The Australian Border Force (ABF), a controversial body set up by Australia's conservative government, was forced to cancel its plans to spend the weekend checking the visas of individuals walking around Melbourne's CBD.
The ABF announced Friday morning that its officers would be stopping people from the city's main train station at Flinders Street, right down Swanston Street, which is Melbourne's busiest thoroughfare. Dubbed "Operation Fortitude," this was to be a combined effort between ABP officers, employees with Metro Trains, Yarra Trams, the Sheriff's Office, and the Taxi Services Commission. Details on the operation were hazy—other than it was to begin 2 PM Friday and extend through to Saturday evening.
"You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa," wrote the ABF Regional Commander of Victoria and Tasmania, Don Smith, in a statement. "If you commit visa fraud you should know it's only a matter of time before you're caught out."
Predictably, the operation was immediately slammed across social media, and an impromptu rally was organized at Flinders Street Station.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who recently backed harsher border protection policies, agreed the operation seemed mislead. "The border is not at the banks of the Yarra River or Swanston Street," he said. "I thought it was a joke but it was serious."
The Community and Public Sector Union also opposed the operation, citing public backlash as a potential threat to its members. "We have been contacted by Border Force members deeply concerned about the way their work has been politicized raising safety concerns about the public reaction," CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood wrote in a statement. "While Border Force staff have been involved in these types of operations before, they have never been publicized in this way."
Concerns such as these saw the operation cancelled shortly before a ABF conference was scheduled at 3 PM. The Victoria Police police then released this statement on Facebook:
Victorian Police has made a decision not to go ahead with this weekend's Operation Fortitude. 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.
While the nature of the operation seemed to be the source of concern across Twitter, the ABF blamed the wording of the morning's media release for the backlash.
In a press conference held in Canberra, ABF Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg, described the release as "clumsily worded" and said it failed to communicate what they were trying to achieve. "It is an unfortunate incident," he said. "It shouldn't have occurred. Remediation will be put into place but it's not a fatal embarrassment."
This announcement was met with jubilance across social media, but it's still unclear what exactly the ABP were hoping to achieve.
The ABF was formed in July of this year, merging customs and immigration and giving its officers the power to carry guns, gather intelligence, and detain suspects. However, as reported in the Guardian, under the crimes act of 1958, police can't normally request to see identification unless they believe an individual has committed a crime. Unfortunately for Operation Fortitude, this extends to papers proving visa status.