27/01/2016 5:06 AM AEDT | Updated 28/09/2016 9:56 PM AEST

Does Racial Profiling Exist In Australia?

Editable vector silhouettes of a queue of people at an immigration desk with all figures and luggage as separate objects
AdrianHillman via Getty Images
Editable vector silhouettes of a queue of people at an immigration desk with all figures and luggage as separate objects

It's a truism that, regardless of your position on the issue, writing about racial profiling and law enforcement is controversial. One colleague recently went so far as to describe it to me as career suicide. The argument is that the discussion of racial profiling by border agencies is too burdened with emotion for a rational public policy debate.

But it's the very fact that racial profiling is an emotional topic which drives the need for more informed public debate and dialogue on its application in border security: rich pickings for any think tank.

Recently, New South Wales Greens Member of Parliament Mehreen Faruqi and her husband were entering the US through Los Angeles Airport. Unlike other passengers on the flight, Faruqi, a Pakistani-born Australian, and her husband were questioned for almost an hour about their previous travel and how they obtained their Australian passports. While US authorities allege that Ms Faruqi was selected for additional processing on the basis of random selection, the facts at hand point to something different.

Following this incident, I was asked in a radio interview by Australian journalist Connie Agius whether the Australian Border Force (ABF) uses racial profiling. A simple enough question, but the answer isn't so straightforward.

Most people would agree that 'racial profiling' relates to the targeting of an individual, by authorities, based solely on their personal characteristics: race, ethnicity, national origin and religion. I would extend this definition to say that any targeting that involves any assumptions about connections between deviant behaviour and race should be considered racial profiling.

To be clear, I believe it's erroneous to make assessments of the security or criminality risks posed by an individual based solely on race or ethnicity.

Arguably, it's not racial profiling when border agencies use personal characteristics in a subject description or in connection with a specific investigation. I would caveat that, for this to be defensible, there must be reliable information that links a person of a particular race, ethnicity, national origin or religion to a specific incident, scheme or organisation.

The point where it gets difficult is defining the grey zone of what a specific scheme or organisation is. Failure to persuasively make such a case could conceivably be judged as a form of racial discrimination, where a person has been treated less favourably on the basis of their race.

In a number of countries, race and ethnicity are likely to be a substantial consideration for border agencies assessing a traveller's security risk at borders. And in some foreign agencies, it's likely that race and ethnicity are defining factors for the selection of travellers for additional inquiries. These are bleak and divisive statements that fortunately don't hold true at Australia's international borders.

Regardless, for some of Australia's international travellers, being subjected to additional inquiries based on their race or ethnicity is not a hypothetical discussion of security, but a confronting and divisive reality.

Although the public face of the border screening process of various countries looks similar, there are great variations in the philosophical underpinnings and strategy for border management. The more traditional approach, as seen in the UK and US, is focused on the careful processing and assessment of each individual traveller to identify those that might pose a risk of deviant behaviour.

Unfortunately, for fear of creating a 'how-to guide' for criminals and terrorists, border security agencies in countries such as Australia and Canada decline to provide further details of their targeting frameworks.

But the ABF does acknowledge that it uses groupings of behaviours and traveller characteristics to create profiles of high-risk travellers before and at our border. The purpose of these frameworks is to allow the allocation of ABF resources to the targeted management of specific national security and crime risks: not particular passenger groups.

The value of such an approach is best illustrated with an example. Each year, vulnerable young women are brought to Australia on fraudulently obtained student visas to participate in the sex industry. A large percentage of these young women are from Thailand. If you were trying to target this visa fraud you might undertake additional reviews of student visa applications from Thai women under 30 years of age.

So to answer Connie Agius, I would argue that racial profiling does not occur in Australia. But, this does not necessarily mean that our targeting frameworks could not at times become discriminatory in nature. This is simply a necessary strategy of risk management in a high-volume threat landscape.

For this reason alone, the ABF and Department of Immigration and Border Protection's risk management profiles should be continuously reviewed. Public disclosure of targeting and risk management models isn't possible for reasons of national security. But there is possibly room for these profiles to be periodically subjected to external review by entities such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.