CANBERRA: The Australian government hit a legal setback Friday in its bid to ban cell phones from immigration detention centres — a policy that critics argue would treat asylum seekers like criminals.
A judge rejected the government's submission that the Federal Court of Australia did not have jurisdiction to hear a challenge to the proposed ban.
The government has two weeks to decide whether it will appeal Justice Steven Rares' ruling. If there is no appeal, the Federal Court will hear a class-action suit by detainees who say a blanket ban on phones in all Australian immigration detention centres would be illegal.
The ban would affect hundreds of detainees on the Australian mainland and on the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.
The phone ban would not apply to asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat and have been sent to immigration camps on the Pacific island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Most asylum seekers arrive in Australia by plane and are kept in mainland detention centres along with foreign nationals who have breached their visa conditions and criminals who are awaiting deportation after serving prison sentences.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection had planned to confiscate all phones last month, but human rights lawyers obtained an injunction allowing inmates to keep in contact with the outside world until the legality of the new policy is decided.
George Newhouse, a senior lawyer at the National Justice Project that initiated the legal challenge, said that while phones are banned in Australian prisons, asylum seekers should not be treated like criminals.
"Seeking asylum does not make you a criminal. Mobile phones provide asylum seekers with vital access to the outside world, to loved ones and to advocates — their mental health and their families depend on this," Newhouse said.
"The blanket ban on phones punishes innocent men, women and children and demonstrates the increasing criminalization by this government of asylum seekers who have committed no crime," he added.
Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg told a Senate committee last month the ban was needed to prevent plotting of escapes and drug crimes.
"I cannot countenance running a custodial setting ... that allows mobile phones to be used as an enabler to crime," he said.
The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the court decision.