Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s pledge to turn back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia is unworkable and dangerous, as Coalition frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull has pointed out. The issue is worth a closer look.
For several months (September-December) in 2001, former PM John Howard ordered the navy to conduct tough turnback policies. Eventually his government did stop the boats — but not by turning or towing boats back to Indonesia. It stopped them by acquiescing or turning a blind eye to successful voyage deterrence through ruthless covert disruption practices.
As a result, I believe hundreds of people died at sea when Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X (or SIEV X), an Indonesian fishing boat carrying over 400 asylum seekers, sank in October 2001. I hope Abbott’s conscience would never allow him to go so far. The indifferent record in 2001 is salutary, and it would be even harder for the navy to turn back or tow back boats now for a number of reasons:
- Desperate asylum-seekers will not obey orders to turn back to Indonesia under their own power, as a 2001 experience showed (SIEV 4 — the “children overboard” boat, which HMAS Adelaide had initially ordered to turn back). They will disable their boats forthwith, creating rescue-at-sea emergencies to which our navy commanders must by maritime law and decency respond.
- Unacceptable risks to navy personnel safety and morale in forced towback. Under Howard, this option was tried several times. As Chief of Navy Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs (in 2001 commanding HMAS Arunta) recalled in 2011, there are huge risks involved. In 2001 there were several distressing events. On one occasion, male passengers were led to believe they were being towed to Australia and locked in the hold of a boat overnight. When they were allowed on deck the next day and found they had been towed back to near Indonesia, there was a ugly and life-theatening on-deck riot (footage was shown on Four Corners). There was also a reported incident of a man dousing himself in petrol and threatening to immolate himself with a lighter with Australian personnel nearby. Some asylum seekers reportedly committed suicide by jumping off boats. There were also reported deaths of asylum seekers trying to swim or wade to shore. No responsible chief of navy today would want to expose their men and women to such risks and stresses again, and they would have full service support.
- Unpredictable but probably negative Indonesian policy responses, both in situ and in Jakarta. As reported by Paul Kelly in The Australian, Abbott and opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison have recently shown some dawning awareness of this and have tried to nuance their policy accordingly:
“Abbott now hoses down immediate expectations from his ‘stop the boats’ mantra of the past four years. His language is different. Asked how long it will take him to stop the boats, Abbott said: ‘We will make a difference from day one’ …. Pressed further, Abbott said the boats would be stopped in his first term …
“[Turning back the boats] requires not the consent of Indonesia but its acquiescence … It will mean repairing any damaged boat, transferring the asylum-seekers to navy ships for some time and ensuring the boat is transported back near to Indonesian waters.”
But none of this is credible or workable, either on the water or by any “quiet diplomacy” between Canberra and Jakarta. In mid-2014 Indonesians will elect a new president, who is unlikely to be nearly as sympathetic to Australia as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. As recent remarks by Indonesian officials suggest, national pride on this issue is rising. To try to force Indonesia’s hand after September 2013 by leaving drifting disabled boats within its 12-mile territorial waters limit would evoke angry or indifferent responses: “You brought them here, they are your problem, not ours.”
If the boats start to sink on the edge of Indonesian territorial waters (and they will), the Royal Australian Navy would have to rescue them. This problem is worsened by seasonal offshore surface currents, caused by coastal upwelling off the south coast of Java, which can push drifting boats left at the 12-mile territorial sea limit back out into international waters — putting the rescue-at-sea onus back on the Australian navy ships that towed them there.
Furthermore, international maritime law would not support an Australian towback policy, as Professor Don Rothwell writes.
If the Australian and Indonesian governments insisted on playing such dangerous brinkmanship games with powerless people’s lives, there would be grave outcomes of fatal incidents at sea. The consequences — for Australia’s international standing, for navy morale, and even for Australian-Indonesian relations — would be difficult to predict but almost certainly highly negative. Surely, it is time now for Tony Abbott to cross navy towback off his list of asylum seeker deterrence policies.
*Tony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Poland 1991-94 and to Cambodia 1994-97, and is author of A Certain Maritime Incident: the sinking of SIEV X (2004) and Reluctant Rescuers.