On Friday afternoon, just hours before Operation Fortitude was set to commence in central Melbourne, Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton called off the plans for a wide-scale police initiative.
Demonstrators protesting against planned border protection raids stop traffic outside Flinders Street Station on Friday. Photo: Joe Armao
Operation Fortitude was first announced by the Department of Immigration on Friday morning. A press release said officers from the federal government’s new Australian Border Force agency would be stationed around Melbourne’s city checking “any individual we cross paths with”.
The press release sparked a fierce backlash on social media and later in protests that shut down one of the city’s busiest intersections, over concerns that police and Border Force officers would use racial profiling to stop and search people for possible immigration fraud.
Human rights advocates said the operation raised fears of police using racial profiling to justify stopping people and that it risked a “militarisation” of the immigration system.
“If you commit visa fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught out,” the initial Border Force statement said.
Around the same time, Victoria Police issued a statement expressing its support for the operation, which was also set to involve transport inspectors, the Sheriff’s office and the Taxi Directorate.
Officers from the ABF and Victoria police had planned a press conference at 2pm Friday outside Flinders Street train station to talk about Operation Fortitude but about 300 protesters gathered at the Station shortly before 2pm. The protesters then took over the middle of the intersection, banking up trams and causing chaos among the traffic. The protesters held up placards and chanted “border force off our streets”
The press conference was cancelled due to ‘security concerns’ and the entire operation cancelled just half an hour later..
Border Force was established in July and reflects the federal government’s tougher line on national security. It combined Customs and Immigration functions into one unit. This week the agency attracted attention over the rollout of its new branding, including uniforms, which reportedly cost $10 million.
Border Force officers have more powers than former department officials, including the power to detain offenders, carry guns, and gather intelligence. They can enforce migration laws, including the power to compel a person to produce documents such as visas and tax file numbers to check whether they are an unlawful non-citizen.