Border Force stops to search you at the airport – what are your rights?
21st April 2019
You’re moving through the airport on your way back into the country when you’re stopped by Australian Border Force (ABF).
Your bag, laptop, phone and a few USB sticks are being inspected by officers, but what happens if you refuse to be searched? Can you say no?
Criminology expert Associate Professor Marinella Marmo from Flinders University said Border Force officers had the right and the ability to search all your belongings, electronic or not.
“Any border officer can examine whatever you are carrying, and the expense of such examinations, including the cost of removal to wherever the examination takes place, is borne [sic] by the owner,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane’s Rachel Mealey.
“Any suitcase, device or documentation, including electronic documents such as USB sticks, can be looked at — it’s not just laptops or smartphones.”
Do officers have to say why you’re being searched?
Dr Marmo said the increasing trend in Australia, New Zealand and the United States was that officers did not have to give a reason.
“The range of the rights of a passenger, whether they hold citizenship or not, is diminished, and the range of discretion power of any immigration officer, including ABF, has increased over the past few years,” she said.
“It’s justified by the idea of national security, but they don’t need to articulate the specific need for the search on the spot.”
A statement provided to ABC Radio Brisbane by Australia Border Force said:
“Under Section 186 of the Customs Act 1901, Australian Border Force officers have the power to examine all goods at the border, including electronic documents and photos on mobile phones and other personal electronic devices.
“If an individual refuses to comply with a request for an examination of their electronic device, that device may be held until the ABF is satisfied that the item does not present a risk to the border.”
And if you don’t allow officers to search your luggage?
Under the legislation, it could be considered to be a crime if you don’t allow officers to inspect your belongings, Dr Marmo said.
Also, with laws passed through Federal Parliament last December, belongings could be confiscated for up to 14 days.
“You can be fined or even imprisoned if you put a level of resistance up,” Dr Marmo said.
“They have the authority to take the device from you, whether you give consent or not, and there is always a financial consequence for you too, because you will often miss your flight.”
She said most people allowed the search to happen to avoid any extra stress and worry.
“The pressure of trying to get to your flight or possibly having to buy another ticket and the emotional pressure of your family waiting to come and pick you up can have an impact,” Dr Marmo said.
“Also, the inability to communicate if they remove, say, a phone from you, and the personal stress where you don’t have much choice, can leave people feeling uneasy.
“There is trust when it comes to police and Border Force, but once we go through treatment that we could be like a criminal, it can be hard to reinstate that trust.”
Your stories of airport searches
Callers to ABC Radio Brisbane shared their experiences and offered advice for travelling across borders:
“I’ve had a knee replacement, so they pull me aside every time and I get a female officer to check. Despite the fact my knee always sets off the alarm, even if I have a letter from the doctor, they have to do the search.” — Janet from Labrador
“I’ve been searched several times with the explosive test and tested positive. Generally, it’s been when I’ve been working with explosives on quarry sites. The first time it was unnerving, but I tell them exactly why, and now I make sure if I’m on holidays I don’t take my work bags or shoes.” — Jason from Brisbane
“Don’t pat the customs dogs. A guy I know patted the beagle as it trotted past, and then it made the customs officer suspicious and my mate ended up getting carted off for a full-body search.” — Patrick from Mooloolaba
“We went to Norway to see our daughter, and when we got back to Brisbane, I got asked to step to one side. They wanted to know what the irregular things were in my suitcase. It was all the little shampoos and conditioners that I saved to bring back for my grandchildren and they were all different shapes.” — Claire from Brisbane
“We were going to Tassie and we knew it was going to be cold, so we had a big thermos in our suitcase to make cups of tea. They thought it could be something destructive but we told them why and we got to keep it.” — Bev from Woolloongabba
There are a number of items that are not allowed back into Australia, so it’s worthwhile consulting the Australia Border Force checklist.