Mobile phones in immigration detention: capturing lessons for post-pandemic transformation?

Mobile phones in immigration detention: capturing lessons for post-pandemic transformation?

With the onset of COVID-19, the fault lines of the status quo are becoming more and more visible across Australia and the world.  Globally, as People of Color are disproportionately dying from COVID-19, the effects of concealed structures of racism are made visible. This truth is immediately apparent in Australia’s carceral settings. The unequal incarceration levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples translates to increased vulnerability to COVID-19 infection; First Nations peoples are also subject to ‘systemic racism and discrimination in the provision of health care in prisons’. Australia’s carceral practices also confine refugee bodies with little regard to health requirements through the pandemic, while removing support mechanisms.

Yet, through these visceral examples of broken systems, there have been declarations of hope. Some, like Roy, declare that we do in fact have opportunity and momentum for societal transformation, that ‘the pandemic is a portal:’ 

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

As we wait in the in between of the old and the new, fresh assaults of the old continue in waves. Plans for a gas-led economic recoveryRio Tinto’s plans to destroy another 124 Aboriginal heritage sites.  The government proposing a Bill which threatens to remove mobile phones from refugees in immigration centres. What do these pandemic-time assertions of the status quo mean for our ability to move through to the ‘next world?’  

This piece explores the implications of the latter example, the recent attempts to prohibit mobile phones from immigration detention. This act of carceral deprivation may in fact deprive Australia of the very relationships, knowledge and perspectives it needs for societal transformation. 

Background to the Bill

Is the Migration Act a reflection of Australia’s moral centre? In contemplating this scary prospect, the analogy of a Picture of Dorian Gray comes to mind. As amendments strategically to-and fro between the three branches of government, as they have historically done, their champions hope that their ugly consequences will remain hidden in the attic. These amendments aim to construct the ‘other,’ to determine their subjugated place, the extent of their rights. What is perhaps less clear is that these amendments, steadily encroaching on the human rights of the refugee and asylum seeker also constructs us, Australia, as a nation. The scarred face of morality plays out in the locations and the bodies Australia aims to keep out of sight, be it through extraterritoriality or carceral arrangements. 

The latest proposed amendment, Migration Amendment (Prohibiting Items in Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill 2020 (the Bill), is at the time of writing, before the Senate. The aspect of the Bill that has been the focus of public concern has been its potential facilitation of the prohibition of mobile phones from people in immigration detention. The Bill empowers the Minister to prohibit ‘things’ on various grounds, including if the item might be a risk to the order of the facility. Refugee and human rights advocates note that this power may operate over technologies such as mobile phones and internet connected devices. A further element to note is that this deprivation, in its very design, is violent. The Bill expands search and seizure powers, including strip searches. It permits the search of detainees’ personal effects without warrants, as well as the use of detector dogs. 

The human rights implications of this Bill have, rightly, been foregrounded in discussions. Phones are a critical resource to refugees who use them to connect with family members left behind, and to access important services such as legal advice. Mobile phones are referred to as a lifeline; without which, as one refugee noted, “you’ll see a spike in suicides.”

This Bill has other potential implications, particularly what the separation of refugee from their phones might mean for societal transformation in Australia. What else do we lose? What powerful perspectives – in exile, agency and relationalities – will be lost?

  1. Exile (and perspective)

Mobile phones have allowed refugees in Australia’s immigration detention centres to convey a potent perspective necessary for societal transformation: the perspective of exile. Focusing particularly on Australia’s formerly operating extraterritorial detention centres in Manus Island we can see blunt operations of colonial territorialities between core and peripheries. As in colonial times, these  peripheries designate differentials in law, racial constructions and visibility. Post-colonial scholars have highlighted the power in these peripheries as a location from which to gaze back with clarity at the ‘core,’ highlighting contradictions in its rationalities. Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish refugee detained at Australia’s immigration centre in Manus Island, wrote his award winning book whilst in detention, painstakingly typing text using his mobile phone. His is a vital decolonial text in Australia’s history, recording with nuance the day-to-day in Australia’s carceral periphery, a phenomena which was intended to remain invisible. Boochani is not alone in producing knowledge from within a carceral system. Activist and academic, Angela Davis, co-edited and co-authored If They Come in the Morning in prison. A key theme of the collection was resistance and relationality despite false binaries imposed by state structures which arbitrarily create the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside.’ Postcolonial scholar Franz Fanon also wrote the decolonial text, The Wretched of the Earth, from exile in Tunisia. From this positionality, Fanon also examines the relationship between the core and the periphery:

The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. In the colonies it is the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression.

This description of carceral and militarised spaces, embodied in the agents of the coloniser, the policeman and soldier, resonates in a central figure in Boochani’s book, the G4S guard. G4S is a private security company that was contracted to oversee the detention centre on Manus Island; the privatisation route taken by Australia, arguably to obfuscate accountability. In Boochani’s featuring of the G4S guard, however, we can see colonial dynamics of power and violence: a face of racist Australia.  

At the front of the dining area always stand a few grim and brainless G4S guards. They focus their gaze in a way that feels like a stop-and-search on anyone who exits the tent. If a pocket shows the slightest bulge, the guards order a Papu to frisk the prisoner. Part of the strategy to totally control the body. The Papu shakes his head in disapproval while he searches all the pockets, the lower legs, the torso and then under the arms. At times this activity results in the discovery of a single potato or a crushed piece of meat. When the Papus find something, they pick it up as if it has come out of the rubbish bin. The Australian G4S guard reminds the prisoner again: “Taking food out is against the rules.”

What does Boochani’s tell us about ourselves as a nation?  The work of post-colonial scholar Edward Said, himself a Palestinian exile, explores the unique vantage that can be gained from the positionality of exile:

The exile knows that in a secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason and necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience. (Said 2000: 185)

The exilic perspective deconstructs false senses of security in the citizen, and the ‘free.’ This warning resonates too in the title of Davis’s text, If They Come in the Morning. It references a letter from James Baldwin to Davis after her arrest: ‘ For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.’

Applying this idea of exile to Boochani’s detailed description of life imprisoned on Manus Island is a warning to mainland, free citizens on the ‘outside.’ The barriers between us and the ‘other’ are provisional: when we read Boochani’s text, documented on his phone, we not only see the sins of our nation, but perhaps also glimmers of our future. 

  1. Agency

Mobile phones are key in proving structures through which the agency of refugees can be recognized beyond the carceral centres. The fierce agency of detainees was repeatedly foregrounded throughout Boochani’s writing. In documenting a coordinated resistance undertaken by the refugees on Manus Island in 2017 he writes:

The refugees have been able to reconfigure the images of themselves as passive actors and weak subjects into active agents and fierce resistors. The concept of the refugee as a passive actor was an ideal instrument in the hands of power and could be exploited by Australia’s political machinations; it formed the refugees into something that could be manipulated and leveraged for the Australian government’s own purpose.

Boochani’s phone was key in the agential dynamics that played out from detention. The mobile phones aid a bearing of witness, facilitate a resistant souveillance, that is an inverse watching from below, provided a structure to record the agency of the refugees. Gayatri Spivak in Can the Subaltern Speak, describes a situation where one woman’s act of resistance could not ‘speak’ as the structures surrounding the act of agency could not protect it, capture it, recognise it. As such, even well-meaning parties misinterpreted the power and meaning of the woman’s resistance, and constructed a narrative for her based on the logic of the status quo. The existence of phones in immigration detention centres allow the resistance of detainees to speak without cooption, and to speak their resistance to the Australian public, which may, one day decide to speak too.  

  1. Relation

Abdul Aziz Adam is a Sudanese refugee that was detained on Manus Island. Whilst on Manus Island, he would send WhatsApp voice notes to journalist, Michael Green. The Messenger podcast was curated  from the several thousand voice notes sent between Adam and Green. Through these podcasts, Adam bears witness to the day to day realities in Australia’s immigration centres. Through these messages, punctuated throughout with the WhatsApp voicenote ‘ping!’ listeners see a deep friendship form between the two. Green, voice heavy with concern, tries to remain level for Adam. Adam, speaks to Green with familiarity, warmth and care, and tries to remain light for Green.  

The system of immigration detention in Australia aims to break important relationalities between citizen and refugee. Various tactics are borne out in doing so: the use of secrecy, extraterritoriality, and the mobilisation of racist ideologies all serve to sever a vital connection. Mobile phones have helped repave this connection, as evidenced by Green and Adam. Indeed one form of solidarity between detainees and refugee advocates has been through the purchase of mobile phone credit. 

Relationships are powerful, connection signals a new world, which as Indigenous theories of relationality highlight, is in fact foundational. This relationality, in which agency and perspective may be embedded, perhaps hints to why the Australian government is so afraid of refugees with mobile phones. 

IV. Conclusion: Solidarity as sustenance for the journey 

As the status quo continues to assert itself during this pandemic, we must not accede to a closing of the portal. The examples of resistance via mobiles from Australia’s immigration centres shows us that the creation of the next world can start from the deepest mires of this present one. It shows us that hope doesn’t arrive, it is painstakingly forged, scribed, asserted with whatever tools are at our disposal. It urges us to see our fates as entangled, to see ourselves, those ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ as relational. Perhaps the journey to the next world will not be swift like the metaphor of a portal implies. Perhaps it will require endurance, sustained resistance, unyielding imaginings. Behrouz Boochani spent 6 years on Manus Island, and of this feat he writes:  “I think the only thing that helped us persevere for the long stretch of time was our dedication to principles of humanity and human values…. Feelings of friendship. Feelings of compassion. Feelings of companionship. Feelings of justice. And feelings of love. (Bouchani 2017). We can neither move to the next world, nor endure the continuation of the present, without prima facie solidarity, relationality, with those upon whose bodies and lands the status quo is enacting dominance.