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New Australian laws may increase searches of illegal immigrants

Illegal immigrants face increased strip searches and a ban on mobile phones under new laws to crack down on drug smuggling – but lawyers fear the legislation is so broad even ART supplies could be prohibited

  • Parliament is considering giving guards at detention centres more power
  • Guards will be allowed to strip search illegal immigrants far more often 
  • Lawyers say the laws are completely unnecessary and will lead to injustices

Lawyers fear giving guards at immigration detention centres boosted powers will lead to gross injustices.

Federal parliament is considering subjecting detainees to more strip searches and banning their mobile phones to crack down on potential drug smuggling.

David Prince from the Law Council of Australia wants to see proof the laws are needed.

‘Where is the data, where is the evidence from the Commonwealth to show that the existing powers are insufficient?’ he asked a parliamentary inquiry on Friday.

The Law Council’s Pauline Wright said the definition of what could be banned was too broad and could even see art supplies blacklisted.

‘Our primary position is the bill is going to be far too broad in its application and will produce gross injustice,’ she said.

 New laws being considered by federal parliament will give guards inside detention centres more powers to strip search detainees and will ban several items with such a broad definition that lawyers believe even art supplies could be removed

Home Affairs bureaucrats said the laws were necessary to curb smuggling inside detention facilities.

Departmental lawyer Pip de Veau said theoretically, officers couldn’t search detainees if they suspected them of having drugs or child abuse material.

She said the government had opted to give guards more flexibility rather than drawing up an exhaustive list.

‘The bill doesn’t provide a prohibition on those things, it provides an ability to search or seize them at the discretion of officers,’ Ms de Veau said.

Commonwealth Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe told the inquiry he expected to receive more complaints from detainees if the laws were passed.

‘The bill as drafted is likely … to be an area that we are going to take a close interest in as an oversight agency,’ he said.

Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow said the bill impinged on human rights unnecessarily and disproportionately.

‘Our primary position is that the bill should not be passed,’ he said.

Ms Wright said existing laws were already sufficient in addressing criminal behaviour.

Home Affairs said banning items such as mobile phones was necessary to curb smuggling inside detention facilities (stock image)

 Home Affairs said banning items such as mobile phones was necessary to curb smuggling inside detention facilities (stock image)

If the legislation were pursued, she wanted to see a list of banned items and a threshold of suspicious behaviour in order to ban them.

Ms Wright also wanted strip searches limited to extraordinary circumstances.

‘It must be remembered that people in immigration detention are not prisoners and their rights should not be curtailed as though they were,’ Ms Wright said.

Legal Aid NSW director Kate Wrigley said mobile phones and internet-connected devices were a lifeline for detainees, allowing them to contact family and lawyers.

‘This bill represents a huge backward step,’ she said.

Ms Wright said it made it more difficult for people to access counsel without a mobile phone, with access to landlines limited in detention.

At the end of March, of 1373 people in immigration detention, 862 had a criminal history including 362 with a history of drug-related offences.


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