The internal border: DIAC compliance—from a ‘well oiled’ to a ‘well targeted’ removal machine

Australia’s commitment to exercising total visa control continues after arrival in the country. Since the late 1980s Australia’s comprehensive visa system has been systematically enforced within its territory, underpinned by comprehensive entry and exit controls. According to a senior DIAC official interviewed by one of the authors:1 [1] ‘I can say this with some confidence ... there’s virtually no one in

Australia that either wasn’t born here or that this Department ... doesn’t have a record of in some way’ (Interview 45, Canberra DIAC).

The immigration enforcement system has been described as a ‘well oiled machine’, operating with minimal intervention by human decision makers and with scant external oversight (Nicholls 2007: 149). Under section 14 of the Migration Act 1958, any non-citizen who is not in possession of a valid visa is liable to detention and deportation. The DIAC maintains a relatively small contingent of specialist compliance officers who exercise police-like powers under the Migration Act to enter and search premises (sections 251, 257); question, arrest, and detain (sections 188, 189); and require disclosure of information held by other agencies in relation to suspected unlawful non-citizens (section 18). While these officers are empowered to use force if necessary in the conduct of identification inquiries (section 261AE) and in order to gain lawful entry (section 268CH) they are not armed or trained in the use of force. DIAC Compliance therefore relies heavily on police to provide security during ‘high risk’ operations in which it is anticipated that resistance may be encountered. As explained by a senior DIAC official: ‘It’s not unusual with some of these more difficult ones to bring in their T actical Unit to assist us, and sometimes they will assist by providing a monitoring policeman to escort a person overseas as well . we don’t like our staff going into any situations where they don’t have any weapons to protect themselves’ (Interview 42, Canberra DIAC).

The DIAC removal machine had been operating at peak efficiency until about 2003 (see Figure 1)[2] when a series of revelations about the detention and deportation of Australian citizens forced a temporary slowdown.

The Palmer Inquiry, which examined one of the many unlawful detentions from this era, concluded that the Department operated with a ‘blind trust in systems and processes that, on any reasonable assessment, had failed’ (Palmer 2005: 162).

Removals from Australia

Fig. 1 Removals from Australia

Source: DIAC Annual Reports 2000—2012.

DIAC Compliance had relied heavily on police for ‘referrals’ of suspected unlawful non-citizens. Incredibly, senior officials now admit they ‘weren’t being critical enough when presented with information from the police’ and ‘would take their word for it without doing anything more than perfunctory checks’ to confirm an individual’s legal status (Interview 47, Canberra DIAC). The Inquiry noted the rapid increase in the number of illegal entrants dealt with by the Department which resulted in policy, procedures, and enabling structures being ‘developed in tandem and on the run’ (Palmer 2005: 164). In other words, immigration authorities were shown to be severely unprepared for the onerous tasks that had been thrust upon them by the law and politics ofborder control. Significant organizational reforms were instigated in the ‘post-Palmer’ era, including massive investments in new information technologies, but removals began to rise again from 2009 as political pressure to control borders was once again ramped up. It seems, after all, that the post-Palmer reforms were not intended to reduce the number of removals, but rather to soften the way in which the Department was seen to be achieving its politically determined objectives.

Does this recent history suggest that immigration compliance functions are becoming more police-like? The answer, in part, depends on which model ofpolicing is used as a comparator. Immigration officials interviewed by one of the authors routinely resisted descriptions of their work as ‘policing’ or even ‘enforcement’, preferring instead the bureaucratic language of ‘compliance’ and ‘status resolution’. However, the police-like quality of the powers exercised by immigration compliance officers was clearly apparent to the Palmer Inquiry: DIMIA officers are authorized to exercise exceptional, even extraordinary, powers. That they should be permitted and expected to do so without adequate training, without proper management and oversight, with poor information systems, and with no genuine quality assurance and constraints on the exercise of these powers is of concern. (Palmer 2005: ix) On the other hand, the Inquiry noted an obsession amongst immigration officers with rigid and uncritical adherence to departmental processes. This is a characteristic often associated with a bureaucratic mindset, while police are more usually described as focusing on getting results, rather than the processes that produce them.

Despite these differences in organizational culture, there are some significant respects in which recent changes within the DIAC do mirror developments in contemporary policing, such as the increasing reliance on intelligence-led and risk- based approaches described in the previous section. The DIAC removal machine could perhaps be better characterized in the post-Palmer era as aspiring to be ‘well targeted’ rather than ‘well oiled’. DIAC compliance operations are guided by a priorities matrix that explicitly determines low and high priority categories of work as directed by the Immigration Minister. High risk and mandatory work includes the prevention and detection of systematic immigration fraud, ‘character’ deportations following criminal convictions, and all referrals from police of suspected unlawful non-citizens. These priorities necessitate an ever closer liaison with law- enforcement agencies than previously. Tackling identity fraud has emerged as a particular priority, evidenced by the development of a DIAC Identity Branch, and the building of close connections with CrimTrac—an organization described in the DIAC’s latest annual report as ‘the Australian Government agency established to provide national information sharing to support law enforcement agencies’ (DIAC 2011). By its own admission then, this organizational repositioning places the DIAC compliance function firmly within the domain of law enforcement.

Proposition 2: Police are Getting More Involved in Immigration Enforcement The external border: people-smuggling and the Australian Federal Police

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) have primary responsibility for investigating criminal offences against Commonwealth laws (leaving state crime legislation to respective state police forces). In the mid- to late 1990s the AFP had little or no regard for border policing in relation to irregular border crossing generally or people smuggling specifically. How quickly people-smuggling was constructed as a policing concern for the AFP has ramifications for understanding how police have become more involved in immigration control. The role of the AFP in combating people-smuggling had the intention of deterring and disrupting people from claiming asylum by travelling to Australia by boat. However, its impact on the policing institution is equally far reaching.

The application of Commonwealth law enforcement to the complex area of forced migration significantly altered the way sovereignty/borders and policing/ security featured in the public imagination. The role of the AFP in combating people smuggling had a fourfold effect: the heightened politicization/ideological work of the policing function; an uncontained expansion of policing territory; the development of a symbiotic relationship between people-smugglers and policing agents; and the absorption of federal policing into the security apparatus.

The first impact for policing was the heightened level of ideological work undertaken by the AFP and in turn its increased politicization. The AFP constructed the problem of people-smuggling as a policing problem. This had repercussions for both asylum seekers and the law-enforcement apparatus. This was an important symbolic change for the role of policing in relation to the construction of the state, its borders, and the location and nature of threats. In the mid-1990s people-smuggling rated only a passing mention in official AFP documentation. By 2000 AFP public documentation was replete with references to the criminal threat of people-smuggling, yet at the same time the policing tactics used to respond to the problem became increasingly imprecise in relation to being ‘offshore’ and concerned with ‘disruption’. The ideological importance was clear in the common-sense assumption that arriving by boat in Australia without authorization was a matter of criminality and necessitated police action aimed at prevention (its prosecution proving to be a much thornier and less desirable policing outcome). This omitted considering why people were coming to Australia and the impact of preventing people from claiming asylum under international law. To have done so would require more complex policing engagement with forced migration than simply a deterrence and disruption model.

At the same time the national profile of the AFP was accelerating, especially following 9/11, where they were the lead Australian counterterrorism agency. As a result the Commissioner of the AFP maintained a high public profile, and media interventions were frequently about issues that were crafted as matters of national security (for a detailed discussion, see Pickering 2004). The symbolic import of combating people-smuggling contributed further to the political resources of the federal agency and was most clearly demonstrated in the closeness of the AFP to the federal government in the high octane politics of ‘deciding who should come to Australia and the circumstances in which they come’ (Prime Minister John Howard, 6 December 2001).

Second, the focus on people-smuggling was used to justify a range of imprecise activities that collectively developed an uncontained expansion ofpolicing territory. It required the AFP to operate in geographical spaces beyond Australia where the legislative framework governing their actions was often regarded as partial (Pickering 2004). For example, serious allegations were made that the AFP contracted third parties to undertake disruption activities including disabling asylum seeker boats. The AFP increased their international network of overseas liaison officers as well as other offshore personnel to work in partnership with other agencies—the precise nature and remit of such collaboration constrained to pub- lically unavailable memoranda of understanding.

This fore-grounded the third significant impact on policing: policing entered into what others have described as a symbiotic relationship between people-smugglers and policing agents (Andreas 2000). That is, the policing of people-smuggling became part of an unending series of manoeuvres between smuggling agents and policing agents involving increased police activity, changing tactics by people- smugglers, and escalating risks for those using their services. For example, the use of third parties contracted by the AFP to undertake activities in Indonesia came in for significant media and parliamentary questioning. An Opposition senator alleged that the AFP had contracted an individual known to be involved in the sabotage of boats leaving Indonesia for Australia: ‘At no stage do I want to break or will I break the protocols in relation to operational matters involving ASIS or the AFP, but those protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill’ (Faulkner 2002).

Fourth, the focus on people-smuggling contributed to the absorption of federal policing into the national security apparatus and expanded its resources. Combating people-smuggling was not only a policing problem but was represented by the AFP as a national security problem that required significant material investment: ‘There is no greater imperative, therefore, in ensuring the security and integrity of Australia than to maintain law enforcement on the same plane of importance and relative capability to the nation’s defence forces’ (AFP Annual Report 1998-1999).

  • [1] Migration Policing project, funded by Australian Research Council Discovery Project grantDP0774554, Leanne Weber sole Chief Investigator.
  • [2] Figures include assisted, monitored, and supervised (involuntary) departures; deportations ofpermanent residents due to criminal convictions may not be included.
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