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Mobile phone bill threatens dignity and decency

  • 24 September 2020
  In early October the Senate will vote on a bill that allows the Minister for Home Affairs to ban any items that he prohibits within immigration detention centres. His judgment will not be reviewable. The items that have caused most controversy have been mobile phones.

The objections to the legislation focus correctly on the infringement of human rights. That phrase, however, is bloodless. It might suggest that rights form a list to be ticked off. Human rights are better conceived as a way of speaking about the conditions necessary for people to live decent human lives. The proper place from which to reflect on them is the actual lives of the people who are affected.

When considering the legislation we should begin by asking what place phones have in the life of people seeking protection. Phones connect people with their family members both in Australia and overseas, allowing parents and children, sisters and brothers, friends and acquaintances to maintain their relationships. The phone is the medium by which they can see the mountains and lakes of the lands they were forced to flee, the flowers, the streets and the towns. For some people who have been detained for seven years or more, it is a lifeline. It allows them to hear news of their local areas and perspectives on its conflicts that they could never find in Australian media. It allows them to consult friends and agencies about the arcane and forbidding language of Government communications and to seek resources in their all-important claim for asylum.

The phone has also been a medium for creativity. Behrouz Bouchani, the author of the prize-winning book No Friend but the Mountains, composed his work by texting. In the time of COVID when no visitors have been allowed into the centres, the phone has been their only contact with relatives and people whom they trust. In the enforced absence of chaplains, too, the phone has allowed them to join others at online services, some of them celebrated by chaplains. In short, the phone has been an artery in the distinctively human life that distinguishes human beings from animals. Once it is cut, the lives of people detained can begin to die away. As would your life and mine wither were we placed in a similar situation.

The amendments to the Migration Act substantially follow an earlier policy that banned mobile phones, later found unlawful by the Federal Court.