Securitised, sure, but hardly a militarised public service

By John Coyne

Friday April 1, 2016

Since its formation in 2015, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and their operational arm the Australian Border Force have been the subject of significant criticism. A key accusation is that the ABF has somehow militarised the department’s frontline functions. But when you compare the ABF with the border agencies of the other G20 nations, it doesn’t appear to be overly militaristic or “out of control” as suggested by some commentators.

Broad comments about the “obsessive militarisation of the immigration department” don’t do justice to Australia’s border security strategies.

The ABF is a law enforcement agency. And its staff are public servants employed under the Public Service Act; they aren’t police or military. These points are facts, and matters on the public record.

“Some countries have chosen to militarise their borders, while others have opted for a securitisation approach.”

Since the 9/11 attacks, the governments of most Western liberal democracies have sought to improve the security of their borders. Broadly, the aim has been to protect communities from terrorism and transnational serious and organised crime. The focus has been from the border inwards, meaning that domestic counterterrorism strategies address the assessment and mitigation of the terrorist threat posed by people and commodities entering their sovereign territory at the border. To achieve this, some countries have chosen to militarise their borders, while others have opted for a securitisation approach.

The militarisation of border security is particularly evident in America, where the Department of Homeland Security uses an approach that’s somewhat reminiscent of the walled frontiers of the Cold War. Their enforcement agencies are monolithic, with large numbers of military personnel in support roles. More recently United States presidential hopeful Donald Trump has promised a build a great wall on America’s border with Mexico. The US seeks to establish a physical and psychological wall between itself and the world. Over the last six months this strategy has been replicated by some European and Middle Eastern nations.

In contrast, the European Union’s Frontex, the United Kingdom’s Border Force and Australia’s ABF have chosen a securitisation model.

The securitisation of borders involves more than bringing in bigger or better security measures. It comprises an array of activities focused on facilitation, revenue collection, regulation and control — all related to achieving the seamless movement of people and goods across borders. It also involves identifying and concentrating enforcement activity on border movement that presents a risk to sovereignty, rule of law and national security.

Uniforms, guns and innocent travellers

On July 1, 2015, DIBP and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service officially amalgamated into one department. At the same time, a new frontline operational enforcement arm — the ABF — was stood up. The ABF consolidated operational staff from both agencies into a single organisational and command structure. It was the formation of the ABF that commenced the securitisation of Australia’s borders in earnest.

So what’s the uniform about? Only some members of the ABF wear uniforms; the remainder of the ABF and DIBP’s staff wear normal office attire. Having border agency staff wear a uniform isn’t that unusual: all of the G20 countries’ border agencies wear a uniform of some kind. And globally most enforcement agencies wear a dark blue uniform. Research indicates that the dark blue uniform creates a perception of “safety” amongst the public.

” … senior executives describe a system in five years’ time where the average traveller will have little contact with officers … ”

And the guns? Only certain ABF staff are authorised and qualified to carry a pistol. The pistol, amongst other accoutrements such as handcuffs and batons, are only carried by ABF officers for personal protection during high risk activities such as those undertaken by airport counterterrorism units. The federal government has an obligation to provide all appropriate means for ABF officers to protect themselves should this be required. Again, this isn’t out of the norm either: the border agencies of 18 G20 nations also have weapons available for their staff members when they undertake high risk operations, and some of those 18 countries have their border staff permanently armed.

The future for our border also looks more securitised than militarised. When I talk to ABF and DIBF senior executives about the Australian border in five years’ time, they describe a system where the average traveller will have little contact with officers: hardly a Kafkaesque future or militarised check point.

Australia’s border security has most definitely gone through a period of securitisation. This perspective is supported by the reality experienced daily by travellers passing through Australia’s international airports. These travellers can expect to see ABF officers in dark blue uniforms sans guns. With the introduction of Smartgates at Australia’s international airports now complete many travellers will have very little contact with ABF officers. This hardly makes for a militarised border.

This article was first published by ASPI’s The Strategist with the headline “Australia’s securitised border“.

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