“Stop the boats.” That was one of the principal slogans used by the winning Coalition in the September 2013 Australian election. And in the six months since he assumed office, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has left no one in any doubt as to his determination to prevent asylum seekers from making their way to the country by sea.
Abbott’s self-declared “war” on asylum seekers (or “illegal maritime arrivals,” as he prefers to call them) has assumed a variety of forms. All asylum seekers who arrive in the country by boat or are intercepted on their way to it – including women and children – are supposed to be transferred as quickly as possible to detention centers on remote and inhospitable Pacific islands that lie outside Australia’s jurisdiction. No one is sure what will happen to those who are eventually recognized as refugees, as Australia has said that it will not admit them.
Underlining the militaristic nature of its campaign, the government has launched “Operation Sovereign Borders,” headed by a three-star general, which allows the navy to intercept any boats that are heading for Australia and to push them back to Indonesia.
According to a recent Reuters account, the 45 passengers in one boat that succeeded in landing on Australian soil were handcuffed with plastic zip ties, denied proper access to food and water, and pepper-sprayed when they protested. Their vessel was then tethered to a navy speedboat and towed back to sea.
In other instances, intercepted asylum seekers have been transferred to lifeboats specially purchased for the purpose of returning them to Indonesia. Information on such events is scarce, however, as the government maintains a wall of silence on the issue of boat arrivals. It insists that state secrecy is important to prevent “the enemy” (i.e. human smugglers) from knowing what is happening.
The government has been jubilant about this campaign, stating (inaccurately, in view of the Reuters report) that no asylum seekers have reached Australian territory by sea over the last two months, compared with 20,000 arrivals in 2013. But there are several reasons to question Canberra’s efforts.
First, Australia’s new policy is almost certainly illegal under international refugee law. As the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has pointed out, as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia could be in breach of its obligations by refusing to hear asylum seekers’ claims.
Second, the ethics of the policy are highly questionable, not least because its introduction has been backed up by a relentless media campaign to vilify all asylum seekers. Retired Australian Navy Captain John Ingram recently described Operation Sovereign Borders as “morally corrupt and totally indefensible.” “Turning back boats on the open sea,” he said, “is not the naval way of doing things.”
Third, the policy sets a terrible example to other states. Australia is one of the most prosperous and sparsely populated countries in the world, and yet it has closed its borders to asylum seekers. Meanwhile, a small country such as Lebanon – politically fragile and economically weak – has allowed the unrestricted entry of one million refugees from Syria. How long will it be before developing countries start turning asylum seekers away, citing the Australian example?
Finally, Australia’s approach to boat arrivals is an extremely dangerous one. It can only be a matter of time before an interception goes wrong, and asylum seekers who are being forced back to Indonesia drown as a result.
There is a tried and tested way of responding to the arrival of asylum seekers. Allow them to enter your country. Examine their claims to refugee status by means of fair and thorough asylum procedures. Support the integration of those who are in need of protection. And facilitate the return of those whose applications are unsuccessful. Nations large and small, rich and poor, act in this way. Why shouldn’t Australia?