21 Feb 2017

Immigration centre mobile phone ban overturned

8:38 am on 21 February 2017

A last-minute court challenge has overturned a mobile phone ban for New Zealanders in Australian immigration detention centres.

An unseen person uses a smart phone to send a text message.

Lawyers have won an urgent injunction, so detainees at Australian immigration detention centres can keep their mobile phones until a full court hearing in a few weeks. Photo: 123rf

The Australian Border Force had ordered all detainees to surrender their phones by midnight on Sunday, saying they were being used to set up contraband smuggling and escapes.

Instead, lawyers with the National Justice Project won an urgent injunction at a five-hour special weekend hearing, so the phones remain until a full court hearing in a few weeks.

John James Te Moananui, a detainee in Perth who signed up for the legal action, said his phone was his "lifeline", but he feared ultimately they would lose the fight and that could spark trouble.

"There was a lot of talk about boys kicking up over this, y'know what I mean," he told RNZ News on his mobile from the Perth detention centre where he has been since December.

Before that, he had two spells totalling five months in detention on Christmas Island where cellphones were banned after a riot 18 months ago.

"A lot of talk that there could be some serious repercussions - like boys standing up, like, I wouldn't go as far saying that you would have a repeat of Christmas Island [the riot] but a lot of us were seriously talking about not handing them in, y'know, 'cause it's just crazy."

He was just on his phone talking to his family at a tangi in Paeroa.

"We need to be able to contact our family, our friends, y'know, our lawyers. Put it this way, my aunty's just passed away, y'know what I mean, and I found out pretty much as soon as it happened, y'know, I got a call from my sister and all that and I've been able to communicate with my family throughout this whole ordeal. They've all gone back to New Zealand , my mother, my father, my sisters."

Te Moananui, who was convicted for possessing methamphetamine with intent to sell, has lived in Australia for 32 of his 34 years. He was one of 143 detainees who sought the injunction.

It was sparked by a court case last week that could not resolve if a man should have his phone confiscated or not.

Detainee advocate Pamela Curr said under the ruling asylum seekers also got to keep their cellphones, as it applied to all 1450 detainees in 11 onshore detention centres plus Christmas Island.

"When they're depressed and lonely in the middle of the night - after all, they're in long-term, arbitrary detention with no end date - they can ring somebody and get help, or just talk to somebody. Sure, there are landlines in the detention centre but in order to access them you've got to have a phonecard. The landlines are in very public places and people believe there are recordings made."

Greg Barns of the Australian Lawyers Alliance said his country would breach its international obligations to provide access to justice if, in the end, the phone ban stood.

"It means that you get delays in the system 'cause we're able to then go to court, unfortunately, and have to say we haven't been able to get instructions from our client.

"So the government is costing the taxpayers with quite a punitive measure and no real purpose behind it other than, again, trying to force people to give up their legal rights and simply head back to New Zealand."

Greg Barns said the government shipped people who lived on the east coast to detention centres on the west coast and Christmas Island. That made the phones vital to stay in touch.

Advocates point out the detainees had not been charged with any criminal offence in the immigration system and had already served all their court-ordered prison time. The phones themselves were simple, non-smart phones that were the detainee's property.

The Australian Department of Border Protection has been approached for comment.

Its latest figures show New Zealand citizens make up easily the largest single group in immigration detention: 184 compared with 129 for second-placed Iran. The average time spent in detention is 16 months.

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