Former foreign minister Scott Morrison announced the creation of the Australian Border Force (ABF) eight years ago. His proposal was couched in terms both practical and political. On the “pragmatic” side, Border Force’s creation would consolidate twelve supposedly unwieldly government departments into one superagency. On the ideological front, it would be a nationalist vehicle for safeguarding Australian sovereignty and twenty-first century destiny.
For the first five years of its existence, Border Force’s activities were largely directed at refugees, foreigners, and the occasional Australian citizen unlucky enough to catch the agency’s attention. But the COVID-19 era has given many more Australians a brush with the beast that has been created in the name of their protection. And more people are seeing Border Force for what it is: an opaque paramilitary organization riddled with corruption and largely above the law.
“Stop the Boats”
The Australian border has been a site of intense politicking for three decades. It was Paul Keating’s Labor government that introduced mandatory detention — the automatic and indefinite imprisonment of all refugees — in 1992. Since then, successive governments have tried to outdo each other on border security. Australia’s Pacific neighbors Papua New Guinea and Nauru have been cajoled into hosting brutal for-profit internment camps for asylum seekers, and the imprisonment of refugees has been largely moved offshore.
In mid-2013 Kevin Rudd’s Labor government, just months away from an election, was desperate to out-tough-guy the right-wing Coalition on hard-line immigration policy. In an unprecedented act of bastardry, it excised the entire Australian mainland from the Australian migration zone and declared that no asylum seeker who arrived in Australia would ever be allowed to settle permanently there.
As with all concessions to the Right, these moves simply emboldened the Coalition and shifted the debate on immigration in a more racist direction. The Coalition upped the ante and proposed Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led campaign to tow refugees back out to sea. Seizing power in September that same year, the new government began towing back and terrorizing refugee boats. Not long after, it announced its intention to streamline all the agencies with border-related duties into the Australian Border Force.
One of the architects of this agenda was immigration secretary (and Labor Party operative) Michael Pezzullo. Border Force, Pezzullo promised, would be “epoch-shaping.” It would have a pseudomilitary structure, its agents would be armed, and its commissioner could only be sacked by the governor-general — who is both the unelected representative of the Queen and the commander in chief of the Australian Defence Force. All of the ABF’s operations would be subject to strict military secrecy; no oversight by the Australian people or by Parliament would be allowed.
Employees in immigration areas would be required to swear an oath at the request of the Border Force commissioner. The text of the oath remains secret and is not bound by legislation — it could literally contain anything — and these employees can be jailed for breaking it. In a disturbing inversion of normal professional life, these employees can also be jailed for two years if they report crimes, assaults, or abuse by Border Force or private employees at immigration detention centers.
The name of this game is symbolic deterrence through actual cruelty, in order to both win votes and deliver healthy profits for the contractors who help run this detention regime. The entire scheme rests on the insinuation that asylum seekers are actually dangerous criminals. But Border Force has itself conceded the lie by admitting that it cannot imprison asylum seekers alongside convicted violent criminals as the former are not dangerous and would be at risk.
In 2016, when US president Donald Trump asked then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull why Australia imprisoned refugees, Turnbull confessed that “it’s not because they are bad people. . . . If you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize–winning genius, we will not let you in.”
Pezzullo sinisterly pitched Border Force as “nation-building with a modern-day pursuit of what I label the spirit of 1945 . . . but with a very different aim.” He argued that to build prosperity Australia must abandon the idea of permanently welcoming new citizens from abroad and focus instead on exploiting temporary workers before sending them back.
When he first announced Border Force’s creation, Morrison pitched the agency as a “tough-on-crime” endeavor. He argued that “organized criminals will pedal anything from which they can profit — people, drugs, guns, or other illicit substances. And not everyone who comes and goes through our airports every day visits with benign intent.” But from the outset, Border Force has been plagued by its own illegality and corruption scandals.
Its very first commissioner used his position to secure a job for his much younger alleged mistress, and its officers have been involved in some of the very sleaze they were supposedly employed to stop. Border Force’s many misadventures include illegal coercion, drug smuggling, tax fraud, the cavalier confiscation of citizens’ private property, and even paying people smugglers to dispose of refugees.
Border Force has also been involved in politically motivated corruption — including personal favors and shady business deals – that benefited the former Coalition government. A former Border Force commissioner revealed that he was asked to help release a government minister’s friend’s au pair from immigration detention as a favor. More significant, the agency paid shipbuilder Austal — which gives large political donations to the Coalition – $39 million for a fleet of boats it knew did not work.
Perhaps even more disturbing, Border Force officers have been used as political enforcers for various shady international players. In 2019 they were accused of intercepting abused women en route to seek asylum in Australia on behalf of the Saudi Ministry of Interior. Earlier this year they raided the home of a couple who were helping Pacific Islanders escape the exploitative seasonal worker program, a huge source of income for Australian agricultural employers and Pacific Island governments.
“Taking Out the Trash”
Despite its insistence on absolute secrecy since its launch in 2015, Border Force has enjoyed theatrically showing off its wide powers, slick military uniforms, and general invincibility. It has defied state magistrates by arresting and deporting people awaiting trial, and even seized editorial control of a popular border-security reality TV program to showcase its antics.
In August 2015, Border Force announced the very public Operation Fortitude, in which its agents would randomly stop people on the streets of Melbourne to determine their visa status. It was an embarrassing misstep. Protesters, energized by recent street demonstrations against the racist far right, flooded into the central business district to stop the operation. As the city was brought to a halt and publicity mounted, the public sector union representing immigration department workers denounced the operation as dangerous. Voices of opposition continued to mount throughout the day. Border Force hurriedly cancelled the operation and blamed the whole incident on an intern.
Despite the failure of Operation Fortitude, Border Force retained its taste for the spectacular. In 2021 the then Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton gave a commercial news station access to an ongoing Border Force operation. Reporters filmed long-term residents of Australia — including children — being deported to New Zealand as they were marched handcuffed across the tarmac, and taunted them with comments like “Our country doesn’t want you.” Dutton himself appeared in the report and described the operation as “taking the trash out.” The cruel display caused a diplomatic stir and was, like Fortitude, ultimately blamed on a junior media officer.
Where the Wild Things Are
But it is the COVID-19 era that gave many Australians their first startling experience of Border Force’s opaque and expansive powers. As an emergency requirement under the Biosecurity Act, Australia made leaving the country a criminal offense in March 2020. Citizens and residents were threatened with five years’ prison and a $66,000 fine if they failed to comply. Border Force, naturally, was in charge of enforcing the ban on leaving.
The government officially allowed citizens to apply for permission from Border Force to leave, though eligibility for such exemptions was not defined at all. Instead, it was left to the border agency’s complete discretion. Initially only one in four applications for permission to leave was successful. This eventually increased to one in three following some grumbling by Coalition MPs whose electorates contained wealthy citizens. But Border Force’s judgments on who was eligible to leave raised eyebrows. Tens of thousands of citizens were denied permission to leave for family emergencies or overseas employment. The lucky few granted permission to leave included a witness who was about to testify against a Coalition politician in a corruption case and an associate of the prime minister and health minister who wanted to pick up his luxury yacht in Greece.
As well as detaining the entire population of Australia, Border Force also took its immigration deterrent role seriously during the pandemic. When COVID rates went up in India, it enforced the racist prohibition on all those traveling from India — including Australian citizens. Onshore, it oversaw a mass COVID outbreak at an asylum-seeker prison hotel by depriving the detainees of medical care.
Abolish Border Force
There are some signs the public mood is turning against the untouchable power of the Australian Border Force. Ongoing protests inside and outside the hotel prisons holding refugees and against forced deportations are having some impact on public debate and the willingness of some businesses to participate in such a gruesome debacle.
A successful campaign to stop the deportation of an asylum-seeker Tamil family helped further expose the arbitrary cruelty of the Australia’s border regime and has ultimately involved half a million Australians in some way over the past four years.
Large sections of the population remain angry at having their most basic right to leave and return to their own country removed overnight, while political friends of the government were allowed to come and go. The near-total collapse of visa processing capabilities has also exposed Border Force architect and Department of Home Affairs secretary Pezzullo’s 2014 promise of an efficient, militarized superagency as a complete deception.
For the safety, freedom, rights, and lives of citizens, residents, refugees, and visitors alike, the reckless and lawless Border Force must be disbanded. Political moments past and present have shown that for all its bluster, Australia’s rotten border regime starts to shake when confronted en masse. With public resentment of Border Force at all-time high, the movement should harness the modest momentum of recent successes and build toward a larger confrontation with the politicians and companies who built Fortress Australia.