Snatching away a lifeline: Australia cannot deny asylum seekers mobile phone access

Australian federal lawmakers must reject a problematic new bill that will award the Australian Border Force the right to confiscate mobile phones — and with them the lifeline of information, communication, and documentation they grant — from asylum seekers in Australian immigration detention without the safeguard of involving police authorities.

Heavy-handed and arbitrary amendments proposed by the Australian government to Australia’s Migration Act are being debated in parliament this week, and could have devastating effects on the health and wellbeing of hundreds of people seeking asylum. The changes would grant Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge authority to declare specific items such as mobile phones and SIM cards “prohibited” in detention facilities, and give power to Australian Border Force officials to search detainees without police involvement or supervision. In 2017, the Australian Federal Circuit Court ruled against the federal government’s oppressive system, restricting their ability to seize mobile phones and SIM cards, and halting the blanket policy against their possession by immigration detainees. By tabling this current bill, the federal government is seeking to amend the law to bypass these restrictions, in turn harming rights. Australian members of parliament must unanimously shut this bill down.

Denying or hindering access to the internet — whether by confiscating mobile devices, blocking websites, or shutting it down — is an increasingly popular method of suppression used by governments across the globe. Access Now’s STOP project, in collaboration with the #KeepItOn coalition, recorded at least 213 internet shutdowns in 2019, and noted they are increasingly being targeted at vulnerable groups such as refugees and asylum seekers. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, these restrictions are severely impacting people’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression, privacy, access to information, and health. 

“Mobile phones and access to the internet are lifelines to the outside world for those locked up, especially with COVID-19 visitor restrictions in place,” said Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now. “Disconnecting people in Australian immigration detention is just pointless and cruel.”

Moreover, mobile phones have been used in Australian detention facilities to document alleged ongoing abuse of detainees at the hands of guards, and the “prison-like” conditions under which approximately 1,500 people are forced to live.

“By providing easy avenues for government officials to seize mobile phones and SIM cards outside of police processes — and facilitating policies of blanket restrictions to internet access by those seeking asylum — the Australian government would join the growing list of internationally condemned states who shut down the internet and restrict communication while COVID-19 rages,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Senior International Counsel and Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “Australian lawmakers must vote down these amendments, and reject efforts to bypass the procedural checks and commitment to ICT access that is key for any democracy.”

Global attention was cast towards Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in recent years, when Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian writer, journalist, filmmaker, and human rights defender who was imprisoned in Australian off-shore detention for over six years, published No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, which won the prestigious 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. Using nothing but his mobile phone, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter, he wrote about the systematic torture of asylum seekers at the hands of Australia’s government.