Border protection transparency under Abbott


Life buoy afloat on the seaWe will see under the Abbott Government a tougher philosophy and administration of Australia's policing of its northern maritime borders against unauthorised boat people. It cannot be assumed numbers of arrivals will quickly fall to zero, though they are already trending downwards since Kevin Rudd announced in July that all irregular maritime arrivals will be processed in PNG or Nauru and resettled offshore.

The Coalition pledged during the campaign to maintain that policy, and to augment it with new tough measures of deterrence at the borders.

In our northern maritime approaches, the new Government faces three policy challenges: to maintain maritime border protection and rescue-at-sea systems that are transparent and publicly accountable; to restore clarity to an Australian maritime rescue response system whose understanding of its responsibilities has been clouded by the pressures of the past four years; and to try to turn boats back to Indonesia without loss of life at sea.

There has been some public discussion of the third challenge, which is essentially operational. But the first and second are even more important, because they go to the heart of Australian values as a successful multicultural country of immigration that respects human rights.

One of Labor's humanitarian achievements was to establish a system of routine media releases announcing every boat interception and every incident of assistance to boats in difficulty at sea. The public thus had access to reasonably prompt and accurate numbers of arrivals and deaths at sea. Major fatal incidents at sea were reported in ministerial media briefings. They have been subject to routine internal Customs and Border Protection departmental reviews. There have, commendably, been four public coronial inquests.

It would be tragic if under Operation Sovereign Borders, as foreshadowed by Scott Morrison, the present degree of public transparency and accountability for deaths in border protection operations were to be abandoned on the spurious pretext (as happened under Operation Relex in 2001) that these are matters of national security that cannot be disclosed. It was a lesson from Operation Relex that any attempt to hide border security operations in which unacceptable risks were taken with human life, or in which deaths at sea occurred, will inevitably leak out. A civilised country should not fear submitting its border protection practices and outcomes to regular public reporting.

The second challenge is equally important. In the last four years, while up to 50,000 boat people have safely reached Australia, around 1100 people have died at sea in 30 known incidents. Many of those deaths were preventable, had Australian rescue-at-sea responses to observed or reported distress-at-sea situations been more prompt and diligent, in accordance with our Rescue at Sea Convention obligations and decent maritime practice.

Australia's rescue-at-sea values became degraded since 2009 under pressure of increasing numbers of boat people, as they were degraded during Operation Relex. In recent years, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority came to see asylum seekers venturing out in unseaworthy boats as people who exploited an international rescue-at-sea system designed for 'genuine' mariners in distress.

Even now, despite significant criticism from the Perth Coroner of response shortcomings in the most recent inquest (SIEV 358), this agency has not conceded that its role is to coordinate prompt rescue of every mariner in distress. It still acts at times as if it were a border protection policeman. The agency has become desensitised to asylum seeker deaths at sea. This must change.

On turnbacks or towbacks, the risks of deaths at sea are well known to the ADF from its 2001 experience. As the Navy understands, protecting human life at sea must always come first. Possibly, a firm but humane administration of attempted turnback operations will prevent deaths of people who are under desperate stress but are not at war with Australia.

ADF ships' commanders must never be given reckless operating instructions or be micro-managed from shore, as happened in 2001 with SIEV 4, the 'children overboard' boat. They must know that their careers will not be blighted if they put their safety-of-life-at sea obligations first in any attempted turnback situations, even at the cost of some annoyance or embarrassment to ministers. And the ADF high command must back them.

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.

Rescue at sea image from Shutterstock

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



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Existing comments

And it has nothing to do with border protection at all, they are talking about the small island 5,400 km from Sydney with everything else in the country without anything happening at all. It's amazing to me though that it took the ABC all those years to notice the excellent work done by you and Natalie O''Brien. Last night in the UNHRC meeting we were on a list of human rights violators including Syria, Somalia and Sudan.
Marilyn | 10 September 2013

I am concerned to read that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority has, in the author's view, become desensitised to asylum seeker deaths at sea. If this is so then the " turn back the boats" policy, for which the Abbott government will claim a sound mandate, comes with a very nasty unspoken of feature. It is unfortunate that the Labour Party was so determined to be seen to be tough on border protection and so good at managing the economy, that the real risk of unnecessary deaths at sea flowing from the turn back the boats policy did not, to my knowledge, rate a mention during the whole of a long campaign.
Tony Macklin | 11 September 2013

It is possible to see, in this, as in every other article on the subject by Tony Kevin, a certain bias against the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which may not be fully authenticated by the evidence. Deaths at sea is a highly emotive issue and I am not sure his particular slant on or treatment of events will clarify or assist in sorting the matter out satisfactorily. It is possible that the new government may sort out matters with the Indonesian government which vastly reduces the number of craft leaving there, thereby reducing the disasters at sea. Whether this is acceptable to Mr Kevin or his regular supporters is a moot point. A sensible approach to the matter, supported by most, if not all, political parties is reducing the boats but increasing the number of refugees from those verified as such by the UN and awaiting resettlement.
Edward F | 11 September 2013

Australia seems to be guilty of double standards when it comes to distress at sea incidents. For instance the Navy responded promptly in 1996 to distress calls during the Vendee Globe single-handed round the world race. And we all felt good and applauded this 'miracle' survival and rescue. Contrast this response with the delay in responding to people escaping persecution and seeking asylum. We should be hanging our heads in shame. Instead we are becoming desensitized to the dangers our fellow human beings are prepared to face in seeking a life free from persecution.
Joanna Elliott | 11 September 2013

times have changed. The refugee convention was originally designed to give temporary protection for those displaced by conflict with the expectation that they would in due course be able to return home. These days with refugees languishing in camps for years, the concern is more for permanent resettlement.
John ozanne | 11 September 2013

John Ozanne is mistaken. 'Temporary protection' was not referenced in either the 1951 Convention or 1967 Protocol. It was first applied during the Kosovo crisis and its legality is disputed internationally. questionable. See , relevant extracts: Q.Why do refugees need protection? A.States are responsible for protecting the fundamental human rights of their citizens. When they are unable or unwilling to do so – often for political reasons or based on discrimination – individuals may suffer such serious violations of their human rights that they have to leave their homes, their families and their communities to find sanctuary in another country. Since, by definition, refugees are not protected by their own governments, the international community steps in to ensure they are safe and protected. Q.Is refugee protection permanent? A.The protection provided under the 1951 Convention is not automatically permanent. A person may no longer be a refugee when the basis for his or her refugee status ceases to exist. This may occur when, for example, refugees voluntarily repatriate to their home countries once the situation there permits such return. It may also occur when refugees integrate or become naturalized in their host countries and stay permanently.
tony kevin | 11 September 2013

No John Ozanne, the convention was not designed to give temporary protection after WW11, it was designed so that we never again had genocides like the holocaust and the world would protect anyone who escaped such potential genocides. With 148 nations now involved it is not our toy to play with and as we ratified it without exception it is binding law. Tens of millions of people have been saved from genocidal maniacs, by your criteria the 2 million Syrian refugees would be left to die.
Marilyn | 11 September 2013

Edward F. You get my vote.
Ron Cini | 11 September 2013

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) rejects Tony Kevin’s assertion in this opinion piece that the Perth Coroner made significant criticisms of AMSA’s handling of the Kaniva (SIEV 358) incident. AMSA's response to Mr Kevin's assertions is available on AMSA's Correcting the Record page here:
John Young | 12 September 2013

The assertion was not Tony's, the transcript was from the coroner in WA who said AMSA were less than diligent over 16 calls for help.
Marilyn | 12 September 2013

Thanks to John Young. I read AMSA’s website response to my essay. I reject the claim that my essay misrepresents the Coroner’s findings. AMSA here, as it did in response to the Coroner’s findings, cherry-picks a few sentences and phrases that, read out of context, might support a view that the Coroner found no fault with the rescue response. Coroner’s findings nered to be read as a whole. I invite interested readers of ES to read the Coroner’s findings, in particular relevant pages 35-39, 41-43, and 48-54. Alternatively, let me cherrypick from page 50: ‘The entire journey for the Kaniva, however, was hazardous in the extreme. The Kaniva was unseaworthy, it was grossly overloaded, there was no EPIRB on board and the life jackets which were available were unsafe. Throughout the journey it was at continual risk of sudden deterioration in its condition which could have resulted in its sinking. The asylum seekers on board were justified in their fears that the Kaniva could sink at any time’. So it would appear that the Coroner found that the 16 phonecalls from the boat to AMSA over 23 hours, which AMSA interpreted and reported in court as ‘normal refugee patter’, were justified distress calls? How can this be understood, other than as a criticism by the Coroner ? I look forward to the agreed briefing at AMSA as an opportunity to discuss such issues further, in a cooperative spirit. AMSA can be proud that during the last financial year, it coordinated assistance to over 15,000 asylum seekers, assuring the safety of more than 99% of them. So far as I know, this is the first time that AMSA has made this important fact – which is a credit to AMSA and to BPC - public.
tony kevin | 13 September 2013

"Unauthorised boat people"? So, some boat people are authorised? Why not just call a spade a spade; call them either asylum seekers, or just plain old refugees.
Ian | 22 November 2013

An armchair article if I ever saw one. Your final response to AMSA's response smacks of insulated ignornace. To suggest that AMSA has a responsibility to proactively babysit every foolish voyage undertaken by alleged asylum seekers deep within Indonesian waters is total ignorance on your part. You clearly have no idea how big the ocean is. You also believe we should unilaterally take over Indonesian responsibility for vessels in their waters. You do not recognise the absolute duty of care these foollish voyage-takers have for their own well being. Despite their fabricated "immediate distress" (lasting for days as they travelled away from safety), they didn't do the obvious and return to Indonesia. Your poor understanding of factual issues and imitation of intellectual analysis is breathtaking. Moderate people like me are hardened to the pkight of these "asylum seekers" every time people like you spout this sort of uninformed bile. Tony Abbott is a sad disappointment, but on the subject of alleged asylum seekers (and on the balance of relative evils) this govt has it all over the previous one, even with all the theatrical and unsavoury secrecy.
Analyst | 26 March 2014


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