Defence Minister Brendan Nelson has announced that the rules of engagement have been rewritten so that the Navy and Customs have the power to shoot at illegal fishing boats as a last resort. But what about the kids on board who could get caught in the crossfire of Nelson’s plan?

As Crikey reported back in August this year, more than 10% of illegal fishermen apprehended in Australian waters in the last year were children. But according to the ABC, the navy will now be able to fire on boats that may have these minors on board:

Dr Nelson says the Navy would be able to fire on boats that failed to stop when directed to and will also be allowed to use pepper spray and tear gas in confrontations in Australian waters.

Dr Nelson says the aim would not be to sink a vessel but to disable the boat by striking the engine or rudder.

As at 24 November 2006 there were 13 minor illegal foreign fishers in immigration detention (in alternative facilities), according to DIMA. Given that on the same date there were 179 IFFs in total, minors represent around 7% of illegal foreign fishers being held at that date. In the year 05-06, the number of IFFs who were minors when taken into detention was 355, says DIMA.

In ‘Operation Breakwater’ earlier this year, eight children were picked up by the navy on 23 boats.

Human rights advocate Kaye Bernard, who has been in contact with minors from fishing boats, told Crikey, “These kids are powerless in the decision making process, they have no control of a situation in which live rounds will be fired on them. They can’t stop the boat skipper and they certainly can’t stop what the defence minister is endorsing, that is, firing live rounds on boats…”

The Australian Customs Service website states:

Illegal activity in the Southern Ocean is being fuelled by rising fish prices, overfishing elsewhere in the world and excess fishing capacity in northern hemisphere fishing fleets. There is concern that, if left unchecked, such fishing would eventually lead to the commercial extinction of stocks of the Patagonian toothfish.

But does this really warrant a tactic as serious as firing live rounds at a vessel that may have children on board?

DIMA spokesman Phil Allan told Crikey back in August that of the 2647 illegal foreign fishers apprehended this past financial year, 289 were minors. The majority of children come from the Kupang region in West Timor.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told Crikey, “The figures at the moment show that one in every 2.5 boats has kids on them and they may be rising, and they are departmental figures.”

“The government are putting kid’s lives at risk with this decision,” says Siewert. “They’re escalating the possibility of violence occurring and kids are potentially in the line of fire.”

“Add to that the fact that the boats are fairly flimsy vessels that could sink, they’re putting kids under threat.”

The Oz reports that foreign fishing vessels operating illegally in the Top End posed an increasing risk for navy and Customs officers. “They are engaging in activities which are very dangerous to our personnel and indeed to our patrol boats, including very large sharpened poles, the throwing of missiles and a variety of things which endanger our people,” Dr Nelson said.

But Senator Siewert says this doesn’t mean that the Defence Minister should be altering the rules of engagement to support opening fire on vessels that could have children on board.

“The situation is extremely fraught once there’s confrontation occurring and it’s all the more likely that kids could be harmed,” says Siewert. “It’s awful that the kids are on boats in the first place but the fact is that they are and the government know that.”

“Why are the government now ramping up the confrontation by enabling the navy to do this?”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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