Human rights

Border Force: A threat to us all

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Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton (Image via

Human rights advocate and barrister Julian Burnside AO discusses Border Force's increased interest in Australian citizens, as PM Malcolm Turnbull announces greater powers for the Australian Defence Force.

NEVER FORGET the lesson of Martin Niemöller.

The lesson is: when governments misbehave, it’s just a matter of time before they will come for you.

Recently, two Australian citizens arrived back in Australia after a long overnight flight.

They had nothing to declare and filled out customs declarations accordingly. The dogs sniffed their bags, legs and so on and soon lost interest.

Nevertheless, Australian Border Force (ABF) officials decided to single them out for closer inspection. ABF staff were particularly unfriendly and treated them as suspects.

It was 6am and ABF turned the Australians’ luggage inside out. They took X-rays of the luggage but found nothing. Not surprising, since there was nothing to be found.

But ABF then decided to confiscate the travellers’ iPhones, iPads and laptop computers. They kept the travellers at the airport for almost two hours. Finally, they said that the travellers – two Australian citizens who had just returned from a holiday – were suspected "people smugglers".

ABF then confiscated the travellers’ iPhones, iPads and laptop computers “for forensic testing”. They kept them for the next ten days. Nothing was done to protect their personal, private and confidential information on their electronic devices.

During the ten days they kept the electronic devices, ABF made NO effort to contact either of the Australian citizens. Instead, the citizens had to chase the ABF in an attempt to have their electric equipment returned.

Eventually, the equipment was returned. The Australian travellers have not been charged with any offence (probably for the good reason that they had committed no offence), but there was no apology from ABF — and no explanation.

Just for a moment, try to imagine how it feels. You arrive back in Australia tired, the ABF men in black rummage through all your luggage and then keep your iPhone, iPad and computer for ten days.

I thought that’s what happened in police states. But with two former Queensland policemen in charge – Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Dutton and (then) Border Force Commissioner Quaedvlieg – expect the unthinkable.

Be aware, be very aware!

And remember the words of Martin Niemöller, the Lutheran pastor (pictured above) who was taken in for questioning by the Nazis in July 1938:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Julian Burnside AO is a barrister and human rights advocate. This article was originally published on and is republished with permission. You can follow Julian on Twitter @JulianBurnside.

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