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


Reluctant Rescuers by Tony KevinFor 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 Senate Estimates committee that safety issues under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, as judged by experienced mariners, would influence a commander's advice whether to attempt to tow or turn a SIEV back to Indonesia: factors such as the state of the engine, the state of the hull, the presence of life-saving equipment, radio, any navigational equipment. He noted:

There are risks involved in this whole endeavour. As I said, there were incidents during these activities [in 2001], as there have been incidents subsequently, which have been risky. There have been fires lit ... attempts to storm the engine compartment ... people jumping in the water and that sort of thing.

Griggs could have said a lot more. The notorious 'children overboard' affair itself originated in unsuccessful attempts by HMAS Adelaide to force an intercepted asylum seeker boat SIEV 4 to return to Indonesia, resulting in successive probable acts of sabotage by passengers to their boat's engines, steering gear and hull.

Most of the history of turn-back attempts in 2001 was ugly and violent. People on SIEVs were usually initially amenable and cooperative after Navy interception, as long as they believed assurances that they were being taken to Australian territory for processing. But if they came to suspect they might be being turned around by trickery or coercion and towed back to Indonesia, situations quickly became emotionally charged and dangerous, both for themselves and for ADF boarding parties.

To achieve successful tow-backs, commanders were forced to resort to lies and subterfuges in order to gain male passengers' trust sufficiently to be able to lock them away safely in the hold. In the case of SIEV 7, a vicious on-deck riot ensued when distraught passengers realised they had been tricked into being towed back overnight to the edge of Indonesian territorial waters. There was a suicide explosion attempt involving a man self-dousing with petrol while standing close to an Australian boarding crew.

Throughout this period, there were various attempts by asylum seekers to sink, set fire to or blow up boats in Australian custody, to prevent tow-back. These incidents put both passengers and supervising ADF personnel at high physical risk. The emotional distress to ADF personnel from such confrontations was also high. Some of them blamed asylum seekers for subjecting them to such risks and distress. Others blamed their orders.

The damage to service morale and solidarity was significant. One disgusted crew member described conditions on one Navy ship transporting angry asylum seekers to Nauru as akin to a slave ship. A senior naval reserve commander, a doctor, left his ship in Darwin after a month of Operation Relex operations, telling the press:

I participated in the boarding, attempted removal and actual forced removal of suspected illegal immigrant vessels to Indonesia ... nearly everyone I spoke to that was involved in these operations knew that what they were doing was wrong.

Even in the higher ranks of the Navy, there was evidence of divergent views, signs of an incipient breakdown of trust and solidarity between some senior officers more disposed to give the government everything it wanted and let government 'wear' the outcomes, and others who wanted to draw a professional line of conscience beyond which governments should not try to push them.


Can Abbott and Morrison really be serious about turning back boats? Do they really want to expose the Navy to these grave problems? The fear, the rage, the encouragement to self-harm and lethal criminality, the emotional damage to asylum seekers and Navy personnel alike, the risks to Australian–Indonesian relations?

It is vital that turn-back policies not be reinstated. The ADF and its friends should continue to resist this strenuously. It is essential to maintaining Navy morale and the integrity of the ADF's ethical and legal standards that they not be compromised by any government's improper pressures on them to step over the line here.

In respect of Morrison's reassurances that government would wear the responsibility for any adverse consequences from Navy turn-back operations, the Nuremberg trials made quite clear that military commanders can never escape personal accountability for illegal actions that cause civilian death by arguing that they were only following government orders. It is rather amazing that Abbott and Morrison appear not to comprehend this.

Another problem with reinstated turn-back practice is that it would encourage a return to the negative 2001 public view of asylum seekers as essentially threatening and hostile people — as enemies of Australia. In this environment, the risk of proper Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) practice being neglected or compromised in Australian Border Protection Command operations would be magnified.

As retired RAN Commodore Sam Bateman warns: whatever policies might be adopted by any future Australian government to deter or slow down numbers of boat people arrivals, these policies should never put Australian border security professionals into situations where they were under political or chain-of-command pressures to violate or put at risk their own SOLAS obligations to all people whom they encounter at risk at sea.

Turn-back is, quite simply, inconsistent with decent SOLAS practice in border protection.

Tony KevinThis is an edited extract from former diplomat Tony Kevin's latest book Reluctant Rescuers, available from leading bookshops or from the book's website. Tony was also the author of A Certain Maritime Incident — the sinking of SIEV X (2004).

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, reluctant rescuers, asylum seekers, boat people



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Existing comments

The reality is that the 'turn away' policy stops boats coming. The current policy results in deaths at sea and these deaths can be laid at the feet of the Gillard government. As a child of refugees and one who knows many refugees I am appalled to think Australians are so naive to think that these boat people are 'poor'. If they had money to fly to Malaysia, money to pay people smugglers in Indonesia, then these better off illegal immigrants are pushing in before the genuinely poor who have nothing in refugee camps. My parents had nothing and my refugee friends had nothing when they waited in camps to be approved for Australia. For the sake of those dying at sea and the sake of the genuinely poor waiting their turn in camps, may Abbott introduce his policy as soon as possible.
Skye | 27 July 2012

Skye is right. The threat is out there simply to protect admittedly desperate people from the organised people smuggler rings. It's never going to be acted on, but we want those who might be otherwise conscripted by the people smugglers to know that it is a possibility. Simple as that.
ian | 27 July 2012

Skye, you seem not to have taken in the points about the risks of turn-back policy that Tony Kevin has made here. As to the rich asylum seeker/poor asylum seeker question, have you considered what sacrifices of everything they owned these people may have made to raise the money? And just how long do you think they ought be expected to wait in camps, and under what conditions, before they can expect to get a move to Australia. You are 'a child of migrants' - that means your parents moved from a camp a long time ago. The numbers waiting there in 2012 are so great that for people waiting now getting a move is not a reaistic option. I wonder whether Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison will read Tony Kevin's book and begin to base policy on real information instead of on what they believe to be electoral appeal to popular prejudice. I think not.
Joe Castley | 27 July 2012

I totally agree with Skye. If these illegal immigrants behave so badly in their first contact with Australian authorities, why would anyone in Australia want to have such people live in our midst. Tony Kevin always finds fault with Tony Abbott who is not in power, but has an opinion which is his right. Gillard is the Prime Minister and it is her actions that should be spoken about as she is the leader of the Government's response in any and all matters.
Trent | 27 July 2012

I agree with Tony. Should we be using deterrence to stop people who are legal asylum seekers? Asylum seekers are not and never will be illegal immigrants. If they are found not to be genuine refugees and somehow vanish into the community, then they are illegal immigrants. Whether they have money or not does not change their status. Below is a letter I recently had published in The Age: "WE HEAR a lot about stopping the boats because they cost lives. If these boats were seaworthy, would they be welcome? I suspect not. What is being said is: ''Stop those coming who have not been through a selection process.'' The major parties seem to prefer the deterrent process - punish those who arrive in order to deter others. Should we be doing this to people who have fled persecution? Is there not a better way? How about an improved ''process''? Allow more in. Get people into a queue wherever they are. It might give them hope and stop them getting on a boat. Let's stop hurting already hurt human beings and find a humane solution."
Patrick Sawyer | 27 July 2012

Thanks for the great article. I am an immigrant and have been far from happy with the politics and "general thinking" about so many issues in Australia. I sense that Australia has made huge inroads into "global thinking' with justice, environmental, Indigenous issues and losing some of the isolation/island/ narrow++ psyche. I am dreading+++++ if Abbott wins, here in Qld we are getting a bitter foretaste of what will become federal and I suspect with an even more intense "turning back" of all that has been achieved so far. HOW CAN WE WAKE UP AUSTRALIAN? LIFE IS NOT ABOUT MONEY ONLY??
fransje | 27 July 2012

Clearly, Tony Kevin, you have more than a little experience in the matter of refugees,sufficient to write a couple of books, and have repeatedly identified deficiencies in conservative policy with little comment on the disaster that has befallen refugees over the last couple of years during the tenure of leftist Labor policy. With your experience surely you could propose a solution to this enormous problem. Is there any possibility that you might aquaint us, the general public, and Tony Abbott with the solution that is sadly wanting, particularly since Abbott has yet to announce the opposition policy to be put to the electorate?
john frawley | 27 July 2012

Anti - conservatives used to oppose John Howard even though the vast majority of Australians agree to stop the boats, which he accomplished. Now it is Tony Abbott's turn to be demonized because he wants members of the ADF to turn the boats back to Indonesia. It is a bit strange to say, the Navy is not at all comfortable to turn the boats back. Members of the ADF are volunteers and are prepared to go anywhere in the world to keep Australia safe. Right now there are members of the ADF fighting with real bullets and sadly many of them have been killed, yet their morale is second to none. I am sure the Navy would rather do a difficult job than become taxi drivers and baggage handlers.
Ron Cini | 27 July 2012

Baggage handlers?
Kate Ahearne | 27 July 2012

I don't normally get into these discussion threads, having had the large advantage of the initial article, but I must comment on two important factual errors in John Frawley's letter:

1. My latest book "Reluctant Rescuers' looks in detail at public data on the four known major sinkings, founderings or disappearances of asylum-seeker boats over the period October 2009 to December 2011. These four major events (there is now a fifth, on 21 June 2012, too late for the book) resulted in 450+ deaths (now 550+ deaths), all under Labor governments led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. As my latest book observes, this is more people than died in border protection operations under John Howard.

2. Yes, I do propose solutions - see the final pages 129-132 of my book. But my solutions are to the avoidable loss of asylum-seeker lives at sea in Australia's border protection operations. Within the resources Australia devotes to border protection, there is no need for these deaths. I do not join in the important public argument regarding asylum-seeker processing. But I am utterly determined that the equally important issue of rescue of people in distress at sea be quarantined from that other argumemt.

As our Navy knows well, Australia's international legal and ethical obligations to protect all life in peril at sea, within our resources, must not be weakened or compromised. It would be nice if Mr Abbott, Mr Morrison, and Mr Pyne recognised this fact.

Most of the time, Australia's rescue-at-sea record is excellent. But there were no water taxis or NRMA roadside assistance vans for the 550+ asylum seekers in distress at sea whose calls for Australia's help were for some reason ignored, and who drowned unaided. I do urge John Frawley to buy and read my book: it might surprise him.

tony kevin | 27 July 2012

Thank you Tony Kevin for taking the time to comment on what I wrote.It was refreshing to see that the failure of the Rudd and Gillard governments has been acknowledged for those who have not read your book and that to date none of this disaster can be attributed to Tony Abbott, an impression that could be drawn from todays lead article which leaves the impression Abbott and his colleagues represent the thorn in the side of resolution. I genuinely do believe that people such as yourself are the most likely to propose a solution because of the particular knowledge and experience of the problem that you possess.
In saying that, however, I do realise from my own experience that politicians are loathe to listen to experts in a field who challenge their own often inexpert opinions. What you do is valuable - keep up the good work.
john frawley | 27 July 2012

Another small problem people like Skye don't get is that it is illegal, refugees don't have to be poor and we have no control over any person on the high seas.
Marilyn | 29 July 2012

Skye, there is no law in the world that says refugees have to stay in camps and wait for magic silver dust to be sprinkled on them. It is a legal right to leave whenever they want to.
Marilyn | 29 July 2012

Over 40 years ago under orders from the Government of the day, I was posted to Vietnam.Years later I found out the whole exercise was a massive lie .I am still paying the emotional and health costs of that decision. I would be extremely disturbed if our defence personel are made to carry out such an inhumane order, as if the operation goes "pear sahped" and we know they did and will , then the personel affected will like me and my Vietnam comrades, have to live with that for the rest of their lives.WE need to eliminate the causes of these people having to flee their homelands. By the way they are not rich and many go into extreme debt to pay their passage to "freedom"-some pay the ultimate price!
Gavin | 05 August 2012

I think it's about time Abbott came out of the closet and declared himself an atheist and be honest about it like Gillard.
Abbott's guiding principles don't bear resemblance to the ethics of any religion I know of - perhaps some extreme naturalist jungle cult where it's survival of the fittest, every man to himself.
And not even humanitarian.
AURELUS | 07 August 2012


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