Sydney: Following a failed court battle to allow detention centre guards to confiscate phones from detainees, Peter Dutton has introduced legislation banning phones and other items he considers to pose a “risk”.
The draft bill introduced on Wednesday would allow the immigration minister to determine by legislative instrument what constitutes a “prohibited thing” inside detention centres, said an explanatory memorandum.
It would also give officers and “assistants” more warrantless search powers, and allow the use of detection dogs to screen detainees and visitors.
As well as illegal items such as narcotics and child-abuse material, items that might be banned for posing a risk to “the health, safety or security of persons in the facility, or to the order of the facility” included phones, sim cards, electronic devices, medications and healthcare supplements, and certain publications or material that could incite violence, racism or hatred.
Dutton claimed phones enabled criminal activity within the centres, and a story published in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday detailed some incidents, including an alleged attempt to organise a contract killing by a bikie detained on Christmas Island.
Dutton said about half the detention population were non-citizens who have had their visas cancelled.
“These cohorts have significant criminal histories like child sex offences, or links to criminal gangs such as outlawed motorcycle gangs and other organised crime groups, or they represent an unacceptable risk to the Australian community,” Dutton said.
“These criminals often have serious behavioural issues and pose a critical threat to the health, safety, security and good order of the detention network.”
However, the amendment would also affect the population of asylum seekers, including children, held in detention.
“If the minister is concerned about the criminal use of mobile phones then he needs to separate vulnerable individuals who come to Australia for protection from those alleged criminals,” said George Newhouse, human rights lawyer and principal solicitor for the National Justice Project.
“This just highlights the inappropriateness of the minister’s policy to mix asylum seekers with what he calls hardened criminals.”
Newhouse said there were elements of the bill that couldn’t be criticised, such as the crackdown on drugs and child-abuse material, but mobile phones were a “lifeline” for asylum seekers needing to contact family, advisers and advocates.
Newhouse described the moves to allow the use of detector dogs to screen detainees and visitors, and strengthening the powers to search rooms, medical areas, storage places and the belongings of detainees without a warrant, as “all part of the minister’s continuing policy of criminalising asylum seekers”.
One asylum seeker who had recently spent time in detention told Guardian Australia she had never witnessed phones used for anything other than contacting family, advocates and lawyers.
“For people who are in detention, it seems like they’re living in a separate world, it’s like a prison with no access to anyone or anything. It keeps them in the dark,” she said.
“By having a phone they’re able to get the latest on what’s happening, they can stay in touch with their family and keep connected to communities. At the very least they can feel like they’re alive, and be in touch with people outside the detention centres.”
The asylum seeker said during searches in detention detainees were treated “like we were animals or worse”.
“They’d step on everything we had — bedding, clothes — with their shoes and make us feel worthless. That was the worst part. When we complained or objected they’d say we had no right to make an objection because we were criminals.”
Natasha Blucher, detention advocacy manager at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said there were major concerns around the use of dogs and increased search procedures on families, on potentially traumatised people.
“Search procedures are already very intrusive and disrespectful of people, they make them feel intimidated.”
Last month the full bench of the federal court rejected a jurisdictional challenge over a February injunction against immigration officers confiscating the mobile phones of detainees. The court case was brought on behalf of about 80 detainees.
“It appears the government is legislating to get around a court decision they’ve found unfavourable,” said Blucher.
“This appears to be touted as a security increase that’s justifiable with the changing population in immigration detention but he wants to apply it in [alternative places of detention] and [immigration transit accommodation] where families and children are held.”
Blucher also raised concern about Dutton seeking further discretionary powers for himself, as he already held more than any other minister in government.
The explanatory note said people would still be able to maintain connections to family through landlines, fax and regulated internet access.
In August, Newhouse said the suggestion that landlines were an adequate replacement “was a joke”.