New Commonwealth Ombudsman Report Shows Complaints Have Been Received from Travellers Concerning Customs Officers

( December 8, 2010

New Commonwealth Ombudsman Report Shows Complaints Have Been Received from Travellers Concerning Customs Officers

New Commonwealth Ombudsman Report Shows Complaints Have Been Received from Travellers Concerning Customs Officers

The Commonwealth Ombudsman today reported that complaints have been received from travellers about their experiences with Customs officers, showing individuals often do not know why they’ve been searched, or are left wondering if the officer acted within their power.

‘Sometimes travellers feel that their privacy has been invaded and that their treatment was unfair and unnecessarily intrusive,’ Mr Asher said.

As we approach the busy Christmas holiday season, it is important to remember that strong border protection powers by airport Customs officers need to be used lawfully and reasonably, the Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher said today.

‘These coercive powers allow the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service to question international travellers, search baggage, copy documents and retain items for further examination,’ the Ombudsman said. ‘I would caution that such powers require strong checks and balances to ensure a proper regard for the individual’s circumstances.’

A Customs officer may examine items found in luggage such as diaries, notebooks, laptops, cameras and other electronic storage devices. In some circumstances documents might be copied – for example, mobile phone content may be downloaded.

‘We all understand the importance of Customs’ regulation at airports and the need for Customs officers to question passengers,’ Mr Asher said.

‘However our Customs officers will always need to balance the level of risk against the perceived importance of the information sought. And there remains the need to satisfy relevant legislation and operate under principles of good administration.’

The report describes one case study where a man was questioned about his accommodation in his country of origin, who he lived with, details of their relationship and whether he was married – which did not relate so much to the ‘carriage of prohibited goods’, as to whether his story stood up to the officer’s scrutiny. He complained to the Ombudsman that the questioning had been unduly invasive and personal, and that his reluctance to answer was interpreted by the Customs officer as if he had something to hide, which led to more questioning.

The Ombudsman’s investigation into Customs’ use of coercive powers found that it is generally consistent with principles of good administration but improvement could be made in some areas such as:

  • the relevance of questions asked and documents copied
  • the timeliness of the return of personal possessions after forensic examination
  • record keeping and transparency of administration
  • providing information to the public on passenger processing.

The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service responded positively to the majority of the report’s 10 recommendations and is addressing the issues raised. Mr Asher thanked the Customs service for its responsiveness and efforts and said he would review progress in six months time.

Download the report: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service: Administration of coercive powers in passenger processing–15/2010

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