The Department of Immigration and Border Protection is actively monitoring the Facebook pages of people protesting against the government’s offshore detention policy and has produced a list of pages it believes gives asylum seekers “false hope” of a change in policy.

As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton are over in New York lauding Australia’s offshore detention regime as the gold standard of controlling borders, the department Dutton is responsible for is blaming people protesting against the government’s hardline policy for giving the remaining people in offshore detention false hope.

In an estimates hearing in May, Immigration secretary Michael Pezzullo said some people were encouraging asylum seekers on Nauru “to hold out for an outcome of being transferred to Australia” and this was causing asylum seekers to hope in vain for a potential crack in the government’s policy. Pezzullo wouldn’t go as far to say this directly encouraged self-harm, but he said it would make people desperate. Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald suggested that he believed false hope encouraged self-harm.

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Last week the department provided examples taken from the personal Facebook pages of activists it believes are encouraging “false hope”.

The first is an innocuous post from a man who Crikey understands was returned to Iran by the Australian government. He reported that Omid Masoumali was still alive in a Brisbane hospital after setting himself on fire at the Nauru detention centre. Masoumali later died.

Facebook post used by Immigration

The second is a post from refugee activist Lynne Murphy calling on the men on Manus not to sign request forms to get on a bus. “It’s a big trick to prove you want to settle in PNG.”

Facebook post cited by Immigration Department

The third is a simple post calling on the government to “close the camps” and “let them stay”, two very common phrases in the movement opposed to offshore immigration detention.

Facebook post cited by Immigration

Subsequent posts are written by, or supporting, Iranian-Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani’s protest against his detention on Manus Island, including this post by Boochani:

“I know that many of you know that I did not have any other way open to me to resist this. I had to climb on top of that tree because there was no longer any other way. The action was political. We are victims of political propaganda and should be understood as political prisoners. Australia put up in a hell prison camp under a regime of systematic torture. I wanted to show that his policy is cruel, inhumane, unjust and a modern form of slavery. We were forcibly transported from Australia to their black site on Manus Island and are subject to a regime of systematic torture. I hope that this action will encourage people to think more about the Australian Guantanamo in the heart of the Pacific Ocean.”

Another activist quoted in the document, Margaret Sinclair, told Crikey she was shocked that the department had been trawling her Facebook page and had been unaware that her page was being monitored. She said the department’s time would be better spent implementing the recommendations of the Moss Report and the Forgotten Children report.

“The government is giving people no hope. It’s no hope that is leading to self-harm and suicide attempts,” she said. “If the government thinks that people are doing it in order to come to Australia, then they need to explain the rates of self-harm and suicide that happens in onshore detention. They’re not doing it to come to Australia, they’re just doing it because they’re in detention for too long.”

Murphy says her own posts were facts and her opinions on those facts, and she is unsure what the government means by “false hope”.

“When we face an unknown future, we can have hope or no hope. The future is unknown. Having no hope leads to suicide and suicide attempts,” she said. “I try to give people hope when they think there is no hope. I try to help them live another hour, another day, or to make it through the night.”

Michele Feinberg, the activist behind the posters in the third example, told Crikey she was astounded by the claims the department made.

“I am astounded that they think a couple of my crappy posters supporting the Nauru protesters would be more likely to cause self-harm than years of indefinite detention in subhuman conditions,” she said. “I spend a lot of time taking to and supporting refugees on Manus and Nauru, and onshore, and my whole and only purpose is to stop them self-harming and to give them enough strength to see out this awful policy. My conscience is clear.”

Murphy says the claims made by Macdonald and Pezzullo are not supported by the evidence the department has provided.

“If the Senator and Mr Pezzullo are going to make such claims, I think it incumbent on them to produce evidence that supports, first, their belief that hope causes people to self-harm, and second, that people who have self-harmed did so in the belief that their relatives would be able to come to Australia.”

The department openly admits it is keeping a close eye on the activists protesting against government policy on immigration detention, and Pezzullo indicated in May that the posts selected by the department would likely be limited to that which is publicly available in order to not betray the department’s sources:

“I think people post using social media, so we do not need to get into confidential correspondence or reviews we have conducted of some of the clinical assessments, for instance. We do not need to go to those issues that potentially trigger confidentiality or privacy concerns or, indeed, that betray our sources and methods of understand who is — for instance — agitating in particular ways in matters that are potentially contrary to the laws of Nauru.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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