A major policing operation to patrol Melbourne’s CBD for visa cheats this weekend has been cancelled after a snap protest organised through social media brought it down.
Earlier on Friday, the Australian Border Force (ABF) said it would be checking people’s visas during the weekend, as part of multi-agency Operation Fortitude, led by Victoria Police.
The ABF’s regional commander for Victoria and Tasmania, Don Smith, was quoted in a statement saying officers would be positioned across the city and would speak to “anyone we cross paths with”.
But by Friday afternoon, city commuters at Flinders Street Station were stopped in their tracks, when more than 200 protesters carrying placards and shouting slogans rallied against the controversial move.
Opponents said the operation would amount to racial profiling, with people of non-European appearance being unfairly targeted.
The protesters shouted slogans, describing the ABF as “Nazi Gestapo” officers and chanting “no to racism, no to hate, this is not a police state”.
The group attempted to shut down the busy Melbourne intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets, halting about 20 trams.
Victoria Police were forced to cancel a press conference to discuss the operation due to the protests.
Later that day they announced the cancellation of the entire operation to cap off a shambolic day for law enforcement agencies.
— Tammy Mills (@TammyMills1) August 28, 2015
“Victoria Police has made a decision not to go ahead with this weekend’s Operation Fortitude,” the statement read.
“We understand there has been a high level of community interest and concern which has been taken into consideration when making this decision.
“Victoria Police’s priority is the safety and wellbeing of the whole community and we will continue to work with our partner agencies to achieve this.”
The ABF issued a clarification on Friday afternoon which said the body “does not and will not stop people at random in the streets and does not target on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity”.
‘Clumsy’ press release gets the blame
ABF Commissioner, Roman Quaedvlieg, said their role in Operation Fortitude was misunderstood in the Victoria Police-led operation.
“There was never any intent for the Australian Border Force to proactively go out and seek immigration breeches in Melbourne’s city,” Mr Quaedvlieg said.
“The Australian Border Force is a secondary support assist to the operation, it always was and still is into the future.
“In terms of immigration compliance the Australian Border Force will stand by to receive referrals from the Victoria Police where there are any immigration compliance issues to be dealt with.”
When questioned about the press release issued by the ABF stating officers would be in any locations across Melbourne’s CBD speaking to “anyone we would cross paths with”, Mr Quaedvlieg said the quote came from a press release that was “clumsily worded” and “cleared by someone in a low level of the organisation”.
“It portrayed a role that was not the role between ourselves and Victoria Police, and internal measures have been taken to remediate the issue,” he said.
The public relations blunder prompted federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie to compare Prime Minister Tony Abbott to former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, although Mr Quaedvlieg said there was no political involvement in the process.
“Joseph Stalin would be proud of Tony Abbott,” Mr Wilkie said in a statement.
“Just as East Germany’s Stasi would be delighted with the Australian Border Force — why, even [Chilean dictator] General Pinochet would be impressed.
“The decision by the Federal Government to cancel this weekend’s security operation in Melbourne is a welcome respite, for now at least, but the government has shown its hand by planning the operation in the first place.”
The friendly city?
Earlier on Friday, Greens MP for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, said the checks could threaten the city’s reputation as welcoming.
“How will the Border Force distinguish between locals, visitors and visa holders?” he said.
“Will every person in Melbourne now be asked to show their papers as they move about the city? Or will they only be stopping people with certain skin colours?”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten questioned the prior publicity of the operation.
“I do hope that any of these actions are done to try and protect Australian laws, to make sure that people are not overstaying their visas, to make sure that temporary guest workers are not being exploited,” Mr Shorten said.
The Victorian Government also backed the decision to call the operation off and issued a statement that read: “We fully support the decision by Victoria Police to cancel the operation after the unfortunate and inappropriate characterisation by the Australian Border Force today.”
Under the Migration Act, an officer may require a person who the officer knows or reasonably suspects is a non-citizen to show their ID or their proof of citizenship or visa.
– reporting with Emma Manser, Rose Donohoe, Gigi Silk and agencies.