After the defeat in the Federal Court of his bid to ban mobile phones in offshore immigration detention centres, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) Peter Dutton is trying another strategy to subvert the court’s August ruling.
Mobile phones are already prohibited in onshore immigration detention centres and on Christmas Island for refugees who tried to come to Australia by boat.
Dutton is seeking to amend the Migration Act to ban mobile phones for everyone in detention and anything else he thinks fit to ban. He also wants the power to use strip searches and dogs to find and take those things. The amendment would allow him to ban something just by making a legislative instrument or ministerial regulation saying it is banned. In effect, he could directly write the law.
There have been 80 submissions to the government in response to this bill. The only one in favour of the ban, was lodged by Dutton’s own department. It claims these measures are necessary because there is now a significant criminal element in immigration detention. That is a reference to people whose visas have been cancelled under section 501 of the Migration Act — known as “501s”.
The minister has the power to cancel a visa under section 501 even if the person has not committed a crime. He only has to hold “reasonable” suspicions about them. There are people indefinitely detained in the dark web of immigration detention who have not committed a crime.
It is extraordinary that the content of many of these submissions — especially those from visitors to detention centres but also including some by well-known institutions and agencies — moves from arguments against the bill to detailed evidence of the brutal practices currently in use by DIBP via the Australian Border Force.
They argue that a blanket ban on mobile phones would perpetuate the injurious effect on the health of asylum seekers and refugees. They add that allowing the minister to decide on the basis of suspicion — not evidence — what is to be banned is far too much power. They point out that strip searches and the use of dogs would add to the trauma of an already traumatised population.
But many submissions then point out that these bans and intrusions are already occurring and the bill would, in effect, legalise the brutality of existing practices.
They point out that DIBP does not separate the handful of individuals among those detained under section 501 who may present a risk, from others who do not present a risk. The submissions point out that DIBP already seizes phones, conducts sudden searches and has used dogs.
The submissions are an account of a frighteningly barbaric system that punishes refugees and their visitors, with impunity.
Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy asked the newly formed Australian Refugee Action Network for help in getting a picture of immigration detention centres around Australia. Those interested can look at it and the other submissions on the parliamentary website at the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items In Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2017. It is submission 47.
These submissions raise two matters. It is clear that DIBP is violating the requirement of the Work Health and Safety Act to exercise a duty of care to those in their workplaces. That includes the people imprisoned there as well as their visitors.
The second matter is a question. The handful of people who present a high risk to others is part of a dwindling population. There are only a few hundred people in the prison system who, after serving their sentence, would be eligible for visa cancellations and thus would end up in a detention centre prior to deportation.
Why then does Dutton seek such expansive powers? Remember, he is to be in charge of the “super ministry”, responsible for border security, federal police and domestic intelligence.
[Niko Leka is the convenor of Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]