Access to phones key for asylum seekers



Broken wall hand sanitizer containers, hand soap shared by a large number of people, and six people sharing a bedroom would not be allowed at hotels where returning travellers are in 14-day lockdowns. They would be viewed as breaking government restrictions on safeguarding against the spread of COVID-19.  But these are the conditions at Kangaroo Point hotel, the Brisbane hotel where around 114 refugees and asylums seekers are under the coronavirus lockdown.

 Asylum seeker solidarity protest Brisbane (Photo by Dan Peled/AAP)

Recently the public was provided with a glimpse of conditions inside the hotel through video footage obtained from detainees and screened live in a zoom face book session. The Refugee Action Coalition in New South Wales hosted the session. Viewers could see the broken or empty sanitizer containers, the shared bathrooms, the small cramped balcony where detainees get their only experience of the outdoors, and the small carpark where they line up for meals and where with so many of them, it is impossible to practice social distancing.

The detainees were brought to Australia from offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru under the now defunct Medevac legislation. It allowed them to be transferred to Australia if a medical specialist deemed them in need of urgent medical attention that over a year later, many have still not received.

As the camera moved around the restricted area of the hotel where the detainees are held, one of the refugees pointed out that housekeeping is only carried out weekdays from 8am to 3pm. On weekends, the detainees are left to clean the bathrooms. Refugee Farhad Rahman said Serco guards come into bedrooms three times a day, touching doorknobs and other parts of the room. One guard who worked previously at the hotel was later found to have contracted the virus. If someone came into the hotel with the virus, ‘everyone here would be affected in the blink of an eye,’ Rahman said.

Under the lockdown, visitors have been banned even though some of the detainees have relatives in Australia.

Some of those held at the hotel including Rahman, have been detained seven years despite having been accorded refugee status. Often all that keeps them going through their long wait for release is having access to a mobile phone. It allows them to stay in contact with family and with refugee supporters who help lift their morale. Mobile phones are their lifeline but that is precisely what the Federal Government now wants to take away.


'It is often refugee supporters who support credit for phone use so it is not for financial reasons that the government wants to stop their use. The government’s agenda is motivated by the blanket of secrecy the Federal Government likes to try and keep wrapped around its treatment of refugees. It is about controlling information.'


Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge recently signalled legislation would be introduced to ban certain items from detention premises including mobile phones. It revives an attempt by former Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to ban mobile phones in 2018 that was stopped by the Federal Court. Rahmad said with laptops banned in detention, mobile phone access is also essential for other reasons such as keeping up to date on developments in his profession. As a qualified civil engineer he would be an asset to Australia but instead is in the last stages of selection to go to America.

It is often refugee supporters who support credit for phone use so it is not for financial reasons that the government wants to stop their use. The government’s agenda is motivated by the blanket of secrecy the Federal Government likes to try and keep wrapped around its treatment of refugees. It is about controlling information.                 

Access to phone phones has allowed detainees and their supporters to expose what happens inside places where asylum seekers are held, whether in purpose built detention facilities or in hotels. It allowed the public inside the Kangaroo Point Hotel — if just virtually — to see the failure to safely protect detainees from the threat of COVID-19. It has allowed word to get out quickly of suicides, suicide attempts such as at the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne and forced deportations.

The renewed move on mobile phones ties in with an approach to refuges initiated by Scott Morrison when he became Immigration Minister in 2013. He refused to answer a question in Parliament about an unconfirmed boat arrival claiming to do so would undermine the government’s bid to stop boats and ‘help’ people smugglers.

 If this policy had been in place in 2006 and a boat carrying 42 West Papuan asylum seekers had been quietly turned back, Australians might not have learnt about the deteriorating situation in West Papua and the 42 would not have been granted refuge in Australia.

A petition has been launched calling on the Federal Government not to deny refugees access to phone phones.

To do so would align their conditions with inmates in Australian prisons. In Victoria for example, prisoners are only allowed fixed phone calls to people on an approved list.

The people detained in immigration detention facilities and hotels are not criminals, they have not been convicted of any offence. Rahmad said some of the detainees held at Kangaroo Point hotel are 25 years old, a few are 23 years old. ‘They came to Australia when they were fifteen. Now for their whole adult life and part of their teenage years, they have been in detention.’

Calls have been made for those held in hotels to be placed in community detention where social distancing could be more safely exercised pending resolution of their placements.


Andra JacksonAndra Jackson is a freelance writer and award winning refugee issue specialist. 

Main image: Asylum seeker solidarity protest Brisbane (Photo by Dan Peled/AAP)


Topic tags: Andra Jackson, COVID-19, refugees, asylum seekers, Kangaroo Point hotel, Alan Tudge



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Existing comments

The move by the Australian government to ban asylum seekers from having mobile phones is incredibly punitive and cruel. Mobile phones are critical for the mental health of detainees - who have committed no crimes but have nevertheless been imprisoned for seven years or even more. Mobile phones are a life-line to family members and refugee supporters. Of course the Australian government does not want its continuing cruelty exposed to refugee supporters and the Australian community - but the Australian people have a right to know what is happening in our name - what degradations and petty cruelties continue to be practiced by this government and its agents, and the risks that detainees face every day from Covid19 infection.
Margaret Neith | 02 June 2020

It seems that the psyche of many Australians remains rooted in the convict-jailer attitudes of the early 1800's.
Michael Taouk | 02 June 2020

So much for the Morrison governments attempts to keep people safe during the pandemic. A curse on their house of secrets and shame on them
Henri | 02 June 2020

Andra, with the shortage of backpackers and itinerant workers from Cook Islands and Vanuatu, these long suffering victims of Home Affairs should be medically checked and put to work helping on the Qld farms. What possible good can it do to turn run down hotels into temporary prisons? Its ludicrous for it to continue. The work may not be what they choose in an ideal world, but it would provide a productive change of scene and a far more healthy alternative, both mentally and physically. Surely they have paid their dues.
Francis Armstrong | 02 June 2020

This plan is punitive in the extreme, just like Morrison's idiotic Robo Debt fiasco. the quicker this mob are thrown out of Office the better! They are a blot on our reputation.
Gavin O'Brien | 02 June 2020

I cannot think of a better way to make these people hate us than the way the Government is treating them. Mr. Morrison claims to be a Christian- how can he justify this organised cruelty and still claim to follow Jesus? Actions speak louder than words.
Cynthia Hancke | 02 June 2020

Its a wonder why an enterprising 'human rights' or 'refugee' lawyer has not yet been employed to take on a 'denial of phone access' brief in this instance, since the abusive aspects of this policy are by now better-documented as well as much more open to enterprising public scrutiny than when the Manus Island detention facility, with its advantage of remoteness, was in operation (Thank you, Andra Jackson, for this). I also suspect that now that it is known that a security guard visiting the Kangaroo Point Hotel contracted the Coronavirus, there would be a clear case to bring such a court challenge! Although I am not a lawyer I, for one, would be willing to support such a challenge financially as well as in every other relevant respect.
Michael Furtado | 03 June 2020

Isn't it about time that ALL religious institutions banded together and demanded that the Government cease this cruelty. Why are they all so silent? We need people in authority to speak up on our behalf, and act in a way their religious beliefs demand or be branded as hypocrites.
Cynthia Hancke | 03 June 2020

Indeed, Cynthia; where are the ACBC and Heads of Religious Institutes on this one, or does their deafening silence at this juncture convey their handwashing consent and compliance ?!?!?!
Michael Furtado | 04 June 2020

As long as the cordon holds, it’s probably cheaper than maintaining detention facilities in the long term, to grant amnesty. It probably also accords with jubilee scripture which, for all we know, came about because it was less hassle to cancel debts in the long run than to keep being bothered by them on your books. Never underestimate the public service’s ability to be hamfisted, which explains this idea of sticking asylum seekers in crappy conditions which everyone can see because it’s only a hop, skip and jump from a CBD. As a silly idea, it doesn’t trump Derek Chauvin’s knee but it’s not far off.
roy chen yee | 04 June 2020

Perhaps Michael, the answer to your question is 'Yes'. After all, the government's refugee policy doesn't threaten traditional marriage, the secrecy of the confessional, or state funding for Catholic schools, so, hey, what's the problem?
Ginger Meggs | 04 June 2020

Currently many Australians are justifiably critical of police brutality in USA. Today Andra reminds us of the slow-burn brutality with which our elected government confines innocent people who tried to call Australia home. When will we ever learn?
Ian Fraser | 04 June 2020

You hit the spot I missed, Ginger, as did Roy with his typically brilliant allusion. Thank You, Both!
Michael FURTADO | 05 June 2020

Thank you Andra for speaking up. Life in detention is heart-breakingly monotonous with no meaningful activities. Earning 2 points per activity such as ART- colouring in, Coffee club-45 minutes staring at a cup etc. I am reminded of the man who told me of his friend who talks to his son daily by mobile with visual- the boy was born when this man arrived on Christmas Island after fleeing his country. The boy is now 7 years old. His father says I want to see his face and for him to see mine and know that he has a father who loves him. Family connections through the mobile keep many in detention alive. To remove this would be cruel and harmful. Lawyers can make contact with their clients by mobile- without this they have to go through the time consuming laborious process of the reception desk then compound officer then ring back!!! I understand that the Minister would like to keep the people in detention out of sight and out of mind but we are a democracy after all. All concerned should be putting in a submission to the Senate Inquiry- Subs due June 11- go to Senate online - its easy peasy but your voice counts. Please do it.
pamela curr | 05 June 2020


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