Government pushes for increased Border Force powers inside immigration detention facilities

The government is set to introduce a new bill that would afford Border Force officials increased powers inside immigration detention facilities.

Asylum seekers being detained in Brisbane protesting conditions late last month.

Asylum seekers being detained in Brisbane protesting conditions late last month. Source: AAP

The federal government is set to announce new legislation that will give Australian Border Force officials increased powers to conduct searches and seize material inside immigration detention centres. 

Currently, only police officers have the authority to perform searches and seize material inside the facilities. 

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge has denied China's claims that Australia is unsafe for international students.
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge has denied China's claims that Australia is unsafe for international students. Source: AAP

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said the proposed amendments came in response to more "foreign criminals" being held in Australia's immigration facilities. 

“These are people who often have a history of child sex abuse, violence and drug use and many have links to criminal gangs such as bikies and organised crime," he said.

"Currently, a detainee could have a bag of cocaine, instructions on how to build a bomb, or child exploitation images in their room, and the ABF would be powerless to seize it – clearly this is unacceptable.”

The federal government is currently holding 1,400 people in immigration detention and claims "more than 60 per cent" of those detainees have a criminal history.  

Mr Tudge is also seeking increased powers allowing the Immigration Minister to ban certain items from the detention facilities, saying mobile phones and other internet-enabled devices will be the first items to be prohibited.

Speaking on Thursday morning, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said the new legislation was targetted at detainees who were awaiting deportation after having their visas cancelled.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.
Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton. Source: AAP

"I think about 64 per cent of people within the network are 501 cancellations - we are talking about bikies, drug dealers, sexual offenders, rapists," he said.

"So, we do have serious concerns and incidents regularly in relation to illicit substance, drugs, contraband items you see going into jail, coming into detention centres."

The proposed changes have already attracted criticism from human rights lawyers and activists.

Lawyer Alison Battisson, who represents asylum seekers and long-term detainees in immigration facilities, said giving Border Force the same "draconian, police-like powers" over detainees awaiting deportation as asylum seekers without any criminal history was unacceptable.

"It is entirely inappropriate to keep these groups of people together in one facility - on one hand you have some quite hardened people, and on the other hand you have some quite innocent people who have just fled their home countries," she told SBS News.

"There's a lot of distress and, on occasion, violence that happens around these sorts of search and seizure operations, and there's very limited ability for a detainee to complain or fight back against it because they fear it might affect their case." 

Ms Battisson said placing an outright ban on mobile phones inside the facilities would only serve to increase anxiety and tensions among detainees.

"Detention centres are full of very distressed people who are trying to contact loved ones, family and their lawyers, and it's already particularly difficult to have a private conversation," she said.

"So banning mobile phones would compound an already very difficult process to get proper legal instructions as well as further isolate people." 

The Australian Lawyers Alliance agreed, adding that extending the powers of Border Force would be a "dangerous overreach". 

"Police officers have the right to search and seize possessions from people detained in immigration detention – it is not the role of the Border Force employees," spokesman Greg Barns said.

"There is no need to introduce these extra powers right now. It seems that, again, the government is endeavouring to slip new laws through parliament while everyone is focused on managing the COVID-19 health emergency."

4 min read
Published 14 May 2020 at 9:46am
By Claudia Farhart