Recutting our perspective of border security
14 Aug 2015|
Change of view

Australia’s public policy debate on irregular migration and border security has become bogged down in a polarised ideological war characterised by poisonous politics. This ideological war has done little to innovate border security migration policies and has only portrayed border security strategies, policies and programs in a mono-dimensional way. Arguably, the public debate far too often devolves into the demonisation of the bureaucrats involved in policy implementation.

From the outset, reducing the concept of border security to a discussion of balancing between securing or not securing national borders from irregular migration is overly simplistic. The balancing metaphor in border security suggests that this policy debate involves a zero-sum game, where increased security measures will reduce the risk of negative consequences.

Balancing increased security measures vs decreased threat

In a balancing approach to irregular migration, the wicked problem of border security is reduced to a single dimension. On one side is the free movement of irregular migrants. On the other is a simplified construction of border security as an absolute end-state—the border is secured. But this should prompt questions like ‘what does a secure border look like?’ and ‘is this achievable?’

Free movement of irregular migrants vs fully secured border

In countries like Australia, border transactions are so frequent that every border transaction can’t be checked for compliance. Given the interconnected nature of economies, slowing or cessation of border transactions could well be catastrophic for all concerned.

Border security may be more akin to an aspirational goal rather than an end-state. If it is aspirational in nature, the border security challenge could then be recast into what level of border security risk governments should accept, or alternatively, what risk should be mitigated. The current border security paradigm limits the opportunities for policymakers to develop innovative strategies.

There already appears to be an informal policy in Canberra that irregular maritime arrivals are a much higher border security priority than visa over-stayers. How did we arrive at this policy? Perhaps such assumptions need to be subject to a more rigorous public debate.

The metaphors in public policy dialogues use a flawed conception of the border security system. Some members of the public assume that the ‘border security’ is delivered by a single integrated, agile system. But this simplified construction doesn’t do justice to the policy challenge of integrating large-scale distributed homogenous systems from across departments, sectors and countries into an entity.

In September 2013, following the Australian federal election, the Abbott Government established Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) to deliver on the election promise to stop irregular maritime arrivals. The ‘zero tolerance’ program involved discouraging irregular migration, offshore disruption of people smuggling ventures, turning back of irregular maritime arrival vessels, and offshore detention and visa processing.

OSB was established as a joint agency task force comprising of three task focussed groups. All of component parts of the OSB policy implementation pre-existed the taskforce arrangements. Rather than addressing the ‘system of systems’ border security challenge, a taskforce approach was used to address the problem but with a traditional hierarchical organisational design.

OSB contributed to ‘stopping the boats’. OSB’s military commander used directive control as a short term solution to the larger problem of how to integrate inter and intra-departmental strategies. I can’t help but think that there are other more permanent solutions to the problem of integrating all of the different processes, systems and strategies involved in delivering Australia’s border security.

Traditional military thinking argues that in defensive operations the system of defence has layers of security measures. In this construct, the attacker is delayed and withered through the various layers. In the OSB case this is seen through disruption work offshore, boat turnarounds at the border, and mandatory detention and returns after the border.

In contrast to the depth approach, the overall level of security can be enhanced beyond the layered effect by the integration of all of the various efforts into a single system. By improving the integration of all of the component strategies, policies and systems a greater degree of border security can be assured.

Border security involves substantially more than building bigger or better security measures. Border security involves an array of activities focussed on facilitation, revenue collection, regulation, control—all related to the seamless movement of people and goods across borders. This policy challenge involves more than the management of a complex system. Rather, border security involves networks of systems that have operational and managerial independence. The systems involved have not been developed as a system but rather have evolved and been integrated over time, which presents additional challenges.

The policy challenge for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in this ‘system of systems’ environment is linking and integrating the various systems so that the whole is more than its parts. The first step in addressing this challenge could involve focussing on managing risks and creating opportunities as opposed to mandatory detention and boat turn-backs. Through this lens, border security strategists could fine-tune the various systems within the system to achieve integrated strategic outcomes. But implementing such an approach will be no easy task. It will require border security strategists to develop a detailed understanding of the various systems involved but also the way in which they do and don’t interact.