It’s time to abolish Border Force

Border Force would not be out of place in a military dictatorship or a fascist regime

The Australian Border Force is an authoritarian and undemocratic body that does not serve the interests of ordinary people in Australia. It should be abolished.

Five years since the reopening of the refugee torture centres on Manus Island and Nauru, the results are clear. Refugees have suffered cruel and unusual punishment which has: not saved lives at sea, not “stopped the boats” and not benefited ordinary Australians.

These policies do not “protect” Australia's borders. On the contrary, they make ordinary Australians less safe. So it should be abolished.

Border Force was established in 2015 when the Customs department was combined with the immigration detention and compliance functions of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP — also known as the Department of Incredibly Brutal Policies).

It was set up deliberately as a semi-militarised body designed to intimidate. The uniforms of the “officers” would not be out of place in a military dictatorship or a fascist regime.

The legislation establishing Border Force included a provision that doctors, nurses and social workers would be imprisoned for two years if they revealed information about child abuse, rape or other mistreatment of refugees. Internal reporting mechanisms failed to alleviate these problems, making whistleblowing the only option for concerned workers.

The legislation explicitly encouraged and protected human rights abuses at the expense of those speaking out.

Public outcry meant health professionals were eventually exempted from these penalties, but teachers, lawyers, security staff and other workers in the immigration detention system still face imprisonment of up to two years if they publicly expose criminal or abusive behaviour by Border Force.

Last year, the Australian government paid an out-of-court settlement of $70 million to refugees imprisoned on Manus Island to avoid judicial scrutiny of their practices. The payout is implicit acknowledgement of the human rights violations and wrongful imprisonment for which the Australian government is responsible. Border Force is the agency charged with carrying out the human rights abuses.

The name, existence and practices of Border Force are designed to create a barrier between ordinary people and the refugees who have come or might consider coming here asking for protection.

The existence of Border Force is just as racist and authoritarian as Trump’s proposed Border Wall or Israel's Apartheid Wall. And it has the same function: to disguise the fact that the people on the other side are people — just like us.

The same Liberal and Labor governments that promote draconian policies against refugees are willing accomplices in the undermining of Australian sovereignty by foreign corporations. They are more than happy to support the Trans Pacific Partnership for instance which includes provisions allowing corporate interests to sue the Australian government if environmental standards, human rights laws or labour protections interfere with their profits.

Border Force is not about “protecting” Australia. It is a vehicle to scapegoat refugees, thereby distracting voters from the real threats to their interests, such as the federal government's plan to cut corporate taxes.

Ordinary people have no interest in a government body whose function is to carry out human rights abuses. We'd be better off if Border Force were replaced by a humanitarian agency tasked with organising a smooth welcome for refugees and new migrants. Socially useful aspects of the customs function of Border Force could be returned to a designated Customs Service.

Australia should offer immediate refuge to all the asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. We should also offer permanent protection to the thousands of refugees in Australia who are currently on uncertain and degrading bridging visas. We should end the practice of forced deportations to danger, such as Tamils to Sri Lanka.

And we should expand the number of refugees we accept each year, including taking proactive measures to facilitate safe passage of refugees currently in Indonesia and Malaysia and elsewhere.

Ordinary people in this country would be better off with policies such as these and abolishing Border Force would be both a symbolic and a practical contribution to achieving that.

[Alex Bainbridge is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance.]