Australia’s Border Force

Australia’s Border Force


CMDR. William ries/Operational strategies branch, border management division, Australian Border Force

The island nation of Australia has one of the largest and most challenging border environments in the world. The border includes 36,000 kilometers of coastline, nine major international airports, more than 60 international seaports and an offshore exclusive economic zone covering 10 million square kilometers of ocean. Protecting the Australian border is a demanding task. The range, complexity and severity of threats to the border have evolved in recent years and include people smuggling, illicit drugs, multinational serious and organized crime syndicates, visa and immigration fraud, the exploitation of foreign workers, human trafficking, terrorism, foreign fighters as well as significant increases in trade and traveler movements across Australia’s border.

Australia’s approach to border protection changed in 2015. The government integrated the existing Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the former Australian Customs and Border Protection Service into a new agency called the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. The Australian Border Force (ABF) — the operational arm of the new department — began work on July 1, 2015. As Australia’s leading law enforcement border agency, the ABF is responsible for all border and front-line operations across Australia’s airports and seaports, and land and maritime domains.

The integration of the two agencies brought together two long and complementary lineages with a proud history of protecting and managing Australia’s border, according to ABF’s William Ries, commander of operational strategies.

Creating a new department and establishing the ABF provided an opportunity to better tackle the challenges facing Australia’s border — including much greater volumes of trade and travel, and increasingly sophisticated domestic and transnational organized crime networks.

Establishment of the ABF has provided significant gains and efficiencies, yet the evolution of Australia’s border security arrangements continues. In July 2017, the Australian government announced the most significant reforms to the nation’s domestic security arrangements in 40 years — the establishment of a Home Affairs portfolio.

The new Home Affairs portfolio will be similar to the Home Office of the United Kingdom: a central department providing strategic planning, coordination and other support to a “federation” of independent security and law enforcement agencies. These agencies include the ABF, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, Australian Federal Police, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, and Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre.

The rationale behind the creation of the Home Affairs portfolio is clear. Australia’s security environment is rapidly changing and far more complex than it was a decade ago. The changes are about ensuring our security arrangements are fit for challenges facing us today and into the future.

While this is a new construct for Australia, it is not a reflection that operational connectivity isn’t working well among agencies; rather it is about moving forward. We can’t afford to sit still and rest on our successes. We must continue to evolve.

Core mission

The ABF’s mission is protecting Australia’s border. Managing the movement of people and goods across it remains central to our role as Australia’s customs service. The ABF has complementary imperatives including facilitation and enforcement. The ABF helps promote and advance Australia’s economic prosperity and social cohesion by facilitating trade, travel and migration by providing a less intrusive, more seamless and faster process for the bulk of travelers and traders — the legitimate, law-abiding majority. To complement this activity, the ABF supports our national security by undertaking enforcement and compliance activities to target and intercept illegal and criminal behavior to protect the Australian community.

Facilitation and enforcement are complementary roles. You can’t have one without the other. If we solely focus on facilitation without the enforcement function, then we leave our borders vulnerable. However, if we simply focus on enforcement activities without the facilitation function, then the movement of people and commodities across the border shuts down, which would be detrimental to both our economy and community. The facilitation and enforcement functions work hand in hand.

Through our enforcement duties we know who and what is entering or exiting Australia. We know the credentials of goods and people moving across the border, and we can effectively manage them in an orderly and secure fashion. Strong borders promote more open global economic linkages, social cohesion and trust.

Working ahead of the border

The Australian border, a strategic national asset fundamental to national security and economic prosperity, is no longer considered a purely physical barrier that separates nation states. Rather, it is considered a complex continuum that enables and controls the flow of people and the movement of goods through dynamic supply chains. This continuum stretches onshore and offshore, and includes overseas, maritime, physical and domestic dimensions. Treating the border as a continuum allows an integrated, layered approach to providing border management in depth — working ahead of and behind the border, as well as at the border, to manage threats and take advantage of opportunities.

The ABF applies an intelligence-led model and unites with domestic agencies and international partners across the border continuum to deliver effective border control over who and what has the right to enter or exit and under what conditions.

The ABF’s relationships with our domestic and international counterparts and partners are so critical that we could not do our job without them. We will continue to work side by side with our international partners to maintain a global border protection community that is resilient to the trials ahead.

Operational footprint

The ABF is a 5,500-strong operational workforce. ABF officers are operationally focused, uniformed, professional and disciplined, responsible for protecting the border across Australia’s airports, seaports, remote locations, mail and cargo centers, and Australia’s maritime domain. Officers are based across Australia and internationally in 52 locations.

The ABF plays an integral role in preventing dangerous, illicit drugs and contraband from entering Australia by using a range of powers and capabilities. These include air and maritime surveillance, highly sophisticated detection technologies such as X-ray, substance and trace detection, internal body scanners, detector dogs and more. ABF officers exercise powers under the Maritime Powers Act 2013, the Customs Act 1901, the Migration Act 1958 and the Australian Border Force Act 2015.

Australian Border Force officers display liquid methamphetamines disguised in various packaging at the Australian Federal Police headquarters in Sydney in February 2016. [REUTERS]

The ABF’s operational footprint is immense. Each week on average during 2016-2017 ABF officers cleared 774,855 air passengers, 55,621 arrivals by sea, 705 ships and 99,090 import and export entries. ABF officers surveilled 3 million square nautical miles. Forty-three detector dog teams were deployed. ABF officers collected AUS $260 million (U.S. $207 million) in revenue. ABF officers detected and seized 845 drug imports. Over 1,600 20-foot equivalent units, 38,629 air cargo and 1.1 million mail items were inspected. ABF officers managed 157 people taken into immigration detection, 134 people released or removed from detention and 147 assisted or monitored returns from the community. ABF officers located 305 unlawful noncitizens and 44 illegal workers as well as issued 151,726 permanent and temporary visas on a weekly basis.

If I were to characterize the border environment in one word, it would be in ‘volumes.’ The volumes of people and goods crossing our border continues to grow exponentially.

The ABF is working hard to meet the border challenges through intelligence, innovation and technology. The ABF is transforming and modernizing its systems, policies and programs to manage the issues of an evolving and complex border environment. Technology and automation offer a range of new tools to secure the borders and provide faster and more streamlined processing of legitimate law-abiding travelers and traders. Over the past two years, Departure SmartGates, an electronic border control system, has been introduced into international airports around Australia to allow passengers to self-process as they leave the country. In 2016, more than 14.6 million passengers used SmartGates to leave the country –– an average of more than 40,000 people each day.

State-of-the-art biometric systems are also being introduced to ensure the ongoing integrity of our visa and migration programs, enhance existing automation measures, and further increase the speed and efficiency of border processing. ABF is investing in mobile and digital technologies to enhance compliance and detection arrangements.

In relation to trade, ABF is implementing measures to manage the increasing volume of goods while managing the threats through programs such as the Australian Trusted Trader (ATT), the equivalent of the authorized economic operator schemes in operation elsewhere in the region. Launched in 2016, ATT has streamlined trade for accredited traders and increased efficiency without compromising supply chain security. Australia has 74 fully accredited ongoing “trusted traders” under the program and intends to increase that number significantly in the coming years.

Australia is moving toward a seamless border where the majority of legitimate migrants, travelers and traders can move easily and effortlessly across the border without interference or unnecessary delay, where we can readily detect transgression and noncompliance, and focus our attention and intervention efforts on those noncompliant few.

Border force achievements

In cooperation with domestic and international partners, the ABF has, during the past two years, detected more than 12 tons of major illicit drugs and precursors, 270 million individual cigarettes, more than 220 tons of illicit tobacco and more than 3,460 firearms and firearm parts and accessories at the border. In the same period, the ABF has processed more than 84 million air and sea travelers and crew, received and risk assessed more than 77 million air cargo consignments, 6 million sea cargo consignments and inspected more than 115 million international mail items.

The ABF has achieved a lot in the past two years. We’ve established a new border law enforcement agency, integrated two separate cultures into one body and that work continues. We are looking at internal capability and capacity changes as well as preparing for the move to the Home Affairs portfolio. While this important work is going on, our officers have been delivering on the government priorities at the border. This has been an enormous task, one of which our officers should be immensely proud of.

In preparing for the move to the Home Affairs portfolio, the ABF will continue to build on our capabilities to better fulfill our mission: to protect Australia’s border and manage the movement of people and goods across it.

Our dedication to this mission will not change under the Home Affairs portfolio. The ABF will remain Australia’s customs service and frontline border protection agency operating in an enhanced security environment.

Australian Border Force weekly operations on average 2016-2017


  • 744,855 air passengers
  • 55,621 arrivals by sea
  • 705 ship arrivals and departures
  • 99,090 import and export entries


  • 43 detector dog teams across Australia

Detected & seized

  • 845 drug imports


  • 157 people taken into onshore immigration detection 
  • 134 people removed from detention 
  • 147 assisted or monitored returns from the community


  • 3 million square nautical miles


  • AUS $260 million in revenue


  • Over 1,600 20-foot equivalent units
  • 38,629 air cargo items
  • 1.1 million mail items


  • 305 unlawful noncitizens 
  • 44 illegal workers 

Source: Australian Border Force