Australia

Bill that could see immigration detainees have their phones confiscated passes lower house

Immigration Minister Alan Tudge and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in August. Source: AAP

The federal government has denied the bill is aimed at imposing a blanket ban on mobile phones in immigration detention facilities, despite the concerns raised by advocacy groups.

A bill that could see mobile phones confiscated from immigration detention detainees has passed the lower house of parliament.

The proposed changes to the Migration Act would allow Home Affairs Minster Peter Dutton and acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge to declare certain items prohibited and grant Australian Border Force (ABF) officials additional powers to search detainees.

Refugee advocates, Amnesty International and the Law Council of Australia have all rejected the push as an overreach of power that could lead to human rights breaches against detainees.

There is concern the bill would give the government power to enforce a blanket ban on mobile phones despite the government’s insistence this is not its intention.

The legislation opposed by Labor is now set to faced increased scrutiny from crossbenchers in the Senate, with independent Jacqui Lambie likely holding the crucial vote deciding its future.

Mr Tudge said ABF does not currently have the power to confiscate items like mobile phones possessing child exploitation material, extremist content or drugs.

“This does not remove the mobile phones from every individual in the network,” he told parliament.

“I am disgusted with those opposite who would stand with those crooks – those disgraceful, disgusting individuals, rather stand for the protection of children and innocent people.”

Mr Tudge said the bill would instead provide “strengthened powers” to search for and seize items that put the safety and security of detention staff and detainees at risk.

He has argued this is needed because the concentration of detainees with a criminal history in detention has increased due to cancelling of visas under section 501 of the Migration Act.  

But opponents are concerned its powers won't just apply to detainees with a criminal history but could also extend to other migrants being held in detention facilities.  

They have also argued that state and territory authorities already have the power to confiscate illegal items the government says it wants stronger powers to remove.

Labor MP Peter Khalil accused the government’s push of being a “pathetic dog whistle” that threatened the human rights of detainees in immigration detention.

“The phones are a lifeline in detention,” he told the parliament.  

"There is no justification for this bill and its sweeping powers and it is also a bill that has clearly impinges upon the human rights of detainees."

Independent MP Zali Steggall also rejected the legislation saying it represented an overreach of powers directed to border force officers and private security companies managing detention.

“I remain unconvinced of the case for these powers,” she told parliament.

“By tarring all detainees with the same brush, the bill violates the rights of many who have never committed a crime."

The proposed laws went to the federal parliament this week after a Senate committee investigated them.

The committee's report was divided by party lines, with government members arguing for the laws while Labor recommended they be changed or scrapped.

Independent MP Helen Haines said she struggled to believe the discretionary powers enabled in the bill would be used appropriately, including to conduct strip searches.

“There are deeply disturbing provisions in this bill,” she told parliament.

“Immigration detention facilities are not prisons – those seeking asylum should not be treated as prisoners."

Labor, the Greens and crossbench senators Stirling Griff from the Centre Alliance and independent Rex Patrick, have all voiced their opposition to the bill.

The federal court ruled in 2018 that an ABF ban on phones was unlawful as it was not covered by the Migration Act.

With additional reporting by AAP.

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