Border protection silence is deadly


Scott Morrison'This briefing is not about providing shipping news to people smugglers.' — Scott Morrison, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, first Operation Sovereign Borders briefing on 23 September 2013

'It will be a tougher approach ... our responsibility [to stop the boats] is absolute.' — Morrison

'That [question] goes to operational matters ... you will not be getting commentary from this podium [Morrison] or that podium [Lt-Gen Angus Campbell, commander of OSB] either way on these matters.'  Morrison

No questions were put to either the minister or the operational commander about safety-of-life-at-sea (SOLAS) or search-and-rescue (SAR) obligations and protocols governing Operation Sovereign Borders. This is deeply regrettable, because around 1100 asylum seekers drowned in the past four years in this same Australian Border Protection Command theatre of operations. And during the election campaign, both major parties made much of their humanitarian concern to stop the drownings, by stopping the boats.

Neither Morrison nor Campbell offered any words on this on Monday. No media present asked any questions that might have triggered useful responses on it. Nor did Labor's official commentators (Chris Bowen or Tony Burke) say anything on the drownings issue in their reported responses to this first briefing.

Deaths at sea have apparently dropped off the major party radar screens completely — at least until the next maritime tragedy, which both parties will no doubt exploit to score points off the other.

To their credit, both Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Labor leadership candidate Bill Shorten addressed it. Hanson-Young, condemning OSB secrecy, commented that 'people's lives are involved in these kinds of operations'. Shorten said that it would be 'a disgrace' if the new system did not disclose details of drownings. 'I can't imagine who dreamed that up, not telling anyone about deaths at sea ... If a boat sinks ... I don't think the government has a right to not tell people that this tragedy has occurred.'

Let's look at practicalities. How will OSB handle issues of its public accountability for safety of life at sea?

We don't know yet where at sea OSB proposes to intercept boats. We do know that asylum seekers often carry mobile phones which they sometimes use to send distress calls en route to 999, Australian Federal Police, Australian Maritime Safety Authority, or relatives in Australia. These phones work reliably within 40 nautical miles of Christmas Island, according to a recent media report. We are told that passengers use these phones to report back to people smugglers when they are about to be intercepted by an Australian vessel. It is all very public.

Is OSB going to put a gag on phone call records to 999 or AMSA or AFP or families in Australia, which are publicly accountable and retrievable data?

AMSA is part of the 15-government-agency committee advising OSB. How will AMSA satisfy itself that interception procedures following a distress call from an asylum-seeker boat accord with Australia's obligations under the UN SOLAS and SAR Conventions, and with AMSA's own operational manuals for SAR?

How will we know when and whether OSB is honouring its legal maritime safety obligations? These questions are not moot or otiose. Australia's maritime safety obligations were repeatedly violated during Operation Relex, the 2001 precursor to Operation Sovereign Borders and in many ways its model.

We did not find out until a year later in 2002 — thanks to the persistence of Senators Cook, Faulkner, Collins and Bartlett in the Senate Ad Hoc Committee into a Certain Maritime Incident — just how repeatedly and seriously those obligations were being violated by ADF ships' commanders and those instructing them from shore.

Recall the history of the Palapa, the boat rescued by Tampa after its distress signals were ignored for two days by Australian Coastwatch. Recall SIEV 4, the children overboard boat, subject initially to dangerous attempts by HMAS Adelaide to coerce it into turning back, and later left to founder, with passengers and an ADF boarding party having to jump in the water before any rescue of passengers was allowed to happen. Recall SIEV X. Recall the many other incidents in 2001 where SOLAS obligations were compromised, that came to light in the Senate Committee. Recall the dangerous incidents over the past four years. Do we want to go back to all that?

Consider the rights and obligations of ADF ships' commanders taking part in OSB. Morrison said that decisions about turning back the boats would be 'operational decisions for those operationally in control of implementing the Government's policies ... These are decisions politicians would only be involved in where policy guidance is sought'.

To me, that last caveat sounds ominous. Can ADF ships' commanders be secure in the knowledge that their SOLAS obligations will never be compromised by inappropriate 'policy' guidance from shore, from the political or force commander level? Watching the minister's and force commander's demeanour in their first OSB briefing, I feel no such confidence. Are these men desperate to win, at whatever the cost to those who serve under them?

Will ADF ships' commanders have what they are supposed to have under law — decision-making autonomy in putting SOLAS legal obligations at the forefront of their operational decisions in attempted turnback operations? Do they know that their careers will not suffer if they properly put protection of human life at sea first?

Do we not need now — before turnback operations get seriously underway, because this will require Indonesian assent — to hear explicit general public assurances from the minister and force commander on these crucial professional questions? Or will this be evaded on the spurious argument that it will help the people smugglers?

I hope that these questions — crucial for the integrity of OSB and the protection of the ADF's professionalism — will be explored at the next media briefing. OSB must aspire to be a legally accountable, no deaths operation. 

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin's most recent book is Reluctant Rescuers (2012). His previous publication on refugee boat tragedy — A Certain Maritime Incident — was the recipient of a NSW Premier's literary award in 2005.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Tony Abbott, asylum seekers, PNG, Nauru, Operation Sovereign Borders, Operation Relex



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Existing comments

Tony your language is becoming distressing. It is not border protection, they are 5400 km from Sydney hunting refugees near one small island. And there are no smugglers, it is not smuggling to come here and seek asylum, it is a legal right. For heaven's sake, it is not news when refugees arrive, our lazy media though have done almost no work on facts in the past years because they simply rely on press releases which absolves them of all responsibility. The ALP have no high moral ground here, they let all those refugees die.
Marilyn | 25 September 2013

All good questions Tony! I take heart that by publishing in 2010 a first hand account of a Commander who under Operation Relex in 2001 put SOLAS first and famously disobeyed orders, the Navy demonstrated that in any future military border protection operation its core values would not be undermined: It was also encouraging to hear a defense studies expert at ANU argue that he believes Operation Sovereign Borders to be primarily a PR show for the public and that tow backs will be unlikely - Former Democrats Senator, Andrew Bartlett, yesterday also made a good point in a comment on Crikey yesterday, that the new policy 'won’t mean fewer boats, but it will enable them to claim that more people are being sent back.'
Marg Hutton | 25 September 2013

Excellent article but can we concentrate on educating/englightening the 60% + among us who don't want nor welcome asylum seekers landing on our shores? Governments of all persuasions will eventually bow to the people's demand. At the moment our people don't really care about refugees/asylum seekers/foreign aid/climate change, otherwise we wouldn't have a Coalition government at all.
Alex Njoo | 25 September 2013

Alex Njoo, have you ever walked through a refuge camp and witnessed the suffering and frustration of people waiting for resettlement? People care desperately about people seeking asylum - it's just not so black and white as some commentators make it.
Millie | 26 September 2013

Millie, resettlement is not a legal right nor an obligation by any state. The only obligation states have is to provide asylum to those refugees in their own territory. It's all on the UNHCR website, why doesn't anyone bother to read.
Marilyn | 26 September 2013

One can only hope that no drowning people ARE dialling 999 unless they want to reach someone in America. The Australian emergency number is 000.
Juliet | 27 September 2013

Thanks Juliette, I will know if I ever need to call 000! More generally - getting the balance right between deserving asylum-seekers who wait patiently for years in camps, and asylum-seekers why try to make their own futures by presenting themselves at our border spontaneously – as the Von Trapp family did on the Swiss –Austrian border in 1939 - is something neither Albanese nor Shorten is getting right. By blaming evil people smugglers for all deaths at sea and saying stopping the boats is the only decent answer, both men are helping to prop up a now entrenched culture of cynicism and irresponsibility on the part of our border protection and maritime safety authorities, and a collective mindset of group profiling leading to ‘reluctant rescue’ as my book and series of articles in Eureka Street has shown. A 97% or 98% survival rate for asylum seekers coming in unseaworthy boats is not good enough when ADF, BPC and AMSA have the ships, aircraft and surveillance technologies and legal obligations to do better. We delude ourselves – and debase our decent men and women serving at sea - if we let hundreds drown who could have been saved, and if we pretend it was all the people smugglers’ fault when that happens. And if we as a nation are – as the new Abbott govt is – determined to turn back the boats, this needs to be done in non-life-threatening ways and ways that respect Indonesian sovereignty. The present OSB operational secrecy gives no guarantee that this is the case. It is a very worrying moment. Signs of Indonesian resistance and resentment of Australian bullying tactics are now very clear, and the UNHCR has taken a strong public position also.
tony kevin | 27 September 2013

The only people we have an obligation to are those who present here. IN the past 12 years about 110,000 people have presented as asylum seekers here, 60,000 by air and 50,000 by sea. Of those by air only 40% were refugees, by sea 98%. So then we pretend to be importing the most needy out of 45 million displaced people and we pick the richest and smartest but only if we are the country of last resort. We have become a rogue, lawless state in recent years and we are killing people who have fled the Taliban, the mullahs, the Rajapaksa regime and others for sport.
Marilyn | 27 September 2013

The return to Port Moresby of the West Papuan independence activists who recently crossed into Australia (W Papuans 'dumped in Port Moresby to disappear'. The Weekend Australian, September 28-29, 2013. The Nation p4.) takes the whole refugee issue to a level most people, including you, would hardly have imagined I suspect, Tony. Scott Morrison, the new Immigration Minister, who was in PNG yesterday, "would not comment on the incident". That silence speaks volumes.
Edward F | 28 September 2013


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