A plan to swamp Melbourne’s CBD with Australian Border Force officials, police and transport officers to check the visa status of “any individual we cross paths with” was cancelled before it began following sustained criticism of the operation from politicians, unions, Melbourne city council, human rights lawyers and the people of Victoria.
A joint border force and Victoria police press conference officially launching the operation was cancelled after hundreds of protesters flooded Flinders Street Station. Holding placards and chanting “border force off our streets” the protesters spilled out from the station to the intersection in front, banking up trams and stopping traffic.
An hour later the entire controversial operation, codenamed Operation Fortitude, was abandoned by police in response to what they described as “a high level of community concern”.
Protester Ezekiel Ox said: “We shut them up. They’re not having their press conference. We’re claiming victory. People who speak a second language are now not going to be harassed on trains tomorrow.”
The trouble began when Border Force regional commander Don Smith announced: “You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught out.”
The Australian Border Force, which launched in July, has similar powers to police. They can carry guns and have the power to detain anyone the officer “knows or reasonably suspects is a non-citizen”. The person can be required to produce evidence of being a lawful non-citizen and personal identity papers. The person must comply with the request within a time period “specified by the officer”.
An immigration department spokesperson confirmed there is no requirement for those with a visa to carry papers on them, but Smith’s statement triggered concerns that on-the-spot visa checks would be carried out and officers would rely on racial profiling to target people suspected of not having the correct visa.
The Border Force’s union, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), welcomed news that the operation had been cancelled and accused the government of politicising their work.
CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said: “While border force staff have been involved in these types of operations before, they have never been publicised in this way.
“They were deeply concerned at the suggestion they would be stopping people on the street, which is not how their work has been done in the past.
“We are calling on the federal government to stop cynically exploiting the work of the Australian Border Force for its own political ends, potentially putting these officers at risk.”
Greens MP for Melbourne Adam Bandt said: “Operation Border Farce came to our city and was just as quickly shown the door. Within hours, Melbournians came together and stood up to Tony Abbott and his politics of division.”
Labor leader Bill Shorten refused to condemn the operation, only querying why it had been telegraphed to the media
Barrister and senior vice president of Liberty Victoria Jessie Taylor described the outcome as “a fantastic demonstration of people power”.
“It was a farce,” she said. “It was an insult to those trying to enjoy Australia’s most liveable city. Anyone who was up to no good would surely have known to just stay indoors through the operation.
In an attempt to hose down the criticism, Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg said: “There was never any intent for the Border Force to proactively go out and seek immigration breaches in Melbourne city.” He acknowledged only that the language used in the press release announcing the operation was “clumsily worded” and had been “released by the lower levels of the organisation”.