Right: one of the arguments raised against the turning around of asylum-seeker boats is the likelihood of the boat being scuttled or burned as a means of forcing the Australian navy into a rescue.'
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.'