Immigration Minister Introduces Bill to Significantly Increase Powers

The Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, is launching another attempt to ban mobile phones from Australia’s offshore detention centres after the legislation’s previous defeat in the Senate.

While detainees are already banned from possessing mobile phones in Australia’s onshore detention centres—along with refugees being remanded on Christmas Island—Dutton now wants to amend the Migration Act to extend to offshore detention as well.

More troublingly, the proposed amendments would also grant the Minister significantly heightened powers, allowing him to ban anything from offshore and onshore detention centres by simply writing a ministerial regulation or legislative instrument, without the need for approval from the Senate.

The proposed bill has already drawn considerable controversy, with 79 out of 80 submissions made to the government concerning it expressing serious objections. Currently, the amendment’s only supporter is the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), who also authored the only submission that was made in favour of the changes.

The Department’s submission claims that the proposed changes are necessary to combat what it describes as a growing “criminal element” in immigration detention. They attribute this development to the growing presence of individuals who have their visas cancelled under section 501 of the ­Migration Act, which gives the Minister the power to deport migrants who have committed a crime.

Section 501 also allows the Minister of Immigration to cancel the visa of anyone he “reasonably” suspects of posing a threat to Australia, regardless of whether they have actually committed a crime.

The submissions made against the Department’s proposed bill argue that instituting a ban on mobile phones across all detention centres would only add to the suffering of an already heavily traumatised population. They also argue that the DIBP fails to differentiate between the small group of individuals who pose a legitimate threat, and those in detention who realistically present little risk of engaging in criminal acts.

They also expressed serious concerns about the amount of power that Dutton is continuing to amass, calling the decision to allow the Minister to decide on what is prohibited from detention centres—on the basis of suspicious rather evidence—a serious overstep.

However, Dutton claims that the amendments are necessary in order to effectively manage the detainee population. The Minister claims that the phones are being used to facilitate serious criminal activity within Australia’s immigration detention centres, including the arrangement of escape attempts, riots, and drug distribution, the murder of another inmate, and even to access child pornography.

“Many in immigration detention are criminals we are deporting because they are an unacceptable risk to the Australian community and we are determined they are not going to continue their criminal behaviour while in detention,” Dutton said.

“These cohorts have significant criminal histories like child sex offences, or links to criminal gangs such as outlawed motorcycle gangs, and other organised crime groups, or they represent an unacceptable risk to the Australian community. These criminals often have serious behavioural issues and pose a critical threat to the health, safety, security and good order of the detention network.”

“I will not tolerate behavior that threatens the stability of detention facilities or which places officers, visitors or the detainees themselves at risk,” he said.

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