Peter Dutton Wants To Take Away Refugees' Mobile Phones

    "A mobile phone is the only way they can be contacted by friends and family and community visitors, to help ease the sense of helplessness."

    Getty/BuzzFeed News

    Fatima* found it very challenging to contact family back in Iran while in the Nauru immigration detention centre without a mobile phone.

    "It was difficult, yes it was," she told BuzzFeed News in a WhatsApp conversation. "The only thing that kept us going was the internet," she said. "There was nothing else to do."

    Fatima was recently brought to Australia with her husband and two children, but the story is the same not just for those held offshore, but for those in immigration detention in Australia.

    For the many people Australia holds in immigration detention, making sensitive calls to friends and family, or trying to get important information from their lawyers, there is no privacy in the public phones often provided in centres.

    That has been the case at the Yongah Hill detention centre outside Perth.


    A submission to a parliamentary inquiry from a volunteer at detention centres said one man was moved to the Yongah Hill centre, where he reportedly got one hour of calls per day at the outdoor phone boxes.

    "People using the phones are exposed to the elements; the wind and rain, and the shelter only provides shading from the sun at certain times of the day when the sun is not directly overhead," the unnamed volunteer told the committee.

    "Additionally, the arrangement of the phones and the size and arrangement of the compounds, with some 50 detainees per compound, means that it is extremely difficult – in fact my friend has told me it is practically impossible – for friends and family members to call in and to be able to reach a person in detention."

    So it is no surprise that many people held in detention opt to have their own mobile phones.

    The immediacy of the connection is crucial. Volunteers told the parliamentary committee that Rohinghas in the Villawood detention centre in Western Sydney needed mobile phones to keep tabs on family members fleeing Myanmar.

    It is also important for mental health, they said.

    "Many detainees who have slipped into deep depression stay in their rooms most of the day. A mobile phone is the only way they can be contacted by friends and family and community visitors, to help ease the sense of helplessness."

    And when trying to access pro bono legal services, sometimes mobile phones are the only way they can keep re-dialling to try and get through.

    Phones are also one of the only sources of entertainment for asylum seekers. One asylum seeker who was detained on Manus Island told BuzzFeed News that he used up his entire phone credit one month just to watch Pacific Rim.

    In mid-2016, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (now Home Affairs) began implementing banning any person held in immigration detention from having a mobile phone.

    A policy had been in place banning mobile phones for people who arrived in Australia by boat or who had their visa cancelled for having a criminal record, but the department was finding that the mix of people in detention meant there was an inconsistent policy in place and it was difficult to enforce.

    After the blanket policy was enforced, the department was taken to court by lawyers representing two asylum seekers, and in June this year, the full bench of the Federal Court overturned the ban, finding that Australian Border Force (ABF) did not have the authority to implement such a wide ban.

    But the victory could be short-lived.

    In late 2017, home affairs minister Peter Dutton introduced legislation that would give detention centre staff wide-ranging powers to seize items from people held in detention.

    The government's justification was a number of incidents in detention, such as someone using a phone to coordinate an escape, as well as the increasing number of people held in detention who had had their visas cancelled under section 501 of the Migration Act, on character grounds, due to having a criminal record.

    The government points to increasing reports of drug supplies in some detention centres, facilitated by people who have mobile phones in detention. SBS reported this month, for example, that there were 127 drug seizures in Villawood in 2017.

    But legal groups and asylum seeker supporters have argued that the legislation would violate the human rights of those held in detention by not providing adequate access to legal services.

    The legislation has been sitting in the Senate since February. Labor and the Greens are opposed to the bill, meaning the government needs to secure the support of the crossbench. The fact that the government has not brought the legislation on for debate since February suggests the numbers are not there to pass it.

    Earlier this month ABF took the unusual step of calling for the new powers in a press release from the NSW Police Force about a Nigerian man who allegedly ran an email scam out of the Villawood detention centre using mobile phones.

    In the meantime, those in detention are scared to speak up about why they need phones. Several approached by BuzzFeed News did not want to go on the record, or to be identified in any way, out of fear of having their mobile phones taken from them by ABF officers.

    A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs told BuzzFeed News in a statement that for now people held in detention were allowed access to mobile phones in compliance with the court judgment, but the department considers phones a threat.

    "The continued use of phones in detention poses a significant threat to staff, to detainees and the broader community," the spokesperson said.

    "We know individuals in detention can use mobile phones to coordinate escape efforts, as a commodity of exchange, to facilitate the movement of contraband, to convey threats and to coordinate disruptions.”

    The spokesperson did not answer specific questions on the availability of public phone services in detention centres.

    *Name changed to protect her identity.

    Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

    Contact Josh Taylor at

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