Mobility and Displacement

Refugees' Mobile Media Practices in Immigration Detention

How to Cite

Leung, L. (2007). Mobility and Displacement: Refugees’ Mobile Media Practices in Immigration Detention. M/C Journal, 10(1).
Vol. 10 No. 1 (2007): 'mobile'
Published 2007-03-01

The paper discusses mobility in the context of displacement. How is the mobile phone appropriated by refugees in immigration detention? What does the mobile phone, and indeed, mobility, signify in an Australian policy landscape of mandatory detention of asylum seekers and formerly prohibited access to mobile phones for detainees inside immigration detention centres? What does this intimate about the perceived dangers of “new” and mobile media?

The author’s preliminary research with refugees in Australian immigration detention centres compares policy and practice. Firstly, it interrogates the unwritten policies regulating refugees’ access to media technologies when incarcerated in immigration detention. As there is no written policy on technology access and practices vary across immigration detention centres, the information in this paper has been given by detainees and has not been verified by the management of detention centres. The paper suggests that the utopian promises of mobile media echo those made about cyberspace in the 1990s. Furthermore, the residual effects of such rhetoric have infiltrated government policy in terms of perceiving mobile media as dangerous when adopted by marginalised groups such as refugees.

Secondly, the research examines how and why the mobile phone has been adopted by immigration detainees despite their former prohibition. It explores the ways in which refugees practice an imagined mobility through media whilst in detention, and finds that this is critical to sustaining connection with their imagined communities.

Why Refugees?

In the context of increased forced migration of people due to circumstances such as political instability, war, natural disaster and famine; it is necessary to better understand how refugees mobilise and organise in situations of displacement.

As new technologies encourage the capacity for borderlessness, such advantages also have to be contrasted with the potential dangers of spontaneous border crossings. The study of the behaviour and practices of refugees in relation to communication technologies offers an insight into the efficacy of immigration detention policy in filtering movement and interaction, both physical and virtual, between Australia and other countries.

Although the study of refugees is a discipline in its own right, there has been minimal examination of how they appropriate technology, particularly that which facilitates and complements their mobility, to maintain connections with their diasporic networks while in situations of displacement. The studies that have been undertaken concentrate on the use of technology by refugees living in the wider community (see Glazebrook, McIver Jr. and Prokosch; Howard and Owens), rather than in the context of detention.

In previous research of diasporas within the discipline of Cultural Studies, technology has been regarded as vital to subcultures and minority groups. Technology has been the tool by which such communities respond to their structural conditions (see Cunningham; Hall; Halleck). Such investigations have concentrated on the intersection of class, gender and ethnicity and how they inscribe meanings to specific technologies, which in turn, become intrinsic to the identities of the groups and communities. The research extends the work that has been done within Cultural Studies by similarly focusing on a marginalised group, refugees, and their participation in particular technologies.

A review of literature across refugee studies, diaspora studies and technology studies has shown that:

  • The study of technology use by refugees has had minimal investigation
  • The study of diasporas has rarely included refugees
  • The study of communities and communication practices which surround particular technologies has concentrated on groups other than refugees
  • The escalation of issues of asylum and border control in public discourse warrant more knowledge about refugees and their networks of communication beyond the boundaries of detention and Australia
  • The notion of “networks” refers to people, technologies, processes and practices that form the relationships between refugees in institutionalised immigration detention and the outside world.

The Australian Immigration Detention Context

Between 1992 and 1994, Australian law moved from permitting (but not enforcing) limited detention of asylum seekers, to a blanket policy of mandatory detention (HREOC) which, at one point, had up to 12,000 individuals in detention (Castan Centre for Human Rights Law). The detention context is particularly relevant to Australia, because its policy of mandatory detention means that refugees have restricted contact with the world outside of the detention centre. In 2005, the Migration Amendment (Detention Arrangements) Bill allowed detained families with children to live in community detention, that is, in residential accommodation outside of an immigration detention centre. Although community detention carries with it specific conditions, families are unaccompanied and have more freedom of movement. This paper discusses the author’s preliminary work with refugees in immigration detention, prior to the introduction of community detention.

The research sought to investigate how asylum seekers use technology to sustain connections with their virtual communities in situations of displacement. Specifically, it explored how technology is appropriated to mediate communication in the context of institutionalised detention. The key research questions addressed by the research were: what kinds of technologies are available to refugees? How are these used? How are their benefits and limitations perceived? What, if any, kinds of social networks surround these technologies? How are relationships of power surrounding these technologies negotiated? Can technology assist refugees in sustaining connections with their communities of choice and reducing their sense of isolation?

Can technology play a role in reducing the well-documented effects of this incarceration by providing mediated social interaction? What are the implications for policy, especially in relation to permitted technologies and surveillance of communication practices?

Access to informants was gained by working with a refugee community advocacy group, which has established links with refugees in detention and experience in dealing with the management of detention centres. One such group is ChilOut, which organises visitor programs to immigration detention centres. This affiliation was important in gaining access to, and trust of, detainees who were willing to participate in the research. It presented opportunities to interact with detainees on a social basis. Semi-structured interviews with the research subjects were conducted to ascertain the strategies and resources currently utilised to counter the effects of mandatory detention.

In 2005, detainees had access to a range of technology which can be broadly termed “old media”, while access to “new media” – such as the Internet and mobile phones – are prohibited. At the time of printing, detainees reported that mobile phones without cameras were only recently permitted.

Detainees have access to pay phones inside the centre. Visitors are allowed to give detainees phone cards so they can use the pay phones without charge or the need for change. In addition to pay phones, detainees are provided with access to a fax and photocopier, which are generally used to liaise with and send relevant documentation to lawyers. There is distrust of using the fax machine at the detention centre because it is in a management office area and the detainees require permission to use it. It means the guards can read the faxes that are sent, as well as those that are received before notifying the detainees that they have received one.

Detainees also have television, videos, DVDs and newspapers, so there is the possibility of feeling like part of an imagined community (Anderson) through these media.

There are computers available, but no Internet access. Some of the children load computer games on them to play, others have Playstation in their rooms.

It is noteworthy that the only technology to which detainees have access and which facilitates real-time person-to-person interaction is the telephone. The phone offers the opportunity for direct contact with the outside world without the visual and other sensory realities of detention. The telephone is able to mask the extent of imprisonment as it does not show the barbed razor wire surrounding the compound. Yet detainees were not permitted to have mobile phones for a long time.

Thus, the key question remains: why were they deprived of access to mobile phones while allowed access to pay phones and landlines? What does this suggest about the perceived dangers of mobile media and the resonance of last century’s techno-utopian discourses? Given that detainees were only given access to “old media”, it seems that this tired but resolutely upbeat rhetoric about new technology which celebrates it as inherently liberating actually inflected policies determining the kinds of technologies to which detainees have access. It confirms the pessimistic assertions of media theorists such as Schiller and Mosco, that new technologies further alienate disadvantaged groups.

As the Australian government attempts to regulate the physical movement of people across its borders, mantras of the era such as “everyone is a free agent” (Kumar 77) appear to undermine this agenda. The assumptions of liberty and democracy embedded in this “free agency” are implicit in policies that denied refugees access to “new media” such as the Internet and mobile phones. The “liberating” nature of such technology was regarded as unsafe in the hands of refugees, whose freedom of movement is institutionally contained by the Australian government through mandatory detention. The physical movement of refugees, as well as the agency and freedom with which they can claim asylum in a country, is actively discouraged through immigration detention policy and limitations on access to technology. The promise of self-expression afforded by mobile media seemed antithetical to the prejudicial administration of refugees, which is premised upon a distrust of their claims of identity and asylum. Subsequently, their use of mobile technology was also assumed to be suspect and therefore had to be restricted. Detained refugees serve as a reminder of the parameters of upbeat discourses about new technology. That is, the utopian possibilities of mobile media appear to be conditional such that its “power” can only be entrusted to certain groups.

In policy terms, the mobile phone is a rich site of signification. Not only does the technology itself imply a way of being (that is free, mobile, always accessible and always able to access), but it also connotes an ideal type of user, one that is appropriate and deserving of such technology. It seems that refugees are not entitled to their mobility and, therefore, do not have rights to media that is considered to facilitate such mobility, in spite of their detention.

Furthermore, there is a suggested dichotomy in the government’s classification of the technologies to which refugees have access. The fact of detention means refugees are surrounded by technology, held captive by it and are inevitably in close proximity to it. It is technology which is seen as antithetical to mobility and therefore could be described as “static”: phones, faxes, photocopiers, television, video – all of which may be characterised as “old media”.

The binary opposite of such technology is that which can be regarded as mobile or new or interactive media; that which resonates with the residual effects of 1990s techno-utopian rhetoric; and could be considered as threatening in the hands of those who have physically made unauthorised border crossings.

However, prior investigations of “mobile” technologies, demonstrates that such dualisms are flawed as the lowest technologies also have the capacity to facilitate mobility. Examples include Paul Gilroy’s work on the Black Atlantic, which notes that books and records have been vital in carrying oppositional ideologies and philosophies across the black diaspora. Within Asian diasporas, the exchange of video letters and taped Bollywood movies have been interpreted as forms of localised challenges to the centralised power of the broadcast media industries (Ang; Gillespie). These economies of exchange as facilitated by older forms of mobile media have been studied in relation to issues of migration and marginalisation. Given that refugees are also affected by such issues, their mobile media practices are a sobering reminder that mobility is not necessarily hi-tech nor confined to the realms of the affluent, educated and socio-economically advantaged. Rather, mobility can be a tenuous state of being displaced and itinerant, with technology adopted to manage and adapt to its challenges.

The Mobile Media Practices of Detained Refugees

The initial findings from the fieldwork indicate that for refugees, the mobile phone is not a technology of choice but instead, a technology of necessity and survival. Every technology that is available to them is used to sustain connection to their localized and globalised networks. The restriction to their physical movement of detainees is compensated through use of technology which allows any sort of interaction and communication. Being part of a technologically-mediated community appears to minimise the marginalisation and isolation they experience. Such feelings of dislocation have been well-documented in studies of the impact of incarceration on the mental health of refugees (see Mares and Jureidini; RANZCP; Hodes).

It seems that the telephone and fax are the mainstays of their communication networks. However, such technologies are closely monitored, as landline phone calls can be traced or even tapped, and faxes have to be sent from an office manned by guards. An experienced visitor to detention centres commented that “most” detainees had mobile phones and when they were contraband, guards knew about them but generally ignored their use by detainees. Only mobile phones offer the potential for communication to be free from the surveillance by detention centres staff.

The ways in which mobile phones are used by detainees is decidedly lo-tech, for example, for communication with family where use of a landline is impractical. One of the detainees said that he speaks to his wife and children on the centre pay phone every few days. However, the call costs are expensive as his family only has a mobile phone, not a landline, at their place of residence. For them to call him is also expensive and awkward, because they have to call the pay phone and if somebody answers, they have then to locate him somewhere within the compound. Thus, the connections between the detainees and their loved ones are very fragile in that they are almost totally dependent on the phone to maintain these relationships. In this instance, the mobile phone offers another means for managing the tenuous nature of these ties. The mobile phone, particularly SMS technology, offers a suitable alternative as the detainee can communicate with his family cheaply and quickly. It compensates for the constraints of the pay phone.

The informal interactions afforded by the mobile phone also extend beyond family members of detainees to their supporters and advocates. Likewise, the mobile phone complements the communication practices facilitated through permitted technologies. For example, when detainees are liaising with the Department of Immigration (DIMIA), they will ask advice from the regular visitors to the immigration detention centre who come from an array of organizations such as churches, refugee advocacy groups, law firms and health organizations. Visitors generally offer whatever assistance they can by obtaining necessary forms from the department, searching the Internet, undertaking letter writing campaigns, and lobbying government ministers.

Something worked in amongst all the network activity that took place over the course of this week. As promised to the family, I scoured the DIMIA web site for a form for applying under Section 417. While there didn’t seem to be an official form, I used the opportunity to research the section of the Migration Act. Googling turned up a 12 page “guide to section 417 applications” written by a barrister, which I printed out and faxed to them. So as to ensure that the family received the fax, I SMS-ed them to let them know a fax was on its way and how many pages to expect. They responded to me by fax, saying that they had been notified that they too were going to be released into community detention in the coming weeks. (Extract from fieldwork diary)

The mobile phone serves the function of anticipating and verifying communications which may potentially be surveilled by staff of detention centres. Where detainees may not trust that they are being given all the letters or faxes that have been sent to them, the mobile phone enables a degree of privacy so that they at least know what to expect from their correspondents. Furthermore, it provides the opportunity for detainees to speak about matters related to their case for asylum that are regarded as too sensitive to risk being discussed in a public place such as on the centre pay phone. Often this involves seeking assistance with their application for asylum.

He rang T on the centre pay phone and said that he would like to speak with me, but did not have my number. He didn’t have a pen and paper to jot down my details at the time, so he gave T his mobile number and asked her to pass it onto me, so I could ring him on it. When I rang, he had returned to his room where he could talk freely. He told me about the visit from the Commonwealth Ombudsman, who undertook to look into his case over the next couple of weeks. We talked about what would assist the Ombudsman in reviewing the case. I said I would write a letter or email in the first instance, and if he wanted other letters of support, I could circulate details of his case on the ChilOut newsletter. He said he didn’t want publicity at this stage. I offered to fax him a copy of my email, but he preferred that I give it to him in person as the fax machine in the office was too public and any documents received could be read. Again, the mobile seems to be the most appropriate technology for coordinating and organising privately away from centre surveillance… (Extract from fieldwork diary)

Fear of breaches of confidentiality form only part of detainees’ desire for privacy from detention centre staff. There is also a need for private space away from other detainees as their imprisonment necessitates the constant use of communal facilities such as the pay phone.

In addition to being used for its capacity for private communication, the mobile phone was also exploited as a broadcast technology by detained refugees. Text messages proved an effective way of providing brief updates to family and friends about the status of their case:

20 September 2005
Hi Linda. I am fine thank u. not news yet, I think they’ll come to see me soon, if I got news, I’ll let u know. Wish u have a good time.

15 October 2005
HI Linda, I was interview by Ombudsman yesterday, we talked about one hour and a half, it sound good…Thank u for yr concern

25 December 2005
Hi Linda. I am still in [detention centre]. No any news from Ombudsman, may be early next year. I am fine here, thanks.

Tuesday 17 October 2006
Hi Linda…I transferd to [community] housing. Its much better here. How a u? takecare ur health, thanks.

Thursday 16 November 2006
HI There is a good news to let u know I got the decision from that I won the FC case.

Thus, for detained refugees, the mobile phone has been adopted for simple, lo-tech use. None of the respondents indicated a desire for a camera function on their mobile phones. However, one detainee did suggest that she would like to use a webcam to see and hear her child in China, whom she has not seen in eight years. While she did use the Internet for this purpose when she was on the “outside”, now she can only rely on weekly telephone conversations made from inside the detention centre.


What happens when technology is placed in the hands of those for whom it was never meant? It makes explicit what is often implied in studies of adoption of new technology, that the “utopian promise” is confined to a narrow socio-economic demographic: the advantaged, the affluent and the educated. Those who fall outside these perimeters are perceived as undeserving and untrustworthy of such technology. This is exemplified in the Australian government’s policy to deny refugees access to “new” and mobile media whilst being compulsorily detained.

The decision to withhold mobile technology from mobile communities who are not so materially privileged is not only ironic but unwarranted in light of the empirical data. This has since been acknowledged by allowing detainees use of mobile phones. The mobile phone practices of detained refugees show that it is being used as a complementary and alternative technology, that is, to compensate for the inadequacies of the communication media allowed by detention centres. The mobile phone is exploited for the functions that permitted technologies do not offer: firstly, the ability to communicate with friends and family more immediately and effectively; secondly, the capacity to communicate privately with less probability of surveillance; thirdly, the opportunity to broadcast content one to many. In such communications, use of the mobile phone is simple and lo-tech: it is deployed for straightforward (but improved) interaction with detainees’ imagined communities which would otherwise be possible anyway through the “old” media technologies provided in detention. In practice, there was no evidence of the use of the hi-tech functions of mobile phones; nor was there any indication, as implied by policy, of the possible dangers that may ensue if such features of mobile media were available to detained refugees.

Potentially, the research can impact on immigration detention policy, particularly in terms of reviewing the conditions under which technology is made available to refugees in institutionalised detention contexts. However, further research is required, especially a comparison of the former prohibited use of mobile media in immigration detention centres with the permitted use of these in community immigration detention.

Author Biography

Linda Leung