The Morrison government and key Senate crossbencher Jacqui Lambie have been warned a bill to “ban” mobile phones in immigration detention will make it more difficult for refugees to pursue resettlement in Canada and other countries.
In a last-ditch appeal before the Senate votes next month, the Ads-Up Refugee Network wrote to ministers and Senator Lambie on Friday advising of the “significant, unidentified risk”, arguing it could cost taxpayers millions in extra detention time.
Canada has emerged as a potential destination for hundreds of asylum seekers who cannot settle here or in the United States. Ads-Up is currently assisting 28 people lodge applications in Canada and expects to lodge many more in coming months.
The group told the government the Canadian process requires “a significant amount of detailed paperwork and identification documents”, for which mobile phones are vital.
Co-founder Ben Winsor said a ban on mobile phones would “hamstring” the process. “This phone ban is not only cruel and unnecessary, but it’s also self-defeating, it will delay our work in Canada and end up costing Australian taxpayers millions of dollars,” he said.
The impact of the bill is contested, with the government stressing it is aimed at unlawful non-citizens with criminal histories who are in immigration detention. Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge has said the bill does not constitute a “blanket ban” on phones but will “allow the minister to direct officers to seize mobile phones from certain categories of people”.
However, Labor and the Greens oppose the bill, and groups such as the Law Council and Amnesty International have questioned why the law is needed, arguing it does enable a blanket phone ban.
“They already have the capacity to confiscate items if they’re suspected of being involved in criminality,” Mr Winsor said. “You should always be sceptical when the government asks for a power and promises not to use it.”
Senator Lambie is likely to cast the deciding vote and has conducted a poll on her web site asking constituents how she should vote. She did not respond to queries for this story.
Increasingly, Ads-Up is working with refugees and asylum seekers held in some form of onshore immigration detention in Australia, as well as those still in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
As of March 2020 there were 1220 such people who had been transferred from Nauru and PNG to Australia, including those brought here under the now-repealed medevac legislation. As of August 31, there were 244 refugees still in Nauru and PNG, seven years after the Rudd Labor government re-introduced offshore processing, though refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said two dozen had since been brought to Australia from Nauru.
Refugees who arrived by boat are not allowed to settle permanently in Australia, despite having been found to be owed protection. While 822 have taken advantage of the US resettlement deal struck by Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama, many have also been rejected under President Donald Trump’s “extreme vetting” of refugees.
The Canadian option is a potential lifeline for those people. Ads-Up Canada director Laura Beth Bugg said four men from PNG and a family of three from Nauru have been privately sponsored to Canada and had arrived in the past two years – including Amirhossein Sahragard, an Iranian man who arrived in Toronto in November.
In its direct appeal to Senator Lambie, Ads-Up cited research by Equity Economics that estimated keeping refugees in mandatory onshore immigration detention was costing taxpayers $346,000 a person each year.