Government making second attempt to give Border Force police-like powers

The Coalition government tried to pass similar laws in 2018 but failed to win the support of Labor and key crossbench senators.

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The move came after the Federal Court blocked a bid by the ABF to confiscate the mobile phones of detainees in immigration detention.

The government is more confident of winning crossbench support this time but the power to ban mobile phones may still be a sticking point, say senior Coalition sources.

Items that could be prohibited under the bill include drugs, child exploitation material, mobile phones, tablets and other devices, and any material that incites extremist violence, racism or hatred.

In the first four months of this year, 332 incidents of contraband were detected in immigration detention centres, including improvised weapons, illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Mr Tudge said the current laws were inadequate to manage the large number of detainees who have a criminal history and who seek to continue their criminality while in detention.

Methamphetamine was hidden in a tennis ball in a detention centre.

Methamphetamine was hidden in a tennis ball in a detention centre.

“As we cancel the visas of more foreign criminals, more end up in immigration detention and current powers are not adequate to keep those facilities safe,” Mr Tudge said.

“These are people who often have a history of child sex abuse, violence and drug use and many have links to criminal gangs such as bikies and organised crime.

“Currently a detainee could have a bag of cocaine, instructions on how to build a bomb, or child exploitation images in their room, and the ABF would be powerless to seize it – clearly this is unacceptable.”

ABF officers currently must rely on local police or the Australia Federal Police to attend a detention centre to search for and seize items.

According to the government, mobiles phones have been used by detainees to coordinate escapes, riots, smuggle illegal drugs, access child exploitation and extremist propaganda videos and threaten and intimidate staff.

Evidence heard at a Senate inquiry into similar laws in 2017 raised concern about the broad application of the laws, warning access to mobile phones was important for people in immigration detention centres to keep in contact with lawyers and support networks.

The Australian Human Rights Commission said the previous bill would lead to unreasonable limitations on human rights and restrictions on items that did not present a significant risk to safety and security.

The government has slightly watered down the proposed laws with the new bill giving the minister the power to determine things that are prohibited via a disallowable instrument, meaning they will be subject to parliamentary veto, while detector dogs can be used to search a detention facility but not a person.

Border Force officers at immigration detention centres currently have to call in police to search detainees or seize illegal items.

Border Force officers at immigration detention centres currently have to call in police to search detainees or seize illegal items.Credit:Ben Rushton

The new bill also makes it clear prescription medications prescribed for a detainee’s individual use by an authorised health officer will not be banned.

The government maintains the ABF needs the powers of police to deal with the widespread problem of illicit drugs, as well as child pornography and extremist material.

In April this year, authorities at a detention centre found a gas can and tennis ball, believed to have been thrown over the fence, which both contained methamphetamine. The ABF was able to remove the two items, but were unable to search for and seize two other two tennis balls that had been collected by detainees.

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In January at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, four people were arrested who police allege were part of a criminal syndicate that used stolen credit cards to purchase motor vehicles, and also distribute illicit drugs within the facility.

The ABF was powerless to remove the mobile phones and search for and seize illicit drugs, but NSW Police located a small amount of cannabis, methylamphetamine, prescription medication and an improvised weapon.

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