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Mobile phone bill threatens dignity and decency



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.

Main image: Person holding phone (Erik Hersman/Flickr)

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. In the legislation the Minister has the power to declare prohibited items in detention centres and for detainees. It also allows officers to search premises and people without a warrant. These broad powers include no requirement for a well-founded suspicion that individuals who possess items declared prohibited or searched pose a threat.

The confiscation of phones, searching of personal belongings and strip searches are highly intrusive and humiliating actions with potential to injure the mental health of those exposed to them. The reasons offered in justification are sketchy and general — to respond to criminal behaviour and prevent plans to escape and create disorder. They also point out that detention centres house both people seeking protection and people subject to deportation after serving sentences for crimes.

None of these reasons are convincing. There are already adequate powers to respond to disorder and criminal acts by individuals. Nor, in the case of a captive population, is there the urgent need to act without seeking a warrant for the action. A general power to confiscate phones, strip search people and search their possessions would be regarded as an overreach of power and an invitation to abuse when directed against any other group in society. In a detention centre where people are locked up with officers, the powers create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that increases tension and harm to mental health.


'How this system works is explored in its appalling and heartbreaking detail in Behrouz Bouchani’s book, itself ironically made possible only through the medium of text messages sent by phone. It diminishes the humanity not only of its intended victims but also of the people who administer it.'


The Government itself is responsible for housing together people seeking protection and those facing deportation. The practice is not ideal. Many refugees, who have broken no law in seeking protection, feel uncomfortable in the company of people who have committed crimes. They fear with good reason that they will be seen as criminals, rightly imprisoned. The only legal justification for Immigration detention is administrative need. It is not punitive. That they should be made subject to such punitive measures as strip searching and the confiscation of their phones on the grounds of a forced association with people detained on other grounds is outrageous. It might be said in passing, too, that the people brought to detention centres from prison, many of whom have been jailed for relatively minor offences, have already served their sentence, only to find themselves again locked up. Any resentment they may feel is understandable.

The apologists for the legislation, of course, say that these powers will be used only selectively, in which case they should legislatively be limited to people who can be demonstrated to pose a risk. Experience, however, suggests scepticism about the good faith of such promises when made by governments. We need to think only of the assurances, made after enquiries into the treatment of children in correction facilities, that solitary confinement, hoods and other punishments will be exceptional. The next enquiry commonly reveals them to have become routine.

In assessing any assurance by governments about the treatment of defenceless people we need to consider whether the assurance is consistent with the attitudes ingrained in policy. In Australia the attitudes to people seeking protection are controlled by the logic of deterrence in which the sufferings of those held detention centres in Australia and its off-shore dependencies are designed to warn off others who might be tempted to come. This logic involves treating people as things, as means to other ends. It inevitably creates an authoritarian and brutal system in which officials must be unquestioningly complicit. Its nature is to remove from people the rights which are grounded in a shared humanity and hunger for a decent life, and to restore them arbitrarily and unreliably as privileges. Legislation then acts to allay any ethical doubts that those who execute it will have. We may be sure that the practices it allows will be used and abused.

How this system works is explored in its appalling and heartbreaking detail in Behrouz Bouchani’s book, itself ironically made possible only through the medium of text messages sent by phone. It diminishes the humanity not only of its intended victims but also of the people who administer it. It corrodes the ethical sensibility of those involved in searching and depredating as surely as it diminishes the lives of those searched and disconnected. Though disguised in beige words this legislation is a knife held at the throat of Australian decency as well as of the humanity of people who seek protection.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Person holding phone (Erik Hersman/Flickr)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seeker, refugee, mobile phones, Behrouz Bouchani, Migration Act



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Existing comments

As Andrew Wilkie said: “..and then you wake up one morning and you are in East Berlin.” This proposed legislation is breathtaking in its ruthless lack of humanity. What it will do to the guards tasked with enforcing it, is almost as bad as what it does to the incarcerated.

Peter Downie | 24 September 2020  

Well written Andrew: "It diminishes the humanity not only of its intended victims but also of the people who administer it." Quite so. You have provided a cogent sociological account of the mobile phone in such locations. Should it not be added that such proposed legislation from legislators who are accountable to us, their electors, is an assault on our humanity? At root the legislation is contrary to the national interest if we are to be a polity that seeks justice for all via just, caring and wise legislation. We are the neighbours of people who, detained in these premises, are seeking asylum ; they are also our neighbours. That reciprocity needs to be properly nurtured and not mangled by vandalising legislation.

Bruce Wearne | 24 September 2020  

Bravo! bravo! bravo! Andrew.

Jim Jones | 24 September 2020  

I’m seventy two years old. I live alone and like it. I have wonderful family and friends who keep in touch with me by any means possible. I belong to a church which tries to be a community. Yet - I’m not happy. I’m depressed by the lack of physical, face to face contact and community. I’m resentful of the necessity of wearing a mask, and of staying indoors at night. I live in Melbourne and these things are depressing me. I absolutely take for granted my right to speak my anger and resentment to anyone who’ll listen, ant to sulkily accept the apologies and sympathy and explanations of the Premier. Yet I’m content to live in a country that deprives people, on a more or less permanent basis, of all the rights that make human life human and good and worthwhile- freedom to move around, freedom to maintain the bonds of love with their families, freedom to complain privately and publicly. Andrew’s prophetic words have pushed me before now to act as well as think. Here I go again with another letter to my elected representatives...

Joan Seymour | 24 September 2020  

Thank you Andrew. Very well said. Sir William Deane once said that the measure of a country can be gauged by how it treats its most vulnerable. Although not citizens, many of the people incarcerated have been assessed as genuine refugees fearful for their safety. Whither our country with this sort of government? There are tears in my eyes and my heart bleeds.

Louise M Oliver | 24 September 2020  

Thank you Andrew. Great article.I fear, however, that there is no solution to dictatorial governments; not even a bill of rights. Here in Victoria we have a charter of human rights, however, these rights were automatically suspended when premier Andrews declared Victoria to be in a state of emergency due to the coronavirus. I now hear that the Andrew's government is pushing legislation through parliament that would allow them to appoint protection officers and give these officers the power, without training or qualifications, to detain anyone they deem to be a COVID risk. Those detained would have no legal rights of appeal. That this can happen is of great concern and make me fear for the future of our children and grandchildren.

Brian Leeming | 24 September 2020  

This article is important, such treatment is punitive. People waiting for years to be processed should have phones. I have written to government on this, C. Kelly.

Crenagh | 24 September 2020  

Well said, Andrew. I have a sneaking suspicion that it's precisely because Behrouz Boochani's harrowing but wonderful book has made it so clear what evil is being done in the name of "security" and "border protection" that Mr Dutton wants to stop asylum seekers having mobile phones. It takes real humanity to recognise the value of human rights, and there is a severe lack of some important human qualities in some who have a dangerous amount of power over others.

Gai Smith | 24 September 2020  

I UNDERSTAND THE SYMPATHIES YOU HAVE. However many of these people are here illegally and others have had opportunities to leave. The government and its peoples have rights as well.

PHIL | 24 September 2020  

Once again, thank you Andy for your column. Your extraordinary compassion, with its source in your personal and ministerial understanding of the suffering experience of refugees and asylum seekers is timely. Thanks for expanding our consciousness & opening us up to theif experience of radical marginalisation.

MARYANNE CONFOY | 24 September 2020  

As always, Andrew writes powerfully and influentially, but ..."hold the phone..." I like this article, it highlights the general misunderstanding of the Bill. The ABC story indicated Behrouz Bouchani’s phone was "smuggled" in to him, perhaps unlawfully but it added to the mystique that there was a necessary secrecy and conspiracy - I suppose that sells books. The point is that phones and SIM cards can be totally anonymous and can be (are) used for many illegal and criminal purposes; certain Applications (e.g. WhatsApp) are encrypted and this feature finds favor with crims, being known to be used by detainees for directing illegal activity outside the detention centre. The very nature of a "mobile phone" lends itself to being transferred and used by "others" such that illegal activities may not be able to be directly attributed to a specific user. Rather than play the dignity card and object to the Bill, why not advocate for authority-supplied SIMcards & accounts and watch the issue dissolve into an ignominy in a tea cup.

ray | 24 September 2020  

A decade or so ago my wife and I visited the site of Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp near Munich in Germany.The experience has stayed with me since. On the bus back into Munich a women, maybe my age, told us she wished to apologize for what we had witnessed. I told her please don't, you can be old enough to be held responsible for what your parent's generation allowed to happen.That conversation still haunts me as I read your essay Andrew. Will our children or grandchildren , when they are finally allowed to visit these Detention Centres have to apologize to visitors/tourists for actions taken by this Government in our name? The new legislation proposed by Dutton reeks of the mindset of that time.It is inhuman ; morally and ethically indefensible .These people have committed no crime!

Gavin O'Brien | 25 September 2020  

They're not 'here illegally' Phil, they've neither been charged, tried, nor convicted of any offence. If the purpose of the bill is to prevent the use of phones for 'many illegal and criminal purposes' Ray, then why not argue that it should apply to all of us, not just those that we've spirited away to off-shore islands. Finally, 'where are the bishops ?', or more to the point perhaps, where are Archbishops Fisher, Davies and Makarios who were moved to write an open letter to the PM recently about another ethical issue?

Ginger Meggs | 25 September 2020  

If legislation pertaining to non-Australians, “is a knife held at the throat of Australian decency”, one wonders about the “decency” of the Victorian legislation—COVID-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and other Acts Amendment Bill 2020—pertaining to Australian citizens. The Victorian Bill allows arrest without charge, and imprisonment without trial, overturning the 800-year-old Magna Carta right of Habeas Corpus. Furthermore, the government is empowered to recruit unlimited “designated authorised officers” with “appropriate” skills to arrest and jail Australian citizens if they are deemed “likely” to commit some offence. One wonders if some old Painters and Dockers might be recruited to do the enforcing. Fortunately, 18 QC’s and former judges have spoken out against this draconian legislation, but one can see why Premier Daniel Andrews is such an admirer of President-for-Life Xi.

Ross Howard | 25 September 2020  

Thank you for a succinct and eloquent article. Behrouz Boochani’s use of a mobile phone laid bare a cruel regime. The legislative attempt is about silencing the voices of refugees and asylum seekers. The Government, Border Force and their agents, do not want their practices exposed. Taking away detainees phones, their lifeline to friends and family, would be another abhorrent step, in a long chain of inhumane treatment, that in some cases has subsisted for more than seven years.

Virginia Schneiders | 25 September 2020  

Dear Ginger Meggs... why do I need to make an argument which strays "off topic"? The article pertains to the Bill which pertains to detainees and possession of mobile phones. I appreciate your angst to retain personal and device anonymity, perhaps you share a similar extension of this philosophy to permit filing off the serial numbers on firearms or de-registration of gun owners. It's not a good idea to impute values on others, huh...cheers.

ray | 25 September 2020  

Whoa Ray, I wasn't trying to 'impute motives' to you but if that's the way it came across then I apologise. Perhaps I should have put it this way : "What is about detainees that is so different to the rest of us that a bill is required that aims solely at them and not the rest of us ?" (And no I don't advocate filing off serial numbers on firearms.)

Ginger Meggs | 28 September 2020  

'Though disguised in beige words this legislation is a knife held at the throat of Australian decency as well as of the humanity of people who seek protection.' Your article brought those words to life - thank you.

Denis Fitzgerald | 29 September 2020  

Ginger, I'd rather not identify what makes detainees different; I can't know exactly what it is that makes the detainees different in the Authorities classification to "the rest of us" but let's try to make a bush law assessment. Indonesia passed laws against people smuggling mid 2011; many detainees entered Indonesia on a $15 tourist visa (lied on application) rather than seek or declare asylum status there, then paid criminals for illegal passage to Australia (which seems unlawful); many discarded their passport so their identity has been difficult for authorities. Australian law cannot try what happens offshore. If a Swiss cheese model is used on sorting detainees some probably are genuine refugees, not criminals and didn't knowingly break laws but others aren't. Unfortunately, Australian authorities have blundered periodically, such as the case of under-aged smuggling crew being arrested and detained; its appalling stuff - but root-caused because the detainees created a market by paying for quick passage rather than apply for lawful status through legal channels. Ultimately, the Bill asserts control of devices in a remote location... I have friends who have limited or zero phone connection where they live and nobody is rushing to their aid of dignity.

ray | 29 September 2020  

Thank you Andrew for your article it made me sad and embarished of my country. I also love Peter Downie article of the further M.H. issues for both victims and staff who have to brutilize his /her neighbour. It reminds me of my Dad stories living in Nazi occupied Europe. Fear ,powerlessnes , sent to work camps to die,no humanity.

Guido | 29 September 2020  

Thank you Andrew for your beautifully worded plea for the human rights of asylum seekers in Australia. Over the years, we have seen some sections of the Australian community unfairly persecute and vilify these people who have suffered greatly. And in response to this prominent members in LNP and ALP governments and the One Nation Party have sought to make them suffer even more. To take the phones away from innocent people who are forced to live in prison-type conditions for long periods of time borders on callousness. The only asylum seekers who should be in detention are those who may be a threat to community peace and safety. Those politicians who refer to asylum seekers as "illegals" are incorrect and I suspect that many of them realise that it is so. Under international law, it is not illegal to seek asylum when escaping war, natural disasters and blatant human rights abuses. Many of the refugees who come to our shores have come because of wars and political interference in their countries started by the US and which our leaders have supported. It is totally inhumane to then incarcerate them in centres administered by private corrections corporations - many of which have had a history of corruption and human rights abuses. These people need our compassion and support and our politicians need to give them their freedom. Until then, they must be allowed to keep their phones.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 12 October 2020  

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