Remove ‘offensive remark’ or else: Immigration Dept

Vanessa Powell was asked to delete this photo after a friend posted a comment the Immigration Department considered offensive (Supplied: Vanessa Powell)

The Department of Border Protection and Immigration has publicly asked a refugee advocate to remove an "offensive" Facebook post, sparking outrage on social media.

Remove your “offensive remark” or “we will consider our options further” was the message Vanessa Powell received from the Immigration Department after posting protest photos on Facebook.

Ms Powell, who is a self-described refugee supporter, teacher and writer, posted photos of protestors blockading the transfer of Villawood Detention Centre detainees on Thursday.

One of the photos was of a bus that would be transporting the asylum seekers to Curtin in Western Australia. She said her friend George Georgiadis made a comment underneath the photo that "offended" the Department.

Instead of sending a private message on Facebook, the Department publicly tweeted at Ms Powell asking her to delete the photo.

They wrote: 

"@VanessaPowell25 it’s come to our attention that a Facebook post on your wall contains an offensive remark directed at a staff member.1/2" 

"@VanessaPowell25 If you do not remove your Facebook post with immediate effect, we will consider our options further. 2/2"

Ms Powell replied, asking the Department what post they were referring to.

"@DIBPAustralia Could you please specify exactly which post you are referring to so I can address your concerns."

The Department promptly reponded and described in detail the Facebook post in question. 

"@VanessaPowell25 Post in question is dated yesterday, with a picture of a bus and contains a comment by George Georgiadis."

See the full Twitter conversation:

Ms Powell has since deleted the post, but said she doesn't know how her photos came to the attention of the Department.

"I think some of the posts went out publicly. I don’t know how they [the Department] got onto my Facebook page," she said. "I was pretty shocked to get them [the tweets]. They’ve been monitoring my Facebook account, so that was shocking."


Online backlash

Tweeters were quick to respond to the Department’s threats. Users were outraged that Ms Powell was asked to remove an “offensive” remark, especially in the wake of Attorney-General George Brandis’ proposed changes to repeal Section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. (The government said the changes were intended to provide greater protection against racism "while at the same time removing provisions which unreasonably limit freedom of speech.")

"For the Department to come out and say they were offended by a post that someone else put on my wall, I think that’s really unfair," Ms Powell told SBS.

Ms Powell said she was friends with some of the asylum seekers who were being transferred.

"The asylum seekers that I know have been in Villawood for up to four years," she said. "By that time they have quite established support networks, lots of friends, some of them have girlfriends and partners. So they did not want to go to Curtin."

Response by the Department of Immigration

In a statement to SBS, a spokesperson for the Department of Immigration wrote:

"The Department of Immigration and Border Protection stands by its position that staff carrying out their duties professionally and lawfully should not be the subject of baseless and unfounded personal attacks. While discourse about government policy, the department and departmental programmes is to be expected, such commentary should not unfairly malign the integrity of public servants.

In this instance, the department made a request to a Facebook account owner on April 4, bringing to her attention a comment on one of her posts – which at the time could be viewed publicly – contained an offensive remark directed at a DIBP staff member. The department requested that it be removed immediately.

It would not be appropriate for us to disclose how the post came to our attention; as noted, the post was public at the time."

When asked why it would not be "appropriate" to disclose how the Facebook post came to their attention, the Department said they had nothing further to add. 



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