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Abbott's asylum seeker turn-back policy is a bad joke

  • 27 July 2012

For a few weeks in 2001 during the high-intensity Operation Relex period, Navy border protection vessel commanders were under standing orders from the Howard Government to attempt to turn back or tow back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia whenever they (or their senior onshore ADF commanders — it was never clear where such decisions were made) judged this could safely be achieved.

A few such turnbacks succeeded, but there were five asylum seeker deaths, huge stress, and the costs to Navy solidarity and morale were high.

In total, 12 Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEVs) were intercepted during Operation Relex in 2001. Of those 12, the Navy attempted to enforce government turnback policy on ten occasions. Of those ten attempts, only four boats and their occupants were successfully returned to Indonesian waters. Five asylum seekers died or went missing in two of these encounters.

Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader, on several occasions in 2011 and 2012, has affirmed with increasing vehemence his 'core policy' for asylum seeker turnback. He has pledged to resume SIEV turnbacks to Indonesia if elected, for example in October 2011:

It should be an option to turn the boats around where it is safe to do so. The Navy's done it before, it can do it again.

Coalition Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison further detailed his leader's thinking. He said an Abbott government would be prepared to 'own' any decision to tow an asylum seeker boat back to Indonesia and would not hold the ADF accountable for the results. He said the decision to return boats would be informed, but not decided, by a situation report provided by Navy personnel at the scene.

Our intention is to ensure that those charged with carrying out government policy [are] only responsible for its execution, not its enactment. We will make our policy decision and we will bear responsibility for the consequences. We won't be putting any naval and immigration officials at the end of the stick.

Clearly, the Navy is not at all comfortable at this possible prospect, despite Morrison's reassurances. Admiral Ray Griggs, current Chief of the Navy who commanded the frigate HMAS Arunta during Operation Relex, led two forced tow-back attempts — one successful and one not.

He testified in October 2011 to a