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Border Force warned over ‘unlawful’ and ‘inappropriate’ airport searches

Immigration secretary Michael Pezzullo took aim at the “unworldly” audit office after another critical report. Photo: Andrew MearesThe n Border Force has been warned over illegal body searches of passengers at international airports in a report that found immigration officers routinely lacked adequate guidance about their powers.

A critical report by the Commonwealth auditor accused the Border Force of failing to “adequately address the risk of officers exercising coercive powers unlawfully or inappropriately”, despite making improvements.

Immigration boss Michael Pezzullo conceded to “a number of administrative deficiencies” within his department but shot back at the National Audit Office over “loose terminology” and findings he called “unworldly”.

It was the third ANAO report critical of the department’s internal procedures, and found the Border Force had failed to adequately instruct and educate officers who exercise intrusive powers, such as body searches.

Among 69 airport searches examined by the auditor, 20 involved at least one uncertified officer, “meaning these were inappropriate searches”. Another five were illegal, because the detaining officer was unauthorised.

The ANAO also examined 50 search warrants exercised by the Border Force, of which nearly half were used as authorisation for multiple searches – contradicting guidelines set by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Appearing before Senate Estimates on Monday, Mr Pezzullo acknowledged “administrative deficiencies” in the department, including a dearth of appropriate records for millions of dollars in payments made to contractors on Manus Island and Nauru.

He said it was “easy” to accede to the ANAO’s “bland” recommendations, but took aim at the auditor for its “loose” use of terms such as “coercive powers”. “Regrettably it’s becoming a bit of a recurring pattern with the audit office,” Mr Pezzullo said.

The immigration boss also expressed confidence in the Turnbull government’s US refugee deal. He said the US stood “poised and ready” to commence vetting refugees, pending the receipt of a review into “extreme vetting” due to be handed to President Donald Trump on Monday.

“We have a close understanding of what their security arrangements are and what they’re likely to be,” Mr Pezzullo said. n agencies were in “frequent dialogue” with the US Department of Homeland Security and were providing information that could “expedite” the vetting process, he said.

Mr Pezzullo stopped short of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s indication in a Sky News interview that resettlement would likely commence “in a couple of months”. Instead he said he expected “movement” within “the next several months”.

It was “nonsensical” to suggest the deal had stalled, Mr Pezzullo said.

Stressing that ‘s agreement to take Central American refugees from a camp in Costa Rica constituted a “separate agreement” and not a “people swap”, the department revealed the Costa Rica camp had a maximum capacity of 200 people – suggesting a much smaller intake than the 1250 people the US has conditionally agreed to accept.

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