shared by refugees. Do you think the phones have helped you get the message out about your coronavirus fears?

    Abdulla: Yes, the phone helps us. Because when we take photos or videos from the protests, it's so easy for the Australian community know everything about what's happening here, why we are in here, and the situation. They can find out very easily everything about us and they can connect with us on social media, on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp and find out about our situation, about the protests.

    Me: OK I also wanted to ask about the media. So I'm a journalist and a lot of my stories I find by calling people in detention, WhatsApping them, following you guys on Facebook. Is that important to you guys, to tell your stories to journalists?

    Abdulla: Yeah, I’m so happy I tell my story to journalists or media because they can explain and write my story, or they can make some a film and show to people so they know what's happen inside the detention centres or in offshore detention.

    Amin: It is very important because you guys keep our hopes up. If we don't have our phones, we will have a lots of problems because we cannot control the security guards. And the security guards are doing lots of wrong things. Like back in 2014, February 16 and 17, what they have done to us back in Manus Island.

    So when we have phones, we kind of feel safe, because they will be afraid of doing something wrong, because actually I can see they have power to do whatever they want. We have zero rights in here, except when we have a phone, we will have a little bit of rights. Otherwise if they’re gonna take the phone away from us, we will have zero right, and they could do anything to us. And we will be not safe either from them.

    Abdulla: Yeah, Serco guards and officers, they use the rules for themselves.

    Amin: They're trying to give the guards more power to search us whenever they want. But back in BITA detention centre [where Amin was detained until recently], they were doing it every two or three weeks ... I do have a video, I'll send it to you. I went to the immigration website and I read all the law and rules for when security can search our stuff, with what reasons.

    Hannah Ryan / BuzzFeed News / Supplied

    Abdulla: *sends a video of a guard at Kangaroo Point, who is asking not to be filmed*

    Me: I'm wondering about this video and whether this kind of thing might be one reason they don't like phones. I know that I wouldn't want to always be filmed at work. And the guy in the video doesn't seem to be breaking the rules. What do you think about that?

    Also, what kind of wrong things are you guys worried about the security officers doing if they can't be filmed? Do you mean mistreating you in some way?

    Amin: *sends a video of his room being searched in BITA as he asks the reason they are searching and debates the law of searches with a guard*

    Abdulla: I think maybe the phone is so important for us because if we're recording, they can't do something bad to us. If we don't have a recording, or we don't have any witnesses, how can we complain and get them to believe us? They never, ever believe us. They just say for example, Serco says something different.

    Me: OK, understood.

    Amin: They're taking away our privacy. The way they come inside my room, they don't get any permission, they don't say anything, they just open the door straight away and come inside. It's like I'm sleeping in the street and people are walking past me.

    Me: OK one last question…. Can you think of any important stories or facts the Australian people wouldn't know about if you guys didn't have phones?

    Abdulla: I think maybe most Australian people don’t know about what's happening, because they don't care and they never, ever listen to refugees. They always listen the government or the minister. No-one believe us and no-one want to know my story. They just accept the government and prime minister's story.

    Amin: I want the Australian people to know that we are not people smugglers or, I don’t know, boat people, we are refugees or asylum seekers. If I have a problem in my country and the next day I could end up dead, I don't have time to apply online or sit and wait for my visa to come over. If we had no problem at home, then we wouldn't put ourselves in a boat like a piece of wood and cross the ocean. We just wanted to reach a country that has human rights.

    Hannah Ryan / BuzzFeed News

    Me: Thanks so much A & A for your time answering my questions. Do you have any final comments you want to add?

    Abdulla: Just I want to say to the Australian people, please show your humanity. Show some humanity

    Hannah Ryan / BuzzFeed News

    Amin.

    Amin: Yes, please let the Australian people know that we are not chilling here, we're not happy that people are paying tax and that money is going on us. We're human beings and we'd love to work and pay tax like other people. We're just not sitting in here, chilling and eating free food, we didn't come for these kinds of things. We want to work, we want to pay tax, like the rest of the Australian people.

    Me: Thank you both. Have a great afternoon!

    Amin: you're welcome and you have a beautiful afternoon too

    Hannah Ryan / BuzzFeed News


    Hannah Ryan is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

    Contact Hannah Ryan at hannah.ryan@buzzfeed.com.

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