31 August 2020

I take no joy in speaking to this bill, the Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020, because this bill really shouldn't exist. I'll say at the outset: Labor does not support it, and we made it very clear to the minister why. The intent of this bill is to allow the minister to prohibit or ban almost any item from use within an immigration detention facility, including alternative forms of detention.


The bill applies to visa holders who have had their visas cancelled due to committing a crime or who are in detention, waiting to be deported home—despite having served their sentences here—and also to people who are seeking asylum and refugees. These are people who have sought Australia's protection and who have been detained indefinitely by the Morrison government. It is not a crime to seek asylum, so let's unpack the Orwellian language contained in the bill and break down what it really means.


It gives police-like powers to so-called 'authorised officers' and to unnamed 'other' persons—for example, Serco guards—to unilaterally decide to ban any object. It gives them powers to conduct personal searches without any reason of suspicion. It allows them to use strip searches and police dogs to look for these items. It allows this to happen in places like the Mantra hotel in my seat of Cooper, where people seeking asylum are being detained after being medevacked here due to their deteriorating mental and physical health.


The bill is just so typical of this Liberal government: an overreach designed to try to convince Australians that refugees who arrive in Australia by boat are bad and dangerous. The crux of this bill is actually the confiscation of mobile phones, which are currently used appropriately by the vast majority of detainees to keep themselves connected to their families, lawyers, doctors and community supporters, and to information about the outside world. Labor has been very clear about its opposition to this bill since 2017, when the government first tried to introduce it. Both times, Labor have issued a dissenting report to the committee set up to investigate it. We have outlined seven recommendations, including that the government withdraw and rewrite the bill or significantly amend the bill to ensure that it doesn't impose broad, sweeping measures that punish detainees. Labor unequivocally do not support phones being removed from detainees who have done nothing wrong. Labor have written to the acting minister, outlining our concerns and noting that if government refuses to accept all our recommendations and properly amend the legislation then the bill should not be passed.


My colleagues have noted that the government already has broad powers under the Migration Act and has failed to make the case as to why illegal activities in detention centres cannot be handled on a case-by-case basis or through existing state, territory and Commonwealth laws, so I want to focus on the real intent behind this bill.


As the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre stated in their submission, this bill only exists to:

… remove detainees' access to devices with internet connectivity, which are their 'life-line' to family, community support, lawyers and medical assistance; and—

Most significantly—

to prevent public scrutiny and accountability for what is occurring within our detention centres.


As I said earlier, my seat of Cooper takes in the Mantra hotel where around 50 people seeking asylum have been detained since coming to Australia under the medevac process. Every person in this group of transferees was prescreened for character or security issues before they were allowed to enter Australia. This cohort presents no risk to the Australian community.


They are my constituents. Some are my friends. I have met the men and have been fighting to have them released into the community. I speak to a number of them on their mobile phones. I will not support a bill which takes away their phones. Their phones are their lifelines. The refugees at the Mantra and in other places of detention have children. They have wives, families and friends. They are not singular entities defined by their decision to seek asylum.


This passage from the ASRC's submission should make any reasonable person want to dump this bill and never let it see the light of day:


I have a son who I talk to every day and my partner and my family that is everything that I ever cared about. If they take our phone away from us, it's going to break us. The bond that I have with my kid is the main thing. Everything about it will break us if they take our phone away. The phone is the only good thing that we have. I can talk to my son on video and feel like I'm there with him even though I'm not there. This gives me confidence in life that all these things that are happening to me are not too bad after all.


We have witnessed the mental and physical deterioration of people in long-term detention as their spirits break and hope disappears. Their connections to family and friends through their mobile phones are the last threads which hold them together. Their phones are also their connections to legal representation. Again, as submitted by the ASRC:


… in recent years all physical visits to detention centres, including professional visits, have become much more cumbersome and difficult to obtain approval for, and to arrange. In this context of isolating detainees from visitors, there is now much greater reliance by lawyers and others on contacting detainees' via their personal phones.


This concern was shared by the Law Council in their submission:

… the Bill … and … its explicit focus on mobile phones, has the potential make access to legal representation and support significantly more difficult, and will unjustifiably exacerbate what is already a challenging environment that must operate within strict procedural time limitations.


66. Mobile phones … are critical to ensuring that the detainee is aware of their right to legal advice in the first place—a right which is not made sufficiently clear.


Refugees have also used their mobile phones to speak out on the cruelty of their situation. The images beamed out from inside the facilities put names to faces. In the media now we regularly see Moz and Farhad, including on ABC's Q+A. The mobile phones give us a glimpse of life behind the locked gates and fences—and, you know, Australians don't like what they see. They don't believe in locking up people who've committed no crime. They don't support denying people medical treatment. They think it's crazy to lock up a family with two young kids on Christmas Island when their community of Biloela wants them home. My community of Cooper regularly tell me how sickened and saddened they are to be governed by a party who continues with the cruel policy of indefinite detention. I don't doubt the desire to silence these brave refugees also lies at the heart of this bill. I don't doubt that there is a desire to silence these brave refugees.


No-one is capable of enduring the torture of indefinite detention. Again, the ASRC:


Continued detention of these refugees, many with histories of trauma, is used as collective punishment for them having attempted to exercise their right to seek Australia's protection more than seven years ago.


After up to seven years on Manus or Nauru, the men at the Mantra have been confined to cramped hotel rooms for more than 12 months. They're unable to go outside except for sparse rostered visits to closed detention facilities to exercise. The COVID outbreak has been extremely stressful, and many are rapidly deteriorating in terms of mental and physical health. I wrote to the minister back in April requesting that he consider community detention as a way to minimise the risk of a COVID outbreak. The UNHCR, lawyers and public health officials made similar requests. The government's response to the risk of a COVID outbreak is to threaten the men with a move to over 3,000 kilometres away, to Yongah Hill, where they will lose access to their caseworkers, legal representation and community supports. All the while, they are facing the prospect of losing access to their phones—their one connection to the outside world.


I genuinely fear what the passing of this legislation will do to the refugees. So I end with a plea to those who sit opposite. The people affected by this bill have been through enough. Many have escaped war, famine and other horrors and have spent much of the last seven years detained by this government. This government has the power to drop this bill. It has the power to release refugees, where appropriate, into community detention. It can make sure that refugees and people seeking asylum have access to medical treatment, and, most importantly, it has the power to resettle these people in safe, permanent homes. They must do this. They must act justly and with humanity.