2013/13: Is the Opposition's 'Operation Sovereign Borders' an appropriate response to asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat?
What they said...
'Why...does wealthy and "empty" Australia worry so much about a few thousand hapless refugees who pass through Indonesia on the way here?'
Hal Hill, Professor of Southeast Asian Economies, Australian National University
'I would... politely explain to the Indonesian government that we take as dim a view of Indonesian boats disgorging illegal arrivals in Australia as they take of Australians importing drugs into Bali'
Tony Abbott, Opposition leader
The issue at a glance
On July 25, 2013, the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, announced that if elected to government, his party would put a three-star commander in charge of a military-led border protection campaign. The policy re-alignment of border security management is part of a broader strategy titled 'Operation Sovereign Borders'.
The 12 agencies involved in border protection would be placed under one command. Mr Abbott said the new structure would provide a unified chain-of-command, with the three-star commander reporting directly to the immigration minister. He declared the recent increase in asylum-seekers arriving by boat a ''national emergency''.
Critics of the proposed arrangement have condemned it as an over-reaction and an unnecessary militarisation of what is not a security threat. Supporters of the policy claim it is no more than a realistic reaction to the current situation and an extension of the successful policies adopted by the Howard Government.
1. Asylum seeker
'Asylum' is refuge or protection. An 'asylum seeker' is an immigrant from another country seeking refuge from persecution within his or her own country. An asylum seeker has to be formally assessed before he or she can be judged a 'refugee'. If the country to which the asylum seeker has come decides he or she is a 'refugee', that person will be given a visa that will allow them to remain legally in the host country for a certain period of time.
Currently, Asylum seekers in Australia are held in detention centres while their claims to be refugees are processed. This is referred to as 'mandatory detention'.
The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention gives a definition of refugee that forms the basis of most national definitions. Australia is a signatory to this Convention.
The Convention states that a refugee is someone who 'owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, ... is unable or ... unwilling to avail himself of the protection of [his or her native] country ...'
The Convention outlines how someone judged a refugee is to be treated within a host country.
Included in this list of appropriate treatments is that the host country, referred to, as the 'Contracting State' will 'facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees'. Thus, a refugee is entitled to become a permanent citizen of his or her host country and is to be helped to do so.
The host country is also expected to make available to refugees 'the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance as is accorded to ... nationals'. Thus the same welfare assistance is to be offered to refugees as to other citizens of the host country.
3. Illegal immigrant
Most of the estimated 60,000 illegal immigrants in Australia are not asylum seekers hoping to be judged as refugees. Most illegal immigrants arrive by air and overstay their visas.
They are generally tourists, students or people granted temporary-residence permits. They do not get much media attention and the Government does not appear to consider them a serious threat, though recently legislation has been passed compelling employers to be more scrupulous about determining the legal resident status of those they employ.
It is debatable whether unauthorised asylum seekers arriving in Australia should be termed 'illegal immigrants'.
The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention states that host countries 'shall not impose penalties ... on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened ... enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.'
Those who would have 'asylum seekers' termed 'illegal immigrants' tend to stress the 'coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened' component of the Refugee Convention and claim that many asylum seekers have already stopped at at least one other country before seeking to come to Australia.
Asylum seekers are in a transitional state. If their applications for refugee status are accepted then they are entitled to remain within their host country under the terms that country stipulates. (As outlined by the United Nations Refugee Convention this would be on equal terms to the nationals of that country.)
Only if they are rejected as refugees do they unequivocally become illegal immigrants.
The Gillard government's asylum seeker policies
Deaths at sea among asylum seekers and ongoing boat arrivals lead to a major Parliamentary debate on the issue in June, 2012.
The Gillard government then convened the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, chaired by Angus Houston, a retired senior commander of the Royal Australian Air Force and former Chief of the Defence Force, to consider further options.
The Houston Review found that 'onshore processing encourages people to jump into boats'.
In response to one of the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers the Gillard government has adopted what it terms the "no advantage" principle. This means that it has sought to put into place provisions that would discourage asylum seekers from attempting to come to Australia by boat.
The aim is to create circumstances which would give refugees who arrive in Australia by boat no effective advantage over those who stay in refugee camps or other depots and apply to come to Australia from there.
In implementing the "no advantage" principle, Australia has
a) re-opened offshore detention facilities on Nauru and begun negotiations to open similar facilities on Manus Island;
b) had mainland Australia excised from Australia's migration zone so that any asylum seeker who reaches the mainland can be transferred to an offshore facility and processed there, with no set period for the detention;
c) had asylum seekers judged to be refugees still have to wait several years before being given permanent protection visas to make their situation more comparable to that of those waiting in camps in other countries (these people would be given a pension but no work rights);
d) increased the annual refugee quota from 13,750 to 20,000, with priority places to be made available to those who apply from outside Australia.
Previous mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia
Mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia was established by the Keating Government in 1992. Mandatory detention was introduced to 'support the integrity of Australia's immigration program' and 'management of Australian borders' and to distinguish between those who asylum seekers who have applied for entry to Australia prior to arrival (often from a refugee camp) and those who have attempted to come directly to Australia before applying for asylum.
Under the policy, asylum seekers are mandatorily detained while they 'undergo an assessment process, including security and health checking, to establish if they have a legitimate reason for staying in Australia'.
The 'Pacific Solution', 'Operation Relex' and 'Operation Resolute'
Controls on unauthorised arrivals were tightened under the Howard Government in 2001, as part of its so-called 'Pacific Solution' policy, which saw the excision of a number of Australian island territories from Australia's migration zone.
This meant that any asylum seeker arriving on one of these islands was deemed not to have reached Australian soil. Asylum seekers were then removed to other Pacific islands, primarily Nauru, to have their applications to enter Australia as refugees processed.
It was claimed this led to a sharp decline in boat arrivals and, consequently, to numbers of people being detained. However, the policy was highly controversial. It was condemned as an abnegation of Australia's international obligations to those seeking asylum as determined by the United Nations Refugee Convention. It was also criticised in terms of the length of time it typically took to process applications and the psychological harm done to those held in detention, including children. The Pacific Solution was dismantled by the Rudd Government in 2008.
Operation Relex was the name given to the Australian Defence Force (ADF) border protection operation conducted between 2001 and 2006. Assets of all three services of the ADF were committed to the operation to prevent the arrival of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEV) in the Australian migration zone. Operation Relex operated mainly between October and December 2001 when ten SIEV were intercepted by HMA Ships Warramunga, Arunta and Leeuwin assisted by several Fremantle Class Patrol Boats. Operation Relex was incorporated
Operation Resolute began on 17 July 2006 and consolidated a number of previous ADF operations, including Operation Relex. It was commanded by the joint civilian-military Border Protection Command and the ADF which contributed Royal Australian Navy ships, Royal Australian Air Force aircraft and patrols from the Australian Army's Regional Force Surveillance Units.
Current situation (prior to the July 19, 2013 announcement)
There are currently thousands of asylum seekers held in immigration detention around Australia.
Several hundred asylum seekers are now also being detained on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea under third country processing arrangements.
Under the Migration Act 1958, asylum seekers who arrive in Australia, whether to the mainland or an 'excised offshore place', without a valid visa must be held in immigration detention until they are granted a visa or removed from Australia.
Immigration detention in Australia is indefinite - there is no limit in law or policy to the length of time for which a person may be detained.
Some asylum seekers and refugees spend long periods of time in immigration detention waiting for their refugee claim to be assessed; waiting for the completion of health, identity and security checks; or awaiting removal from Australia if they have been found not to be a refugee nor to otherwise be owed protection.
On October 19, 2009, Crikey published an analysis which casts doubt on the Pacific Solution as a deterrent to asylum seekers. The piece is titled 'Push vs. Pull - Asylum Seeker Numbers and Statistics'
The full text of the analysis can be accessed at http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollytics/2009/10/19/push-vs-pull-asylum-seeker-numbers-and-statistics/
In February 2011 The Refugee Council of Australia published a comment and analysis titled 'Myths about refugees and asylum seekers'
The text can be accessed at http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/f/myth-long.php#deterrence
On July 11, 2012, The Punch published a detailed critique of some of the problems associated with a tow-back-the-boats policy. The piece is titled 'Turning back the boats? We should listen to the Navy'.
This comment can be accessed at http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/turning-back-the-boats-we-should-listen-to-the-navy/
On May 31, 2013, ABC News published a report titled 'Indonesian Ambassador criticises Coalition's policy of turning back boats'
The report can be accessed at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-31/ambassador-says-indonesia-opposes-policy-of-turning-back-boats/4726842
On June 12, 2013, The Conversation ran a comment by Savitri Taylor, Associate Professor, Law School at La Trobe University titled 'Towing back the boats: bad policy whatever way you look at it'. The piece presents an analysis of the negative consequences of the policy of towing back the boats'.
This article can be accessed at http://theconversation.com/towing-back-the-boats-bad-policy-whatever-way-you-look-at-it-15082
On June 16, 2013, The Adelaide Advertiser published a comment by Alexander Downer, former foreign minister in the Howard government titled 'John Howard's policy was effective in beating back boats of people arriving in Australia illegally'.
The comment can be accessed at http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/opinion/alexander-downer-beat-back-the-boats/story-e6freabc-1226664657561
On July 7, 2013, the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, gave a door stop interview in Melbourne which included his statement on his then intentions regarding stopping the boats. This interview can be accessed at http://www.liberal.org.au/latest-news/2013/07/30/tony-abott-transcript-joint-doorstop-interview-melbourne
On July 8, 2013, news.com.au published a comment and analysis titled 'Ten myths around asylum seekers arriving on boats in Australian waters'.
The treatment can be accessed at http://www.news.com.au/world-news/ten-myths-around-asylum-seekers-arriving-on-boats-in-australian-waters/story-fndir2ev-1226676024840
On July 12, 2013, Green Left Weekly published a comment titled 'Busting three asylum seeker myths'.
The comment can be accessed at http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/54484
On July 15, 2013, The Australian Conservative published an article detailing the tow the boats policy outlined by Tony Abbott. The piece is titled '"We are not going to be played for mugs by people smugglers," Abbott says'
The article can be accessed at http://australianconservative.com/2013/07/we-are-not-going-to-be-played-for-mugs-by-people-smugglers-abbott-says/
On July 19, 2013, The Guardian produced a report titled 'Did John Howard's Pacific Solution stop the boats, as Tony Abbott asserts?' The article questions the supposed deterrent effect of the Howard Government's 'Pacific Solution'.
The article can be accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/19/did-howard-solution-stop-boats?CMP=twt_gu
On July 19, 2013, The Conversation published a comment titled 'Explainer: the legality of turning or towing back asylum boats' The piece is critical of towing back the boats policies.
It can be accessed at http://theconversation.com/explainer-the-legality-of-turning-or-towing-back-asylum-boats-16201
On July 25, 2013, Tony Abbott issued a press release titled 'Operation Sovereign Borders'. The media release details the Coalition's proposed asylum seeker policy and gives a number of justifications for it.
The release can be accessed at http://www.tonyabbott.com.au/LatestNews/PressReleases/tabid/86/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/9311/Operation-Sovereign-Borders.aspx
The Liberal Party's media release on the same topic was issued the following day. It can be accessed at http://liberal.org.au/latest-news/2013/07/26/operation-sovereign-borders
On July 25, 2013, Business Insider Australia presented an overview of Tony Abbott's 'Operation Sovereign Borders'. This overview can be accessed at http://www.businessinsider.com.au/chart-the-clear-chain-of-command-under-operation-sovereign-borders-2013-7
On July 25, 2013, the ABC's current affairs site The Drum published a critique of both the Opposition and the Government's asylum seeker policies titled 'Quick fix solutions make poor asylum seeker policy'. This comment can be accessed at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-25/brissenden-operation-sovereign-borders/4844318
On July 25, 2013, Crikey published a detailed overview of the Opposition's 'Operation Sovereign Borders'. This overview can be accessed at http://www.crikey.com.au/2013/07/25/military-reshuffle-abbotts-operation-sovereign-borders/?wpmp_switcher=mobile
On July 26, 2013, ABC News ran a report titled 'Former Defence chief sceptical of Coalition's plan to use military commander to combat people smugglers'. This report can be accessed at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-25/defence-group-sceptical-of-coalition-border-policy/4844304
On August 1, 2013, New Matilda published a comment titled 'Who Will Win the Asylum Policy Manhood Test?' The comment criticises the asylum seeker policies of both the Rudd government and the Opposition.
This comment can be accessed at http://newmatilda.com/2013/08/01/who-will-win-asylum-policy-manhood-test
Arguments in favour of 'Operation Sovereign Borders'
1. Asylum seekers constitute a national emergency
The Opposition is claiming that its new strategies are justified by the extent of the problem posed by unauthorised asylum seekers.
In the Coalition policy statement, Mr Abbott claimed, 'There is a national emergency on our borders.
The facts speak for themselves. Since Kevin Rudd dismantled the Coalition's border protection policies in 2008:
More than 1,000 people have perished at sea;
Over 48,000 people have arrived on almost 800 illegal boats;
More than 23,000 illegal arrivals are currently in the immigration detention network or on bridging visas;
More than 6,000 children have had their lives put at risk by travelling on illegal boats; and
Over $10.3 billion has been lost in border protection Budget blowouts.'
Launching the policy in Brisbane, Mr Abbott stated, 'This is one of the most serious external situations that we have faced in many a long year. It must be tackled with decisiveness, with urgency, with the appropriate level of seriousness. That's why we need to have a senior military officer in operational control of this very important national emergency.'
Tony Abbott reiterated this position in a press release he issued on August 7, 2013, stating, 'The interception of the latest boat carrying 67 passengers means that over 50,000 people have now arrived illegally by boat since Mr Rudd dismantled our border security policies.
This is a terrible milestone.
50,032 people on 798 boats have arrived under Mr Rudd's failed policies, including over 1,900 who have arrived since Mr Rudd launched his 'PNG solution'.
This will be forever remembered as one of Mr Rudd's worst decisions. It has cost over 1,000 lives. It has also resulted in over $11 billion in Budget blowouts.'
2. The proposed arrangements will result in better-integrated border protection
The Coalition policy document states, 'Our current disjointed institutional arrangements within government do not provide an optimal structure for securing our borders.
There must be one person responsible with all the necessary resources of government at his or her command.
The scale of this problem requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation, placed under a single operational and ministerial command.'
The policy document further states, 'Under Labor, there are more than 12 separate government agencies that have involvement in, or responsibility for, the security of our borders, yet the boats still keep coming and too much is falling between the cracks. A Coalition government will streamline decision making into a single command structure with participation from all related agencies...
The commander will report directly to the Minister for Immigration, who will have portfolio responsibility for Operation Sovereign Borders.
Operation Sovereign Borders will be directed by a Joint Agency Taskforce involving all agencies with direct involvement in border security.'
On July 26, 2013, Greg Sheridan, The Australian's foreign affairs editor stated, 'Abbott's plan, crafted with his immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, relies on two insights. The first is that in complex operations, especially if they involve a military component, your best bet of success is to ask a soldier to do it. So Abbott plans to put a three-star general in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders. Australian soldiers are focused on outcomes and accomplishing difficult missions.'
Sheridan then went on to argue, 'The second insight is that a single operation with a single chain of command and a single person in charge is most likely to achieve a coherent outcome.'
3. Australia needs to take control of its own border protection
The Opposition has argued that Australia needs to take independent control of its borders, taking action that is not reliant on the co-operation of other nations in its region. In particular, with regard to its turn back the boats policy, the Opposition is arguing it has the right to protect its territorial waters irrespective of the views of nations such as Indonesia.
On April 27, 2012, Mr Abbott stated, 'I would, of course, politely explain to the Indonesian government that we take as dim a view of Indonesian boats disgorging illegal arrivals in Australia as they take of Australians importing drugs into Bali.
Within a week of taking office, I would give new orders to the Navy that, where it is safe to do so, under the usual chain-of-command procedures, based on the advice of commanders-on-the-spot, Indonesian flagged, Indonesian crewed and Indonesian home-ported vessels without lawful reason to be headed to Australia would be turned around and escorted back to Indonesian waters.'
On July 7, 2013, Tony Abbott stated, 'Australia is a sovereign nation and we have to take decisions on our side of the border ... and that is what a coalition government will always do.'
In addition, Mr Abbott has argued, 'Having strong co-operation in our region is no excuse to hand over decisions about what happens on our side of the Indonesian border to anyone else.'
On July 16, 2013, Mr Abbott indicated that he stood by the Coalition's asylum seeker policy, saying again that Australia had the 'right to act' in its national interest on asylum seeker policy and turn boats back, despite Indonesia's concern about the Coalition's stance.
Mr Abbott said turning boats around was a 'standard operation...It is not beyond the professionalism of our Navy to do it.'
Mr Abbott has claimed, 'We will maintain the best possible relations with our friends and neighbours, always have, always will. But we have the right to act in our national interest. And it is overwhelmingly in the national interest of Australia, just as it is in the national interest of Indonesia, that this evil trade [in people smuggling] cease.'
4. A strong border protection policy will act as a deterrent to asylum seekers arriving by boat
The Opposition has claimed that its strong stand against asylum seekers arriving by boat will have an immediate deterrent effect. On July 6, 2013, Mr Abbott stated of his party's Operation Sovereign Borders (including its turn back the boats component) 'We'll make a difference from day one when it comes to illegal boat arrivals to Australia.'
In June, 2013, Mr Abbott told The Age newspaper that he 'would be dismayed if, by the end of our first term, we hadn't very substantially stopped the flow.'' While during the 2010 election, Mr Abbott set himself a three month deadline to 'dramatically arrest the rate of boat arrivals'
The current Opposition has claimed that it has modelled its policy on that adopted by the Howard Government and claims that the Howard government's Pacific Solution, combined with 'Operation Relex' and 'Operation Resolute', was an effective solution that succeeded in deterring asylum seekers from attempting to come to Australia by boat.
On June 16, 2013, the former foreign minister in the Howard Government, Alexander Downer, wrote an opinion piece published in The Adelaide Advertiser in which he claimed, '[T]he Howard government's policies were tough. We turned boats back on seven occasions, we sent people to Nauru and Manus Island in PNG for processing. We excised some parts of northern Australia from the migration zone. And we introduced temporary protection visas.
The combination of these measures did, however, stop the boats.'
Mr Downer continued to explain the deterrent success of the Howard Government's policy. Mr Downer has stated, '[L]et me tell you, on the basis of my experience, what worked best for the Howard government. It was its sheer determination that people wouldn't get to Australia by this means and everything would be done to stop them.
The refusal to allow the Tampa to unload people in Australia sent out a clear, simple strong message. So, too, did the decision on seven occasions to turn back the boats.'
5. A stronger border protection policy will undermine people smugglers
The Opposition has stated that its total asylum seeker policy package is intended to undermine people smugglers by actively interfering with their operation and if necessary preventing them bringing people into Australian territorial waters.
On July 15, 2013, Mr Abbott indicated that he planned to 'do what is necessary to stop the boats.'
Mr Abbott stated, 'We are not going to be played for mugs by people smugglers. A serious country does not allow itself to be taken for a ride by people like this.
We will be prepared to turn boats around where it is safe to do so. These boats are Indonesian flagged, Indonesian home ported, Indonesian crewed. They have a right to return.'
In a doorstop interview in Melbourne given on July 30, 2013, Tony Abbott stated, 'The Coalition's clear policy to stop the boats has involved...deny[ing] the people smugglers a product to sell and the willingness to turn boats around where it is safe to do so... our will is stronger than that of the people smugglers.'
On June 16, 2013, the former foreign minister in the Howard Government, Alexander Downer, wrote an opinion piece published in The Adelaide Advertiser in which he claimed, 'We took a simple view. People smugglers were deliberately sending boats to Australia from Indonesia in breach of our laws. We were not going to allow it. Each time we turned back a boat, I, as the foreign minister, rang my Indonesian counterpart to tell him we had intercepted a boat and towed it to the edge of Indonesia's territorial waters leaving it with enough fuel to get to a designated port...
I think we can do this again. We won't have to do it often because, once the people smugglers and their clients know we are serious, the trade will stop.'
Arguments against 'Operation Sovereign Borders'
1. 'Operation Sovereign Borders' is potentially unconstitutional
The Australian Defence Association has claimed that the Opposition's plan for a new border protection organisation to be headed by a high-ranking military officer may breach the Australian Constitution.
The defence association's executive officer, Neil James, has said that having the ADF officer in charge reporting to the immigration minister rather than through the ADF chief to the defence minister breaches constitutional provisions and Westminster conventions separating military command and civil control of the military.
James further stated, 'We tend to use the military for short-term help to the government in emergencies. Whether this is an emergency or not is a party political dispute, we're not going to get involved in it, but even if it was an emergency you would only use a military officer for the shortest term possible, not on a permanent basis.'
It has been claimed that these new arrangements are blurring the distinction between civil and military control of the armed forces and run the risk of putting operational control of military operations in the hands of government ministers.
This development has been condemned as undesirable in terms of the effective operation of the military. It has also been suggested that it creates a situation where the military can be used for party political purposes.
On July 26, 2013, the editor of The Monthly stated, 'The Coalition's proposed appointment of a military commander for Operation Sovereign Borders has angered military groups and ex-servicemen for politicising the role of the military in what is a civilian law issue, and for upsetting the standard chain of command.'
2. Asylum seekers do not represent a national emergency
Critics have argued that the approximately 48,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat since 2007 do not constitute a 'national emergency'.
The Attorney General's Department defines an 'emergency' as an 'event, actual or imminent, which endangers or threatens to endanger life, property or the environment, and which requires a significant and co-ordinated response'. However, this endangerment of life does not refer to those of asylum seekers but to current Australian citizens.
The Attorney General's Department has also defined the risk to life as referring to 'the lives and property of Australia's citizens.' Opponents of Mr Abbott's claim note that 48,000 asylum seekers have not threatened either the lives or the well-being of current Australian citizens.
On July 26, 2013, the political commentary blog The Conscience Vote condemned Tony Abbott's claim that Australia faces a 'national emergency'. Mr Abbott's claim has been criticised as gross exaggeration. The blog ridicules the claim that Australia is effectively under attack, stating ironically, 'There's a "national emergency" on our borders. Did you know that? I'm looking at you, beachfront dwellers. Surely you've noticed? Have you alerted the appropriate authorities? Laid in supplies? Built barricades and taken up arms?
You haven't? Tsk. Clearly, you are not Doing Your Bit for the Country. Where is the Spirit of Anzac? Get out there and Support Our Boys!
What's that, you say? What could possibly be so terrifyingly urgent that it requires us to declare a state of national emergency?'
On July 8, 2013, news.com.au attempted to expose one of the myths associated with asylum seekers arriving in Australia. The first myth considered was that Australia is being 'swamped' by asylum seekers.
The following observations were made, 'The number of people arriving in Australia to claim asylum jumped by more than a third last year to 15,800 people, driven by an increase in arrivals from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Australia resettles the third largest number of refugees of any country per capita, but actually Australia's asylum seeker numbers, while politically sensitive, remain numerically small. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says Australia receives about three per cent of the total asylum claims made in industrialised countries around the world and, "by comparison, asylum levels in Australia continue to remain below those recorded by many other industrialised and non-industrialised countries.'
The same article also stated, 'According to Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the reverse is true. "The burden of helping the world's forcibly displaced people is starkly uneven...Poor countries host vastly more displaced people than wealthier ones. While anti-refugee sentiment is heard loudest in industrialised countries, developing nations host 80 per cent of the world's refugees."'
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has noted, 'No country in the world has greater control over its borders than Australia. While most countries share at least one border with another country and usually many more, Australia is an island continent with vast amounts of surrounding sea. These natural barriers make it difficult for irregular migration to occur. In the United States, it is estimated that there are approximately 11.2 million illegal migrants living inside the country. In the European Union, the number is somewhere between 3 to 6 million. The UK alone has between 310,000 and 570,000 illegal migrants. the numbers are even greater in parts of the developing world...
In comparison, Australia has only around 60,000 people unlawfully in the country at any one time, mostly tourists and temporary migrants who have overstayed their visas.'
3. Previous 'turning back boats' policies did not act as an effective deterrent
It has been argued that the Howard government's previous policy of turning back the boats was not the successful deterrent that Tony Abbott asserts.
The lowest figure for asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia under the Howard government is sometimes claimed to have been one, in 2002. Critics of such claims note that this statistic is the result of redefining a boat arrival to mean someone who has actually reached the Australian mainland by boat.
Given that at this point potential arrivals were being diverted to off-shore processing centres or were on boats that were turned back to Indonesian waters it is not surprising few to none reached the mainland.
This figure cannot be used as proof of a deterrent effect, as many asylum seekers were still attempting to reach Australia by boat and many of those processed off-shore were subsequently accepted into Australia as refugees.
An analysis published in Crikey on October 19, 2009, stated, 'Let's be clear - this is what the Pacific Solution did - it diddled the stats by redefinition. Boats still made the attempt to enter Australia...'
Referring specifically to the 2002 figure of one, the Crikey analysis noted, 'If we adjust the 2002 number to account for boats that not only attempted to make the voyage, but ended up detained within the Pacific Solution system...we can add 1546 to the 2002 number.'
The Refugee Council of Australia further claims that tough policies on asylum seekers have little effect on whether people will leave their own countries. Those who hold this view argue that refugees are escaping dangers far greater than any deterrent a potential host country such as Australia is likely to devise.
The Council states, 'Refugee flows are primarily affected by war, unrest, violence and human rights abuses. Most people do not wish to leave their homes, families, friends and everything they know and hold dear. They do so as a last resort, to escape persecution and find safety and security for themselves and their families.'
4. Turning back the boats could result in conflicts with our regional neighbours
A number of Australia's neighbours in the south Pacific have indicated that the turn-back-the-boats policy could damage regional relations.
Indonesia's Ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, has indicated that boats should be turned back to the countries where asylum seekers are from, rather than to transit countries like Indonesia.
Nadjib Riphat Kesoema has stated, 'Indonesia is...the victim of this situation so I think it's not possible for the Coalition to say it has to go to Indonesia - back to Indonesia because Indonesia is not the origin country of these people.'
From the Indonesian perspective, any expectation that Indonesia should be able to shelter or protect Australia from all asylum seekers attempting to reach Australian shores is unreasonable. Experts have claimed that Indonesia does not currently have the capacity to regulate transit traffic to Australia in the way the Opposition's policy seeks.
Southeast Asia expert, Professor Hal Hill, of the Australian National University, has claimed that 'as the world's largest archipelago state, Indonesia doesn't have the capacity to monitor, let alone regulate irregular movements of people through its 17,000 islands.'
It has also been stated that as a relatively poor nation which has not signed the United Nations Refugee Convention, Indonesia cannot be expected to accommodate all the asylum seekers which arrive in Indonesia.
Australia's expectations are seen as self-preserving by some critics. Professor Hill has stated, 'Why, most Indonesians ask, does wealthy and "empty" Australia worry so much about a few thousand hapless refugees who pass through Indonesia on the way here?'
5. Turning back the boats could result in humanitarian and operational disasters
It has been claimed that neither Indonesia nor Malaysia can offer effective protections to asylum seekers. Also neither is a signatory of the United Nations Refugee Convention, therefore, neither is legally obliged to retain refugees.
Ben Saul, Professor of International Law, Sydney Centre for International Law at the University of Sydney, has stated, 'Australia cannot turn back boats if it would expose a person to returning to persecution contrary to the [UN] refugee convention. That includes sending people back to countries which do not offer effective refugee protection. Those can include transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia where there is no refugee protection... given to people who are there to claim refugee status.'
It has further been claimed that there are very few circumstances in which boats could safely be towed back to Indonesian waters.
In June, 2013, Savitri Taylor, Associate Professor, Law School at La Trobe University, stated, 'The asylum seeker boats now making their way to Australia are increasingly unseaworthy. The boats are also increasingly overcrowded with women and children constituting a large proportion of those on board.'
The professor went on to explain, 'In these circumstances, it is difficult to conceive of situations in which it would be safe to attempt to tow back boats with the passengers still on board, or safe to leave such passengers to their fate at the edge of Indonesia's territorial waters. Apart from the risk of death by drowning, the unsanitary and volatile conditions on board such vessels would constitute a serious risk to health and well-being especially of children.'
The bipartisan consensus among Australia's political leaders is that boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia must be stopped. The Rudd government is largely relying on processing and permanently retaining all asylum seekers arriving by boat on Papua New Guinea. An Abbott government would retain some elements of the Rudd policy and also implement its 'Operation Sovereign Borders' which alters the military chain of command in the management of surveillance, apprehension and return of asylum seekers attempting to arrive in Australia by boat.
These policies are fuelled by a variety of considerations. One of these is claimed to be a desire to protect the lives of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat. The thousand asylum seekers' lives believed to have been lost since 2007 are used as justification for discouraging people from setting out on such dangerous journeys.
The difficulty is that in adopting such a policy both parties run the risk of fuelling popular hysteria about the situation. Describing the 15,000 asylum seekers who have sought to reach Australia since the start of this year as a 'national emergency' seems more intended to foster panic than concern for asylum seekers' welfare. In a country where almost one in four Australian residents were born outside of Australia and many more are first or second generation Australians, developing a fortress mentality seems likely to foster social and racial dissention among current Australian residents. It is possible to see the asylum seeker issue as at least in part a response to ill-ease about the country's changing racial composition. Thus national leaders need to be very careful that no policies they adopt create or promote racial disharmony.
It is also worth noting that the financial cost of the different policies designed to make Australia both unattractive and inaccessible to refugees arriving by boat is very great. The cost of the Howard government's Pacific Solution between 2001 and 2007 was at least $1 billion equating to over $500,000 per detainee. Critics note that off-shore processing and protracted detention at Australia's expense are extremely costly. Off-shore processing remains a feature of the Opposition's policy, while the financial cost of the Rudd government's New Guinea Solution is also being borne by the Australian government. Both parties are staking a great deal on the deterrent effect of their policies. If these deterrent effects are not achieved it will be interesting to see for how long these enormously expensive asylum seeker policies can be sustained.
Newspaper items used in the compilation of this issue outline
Herald-Sun: April 11, 2013, page 15, comment (on Geraldton landing) by Andrew Bolt, `We're being gamed'.
The Australian: July 4, 2013, page 10, comment by Greg Sheridan, `Is Abbott facing ambush by SBY?'.
The Australian: July 2, 2013, page 10, comment by Scott Morrison, `PM is the people-smugglers' best friend'.
Herald-Sun: July 1, 2013, page 13, comment by Andrew Bolt, `Rudd's still all at sea'.
The Australian: July 1, 2013, page 5, comment by Greg Sheridan, `PM's remarks are grimly irresponsible'
The Age: July 10, 2013, page 18, editorial (on "turn back the boats"), `Gunboat diplomacy disgrace'. (Online version: scroll down to second editorial on page)
The Australian: July 8, 2013, page 4, comment by Greg Sheridan, `No, PM, Jakarta isn't at odds with Abbott'.
The Age: July 8, 2013, page 4, news item by Bianca Hall, `Coalition defends tow-back policy'.
The Age: July 6, 2013, page 1, news item by Michael Bachelard, `Jakarta spurns Abbott's turn-back-boats plan'.
The Australian: July 18, 2013, page 11, letters incl, `There's no basis for complaint about tow-backs'.
The Age: July 18, 2013, page 4, news item by David Wroe, `Asylum-seeker deaths take emotional toll on navy staff'.
The Australian: July 17, 2013, page 11, editorial, `Turning back the politics'.
The Age: July 17, 2013, page 18, editorial, `View from Jakarta is clear'.(Online version: scroll down to second editorial on page)
The Australian: July 16, 2013, page 1, news item by Maley and Callick, `Jakarta opens door to tow-backs'.
The Australian: July 15, 2013, page 11, editorial, `Rudd must act on boat crisis'.
The Age: July 15, 2013, page 21, comment by Azadeh Dastyari, `Abbott's copycat tow-back plan won't stop the boats'.
The Australian: July 13, 2013, page 1, news item by Brendan Nicholson, `Military advising Libs on tow-backs'.
The Age: July 13, 2013, page 20, analysis (photos) by Wroe and Hall, `The opposition's leaky boat plan'.
The Australian: July 12, 2013, page 12, comment by Alexander Downer, `Rudd sold out our national interests and lost respect in Jakarta'.
The Australian: July 24, 2013, page 6, comment by Chris Kenny, `We need turnbacks to stop the incomers'
The Australian: July 24, 2013, page 6, comment by Jim Molan, `We can hope it works, but PNG is no solution'.
The Age: July 23, 2013, page 20, comment by Paul Komassaroff and Suresh Sundram, `How to solve the boat problem without cruelty'.
Herald-Sun: July 20, 2013, page 32, comment by Laurie Oakes, `Turning back the tide'.
The Australian: July 27, 2013, page 5, news items (photos) incl, `Indonesia "wants to discuss turn-backs"'.