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operation fortitude cancelled amid public outrage


Image via the Australian Border Force Facebook page

Image via the Australian Border Force Facebook page


Operation Fortitude, a controversial plan by the Australian Border Force (ABF) to crack down on people overstaying their visas in Melbourne’s CBD this weekend, was cancelled on Friday afternoon amid public outrage.

The Australian Border Force was launched in July of this year, as a merger of the Customs and Border Protection Service, with parts of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. The government agency is responsible for immigration security of Australia’s air and sea ports, and also encompasses Operation Sovereign Borders.

On Friday morning, the Australian Border Force announced in a press release that it would conduct ‘Operation Fortitude’ with Victoria Police and public transport systems over Friday and Saturday; targeting crime, ‘anti-social behaviour’, and outstanding warrants in the CBD of Melbourne. The Victorian and Tasmanian regional commander of the force, Don Smith, was quoted in the release explaining that officers would be ‘at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual that we cross paths with’ in relation to visa fraud.

Immediately, there was a public reaction. A snap protest against the operation was announced on social media for 2pm at Flinders Street Station, the same time and location as a press conference that the Australian Border Force had planned to answer questions at about the initiative. Around 200 people spilled out from the station in protest, blocking the Swanston Street and Flinders Street intersection, causing traffic jams and stopped trams. People power won out, with the Australian Border Force cancelling its press conference and then announcing in a statement at 3pm that Operation Fortitude would not go ahead.

Questions were immediately raised about how the Australian Border Force had planned to go about targeting suspects. Would everyone be required to carry and show proof of identification, such as birth certificates or visas? Officers couldn’t possibly interrogate everyone on the busy streets, so how would they choose who to speak to? Many feared that the operation would result in racial profiling.

The uproar against the terminated operation encompassed both members of the public and politicians. Former Independent MP Tony Windsor described Operation Fortitude as a ‘deliberate act to create fear’ and claimed that the federal government was attempting to play on racial tensions to win the next election. Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson called the Australian Border Force’s definition of Operation Fortitude ‘unacceptable’ and ‘absurd’, and Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young argued that the operation required further investigation, questioning why it had been given the go-ahead in the first place.

Confusion and secrecy continues to surround the motives behind Operation Fortitude, with accusations flying about what went wrong. The border force commissioner, Roman Quaedvlieg, blamed the badly worded press release for the cancellation of the operation. Meanwhile, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton redirected questions to Victoria Police, who were set to support the operation with its own officers. The Victorian government’s Police Minister, Wade Noonan, said that his government had been under the impression that the operation aimed to keep commuters safe and stamp out anti-social behaviour. Even the border force’s own union, the Community and Public Sector Union, got involved, accusing the federal government of politicising their work, and putting its officers in danger.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott downplayed the issue, calling the press release a clumsy mistake and denying that his office had had prior knowledge of the operation. He promised that ‘no one ever will be randomly stopped in the street for some kind of visa check.’

The protestors gathered on Friday promised that they would be back if similar operations were rolled out in the future. In a statement condemning Operation Fortitude, the Human Rights Law Centre conceded that while ‘common sense’ had won out in the operation’s cancellation, ‘grave concerns’ were held about the militarisation of immigration officials.

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