A friend of mine recently went through customs at Melbourne airport. They were on an incoming flight from Manila, Philippines. At Australian customs they were cavity searched and x-rayed. Their personal belongings (shoes, backpack, suitcase) were taken and cut open. Officers were looking for drugs. They found none.

Now, this is obviously a horrendous experience nobody should have to live, especially if they are innocent and not attempting to smuggle drugs. The questions are: what rights do travellers have when being cavity/strip searched for drugs in Australia? Can one refuse to be searched? What happens if one does? Can one claim any sort of compensation for such a distressful experience? Can one claim compensation for the damaged personal belongings?

Ideally I'd like answers to cover both the case of an Australian citizen, as well as someone traveling on a foreign passport.

  • I would think that when you are entering a foreign country, you can expect to be searched for illegal items without compensation. If you refused to be searched, you could be not allowed past the border. You don't have any rights as you are not in your home country. If you have nothing to hide, then why refuse a search? – Michael Mar 27 '17 at 20:05
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    @MichaelC. I would expect most travelers to not want to be subject to a cavity search or unnecessary x-rays even if they have nothing to hide. – Zach Lipton Mar 27 '17 at 20:14
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    The cancer risk from the X-rays while small is not negligible. Cavity searches are not pleasant. I see plenty of reasons why people would want to avoid both those things whether or not they're smuggling anything. – rhialto Mar 27 '17 at 20:15
  • I agree with both of you, and I've never been cavity searched before (knock on wood). But if it were me, I would just let them do it because I know I have nothing to hide. – Michael Mar 27 '17 at 20:17
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    Officers were looking for drugs Was your friend acting shady or didn't give clear cut answers ? Unless the customs officer was being a dick, I would assume your friend might have provided the reasons to go through with the search. – DumbCoder Mar 28 '17 at 9:45

The Customs Act 1901 grants customs officers fairly extensive powers, and refusal to co-operate is generally taken as probable cause to detain for further investigation. Specifically, while you have the right to say no to invasive searches, X-rays etc by a Customs officer, if you do so, you will be detained and Customs will ask for a judge's authorisation for a medical professional to search you:

Circumstances where a person does not consent to having an internal search conducted, the customs or police officer must obtain an order from a judge, which would allow a medical practitioner to undertake a search.


So you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

And for what it's worth, I've entered Australia many times as both an Aussie and a foreigner, but am not a lawyer and have managed to avoid the rubber glove treatment at the border so far.

  • Does "a judge's authorisation for a medical professional to search you" imply that your consent is no longer required and you will be restrained & searched by whatever means necessary? Or is this more of a case of personal preference where someone might be more likely to consent if the search is conducted be a medical professional? The former would seem to violate all sorts of human-rights principals, while the latter seems a bit pointless. – brhans Mar 27 '17 at 20:23
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    In most countries, if you refuse a cavity search, you're detained with access only to a special toilet with a grill installed over the bowl, to prevent flushing away evidence. So truth will out, so to speak. – lambshaanxy Mar 27 '17 at 21:51
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    Which seems perfectly reasonable - I'm just trying to figure out what 'an order from a judge allowing a medical practitioner to undertake a search' actually means in practice, since a court order is unlikely to change the mindset of the individual in question. – brhans Mar 27 '17 at 22:11
  • Were you ever "offered" the rubber glove treatment? If so how did you avoid it? – JoErNanO Mar 28 '17 at 8:48
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    Also, can one claim compensation for personal items damaged in the process? As well as for the definitely unpleasant experience? – JoErNanO Apr 3 '17 at 16:17

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