WA hard border: police ‘exploiting the privacy’ of travellers in emergency situations

Reports some travellers have had to publicly reveal details of mental health and family violence spark calls for better protections

perth airport sign and planes in the background




Civil Liberties Australia head Bill Rowlings says WA police should change their approach after reports they had asked travellers at the state’s hard border to openly reveal personal information.
Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

The privacy of people arriving at Western Australia’s hard border needs to be better protected, the head of Civil Liberties Australia has said, amid reports that travellers in emergency situations have been required to detail their personal circumstances, including mental health and family violence, in front of other travellers.

Under WA’s border requirements, domestic travellers must apply for an exemption to enter the state prior to departure, and exemptions are only granted under limited circumstances.

As part of the application, documents providing proof of the exemption reason and quarantine arrangements must be supplied to police. Those approved entry must undergo a Covid-19 test at the airport upon arrival and a second test at an approved hospital on day 11 of a 14-day quarantine period. Incoming travellers are also subject to questioning at the airport by police.

A doctor returning to Western Australia after caring for an unwell relative in Adelaide told Guardian Australia that when she returned to Perth, she was concerned to see police “exploiting the privacy” of travellers questioned at the airport.

“A solo mother with a toddler was asked to explain why she was entering WA, and this mother then had to explain in detail that she was escaping a domestic violence situation,” she said.

“Another mother with a small baby was also asked to explain why she was entering WA. She responded [that] she suffers from mental health concerns and had needed family support in Adelaide.

“All of this was not done confidentially, it was done within earshot of all the other people waiting to be processed. The absolute disregard these WA police officers had was awful to witness and they clearly were not concerned about exploiting the privacy of these women’s situations and their dignity.”

She said such questioning would not be acceptable in medicine.

“I am a doctor at a tertiary hospital in Perth,” she said. “Questioning people in the open about physical and emotional health issues is protected by doctor patient privilege in the medical world, so it is extremely concerning to witness the WA police officers involved flout this basic human right.”

The chief executive of Civil Liberties Australia, Bill Rowlings, said WA police needed to change their approach, given people had already supplied their documentary proof before travelling to the state.

“Police obviously have to do a lot better at airport screening to protect people’s privacy, which is a clear responsibility under WA law,” Rowlings said.

“They must do that as soon as physically possible, and immediately also change their approach to treat innocent travellers with respect and dignity. People – mums, dads, kids – are already traumatised when travelling in emergency situations during Covid-19 restrictions. WA police and authorities everywhere should bend over backwards to not make their trauma worse.”

But he also added that many “white, middle-class people are now experiencing what happens to lower class and other Australians all the time, when they are forced to interact with police and authorities who are in a dominant power position over them”.

“It’s the police disrespect that Aboriginal people complain about all the time, for example, or that refugees experience at the hands of home affairs,” he said.

However, prominent Perth lawyer Thomas Percy QC, who has previously been awarded the WA Civil Justice Award by the Australian Lawyers Alliance, said the reality of the pandemic needed to be taken into account.

“The reality is that WA has a hard border,” he said.

“The implementation of that will require some hardship for anyone involved in emergency interstate transfers. While these may be conducted in less than ideal circumstances, there’s probably not much that can be done.

“I don’t think the courts would be overly receptive to complaints about unfortunate border control situations that have arisen, unless they were extreme and improperly motivated. The relevant legislation is activated by emergency powers, similar to wartime emergency measures.”

A WA police force spokesman said although travellers may have received pre-approval prior to travel, their arrival at one of the border entry points required a final assessment of their reason for travel.

“These measures have been implemented to ensure the safety of the wider community and to help limit the spread of Covid,” he said.

“At all times, officers attempt to communicate with passengers in an empathetic and understanding way as best they can within the environment.”

Do you know more? melissa.davey@theguardian.com