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Australia: Don’t Take Immigration Detainees’ Phones

Disproportionate Response Denies Vulnerable Immigrants a Lifeline

Asylum seekers and refugees hold placards during protest against their detention at Kangaroo Point Hotel in Brisbane, Australia, amid the Covid-19 crisis. © 2020 Photo by Florent Rols / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

(Sydney) – The Australian parliament should reject proposed measures that would authorize confiscation of immigration detainees’ mobile phones and expand detention staff’s search and seizure authority, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to parliament’s Legal Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee.

The proposed amendments to the Migration Act 1958 would allow Australian Border Force officers and private security guards to confiscate any item that may pose a risk to detainees, immigration staff, visitors, or to order in the facility, including mobile phones, sim cards, and internet capable devices. The home affairs minister may also declare blanket bans on items by issuing binding written directions that make it mandatory for officers to seize items due to “a targeted, intelligence-led, risk-based approach.”

“Parliament should reject the proposed amendments as they lack sufficient safeguards to ensure that searches and seizures are lawful and proportionate,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Mobile phones are a lifeline for immigration detainees and should not be confiscated.”

Immigration detention is administrative, not criminal, so detention center staff should not have search and seizure powers akin to that of law enforcement officials, Human Rights Watch said. Police already have sufficient search and seizure powers to investigate and prosecute criminal activity in immigration detention facilities. Since there is limited independent oversight in immigration detention facilities, broadening these powers without giving detainees the ability to meaningfully challenge and review such actions creates an unacceptable risk to detainees’ human rights.

Mobile phones and internet capable devices provide an essential connection to the outside world for detainees. The proposed measures will encroach upon detainee’s privacy, freedom of expression, and right to not have unnecessary interference with their correspondence. These amendments may have a chilling effect on a detainee’s ability to speak out against potential abuse and will make it harder to hold the government and detention center staff to account.

“Immigration detention facilities are administrative and are not supposed to be punitive,” Pearson said, “Giving private security guards and immigration officials police-like powers to conduct searches on very broad and vague grounds without sufficient oversight or judicial review is a recipe for disaster.”

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