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Jun 17, 2013

An ex-ambassador looks at ‘turning back the boats’

Tony Abbott's policy of turning back asylum seeker boats "when it is safe to do so" will endanger lives and crush navy morale, writes former Australian ambassador to Poland and Cambodia Tony Kevin.

asylum seekers

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

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26 comments

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26 thoughts on “An ex-ambassador looks at ‘turning back the boats’

  1. graybul

    Excellent summation of “Turn back Boats” realities. Abbott’s “spin” undeniably callous, opportunistic. A threat to human life . . and ultimately boats will not be turned back.
    However, there will continue to be casualties . . deaths by “accident” rather than accountable “design”!
    Malaysian regional reception centre with UN distribution/allocation network remains best bet. Elephant in room . . “Climate Change”. guarantees this world wide disaster is not going away! To facilitate Regional Reception . . Buy up Indonesian leaky, low cost boats ie reduce supply. Indonesia profits via construction of higher value boats. People smugglers . . priced out of market. Australia builds less concentration camps!

  2. David Hand

    1. Boat people are not powerless.
    2. There are already fatalities at sea.
    3. Indonesia seems to be able to stop the boats.
    4. This is yet another high-minded left-elite opinion piece with no solution proposed.

    Labor has failed and failed utterly in this policy area. They removed the successful measures amidst a completely self indulgent group wank and now have no answers at all. There are policy options available. How about something constructive rather than yet another partisan political criticism of the only party willing to tackle this diabolical problem in conformance with the wishes of the majority of Australians?

  3. Mark from Melbourne

    Why oh why doesn’t this get dissected as forensically as this in MSM and shoved up Abbott and teams nose until they cry Uncle?

  4. Mark from Melbourne

    Dear Mr. Hand – one might suggest you apply your own argument to yourself ie how about something constructive.

  5. shepherdmarilyn

    David it is not a policy area. The only area that is policy based is what we do to people when they are here and with thousands of innocent people jailed without cause, with people killing themselves and so on the notion that they give a damn about refugees drowning is absurd.

    It might really shock you David but we don’t own the oceans and borders of the world.

    WE have zero right to tell anyone they cannot sail but we have a 100% responsibility to save them if they are in trouble and not send them into further danger.

    Tell us David, if fire brigades are trying to get to bushfires do you turn them back if they don’t have the right frigging papers? Because that is the concept you peddle.

    Now as we have no legal right in the world to stop any innocent passage of any vessel why do you think we can force them to sail from 12 nm from our coast back to Indonesia where they are not wanted, are not INdonesian, cannot be protected and will face brute force deportation.

    The brutality of Australia under Gillard is the worst it has ever been because she has buckets of concrete poured into her racist ears and refuses to understand the law.

    But then she has always refused to understand the law David, just like you.

    Because you see the law that everyone has the right to seek asylum is CONCRETE AND 1000% NOT NEGOTIABLE.

  6. David Hand

    Righto Mark,
    Here are some constructive ideas.

    The ALP should admit it has completely stuffed up this policy area.

    Australia should withdraw from the UN convention on refugees to remove the legal grounds for bleeding heart lefties to challenge government policy in court. My namesake but no relation Gerry Hand has suggest exactly this policy today.

    There should be an active, high level engagement with Indonesia away from the media spotlight to develop new policies to stop this destructive and lethal trade.

    Crikey should stop wheeling out “experts” who dish up such shallow analysis.

    All these proposed measured are positive policies aimed at fixing this diabolical problem.

  7. David Hand

    Righto Mark,
    Here are some constructive ideas.

    The ALP should admit it has completel y stuffed up this pol icy area.

    Australia should withdraw from the UN convention on refugees to remove the legal grounds for blee ding he art left ies to challenge government pol icy in court. My namesake but no relation Gerry Hand has suggest exactl y this pol icy today.

    There should be an active, high level engagement with Indonesia away from the media spotl ight to develop new pol icies to stop this destructive and le thal trade.

    Crik ey should stop wheel ing out “experts” who dish up such shallow anal ysis.

    All these proposed measures are positive pol icies aimed at fixing this diabol ical problem.

  8. geomac62

    David
    What apart from TPVs is not in place that was in place under the Howard government ? Apart from actually sometimes getting to see a human face on these refugees that is .

  9. shepherdmarilyn

    David, it is not a frigging policy area and with only 0.0001% of the world’s refugees being here what on earth would be the point of us alone in the world withdrawing from the convention when everyone is guaranteed legal rights under the constitution anyway.

    Why on earth do you want to punish those who have been tortured and abused already?

  10. Keith Thomas

    It’s not politically acceptable to say so, but aren’t the boat people referred to by Tony Kevin – by their queue-jumping and blackmail through extremely excitable and manipulative behaviour – demonstrating the likelihood of their unsuitability as residents in Australia, let alone citizens? If we are determined to take refugees and accept asylum seekers, why can’t we take only those who go through the channels and process that Australia has set up for this purpose? Why do we give any credibility at all to those who, even before they arrive, are demonstrating contempt for our laws and our way of life?

    Just because we are sorry for people, especially people before us, does not place us under any obligation to accede to their wishes – the planet is over-populated, and it’s obvious that human population levels here in Australia are leading directly to damaging strains on our environment and on our society. The legal position has no bearing on biophysical and societal reality, inconvenient though this may be.

    Mark wants solutions. Mark, this is a rotten situation to be in, one in which NO solution will be acceptable to a majority when the full implications are publicized by those who brush aside any consideration of limits. NONE. “Callousness” is baked into the cake: callousness to existing Australian citizens if we welcome misfits, callousness to the Australian environment if we add more people, callousness to incomers if we turn them away.

    So, I don’t have a solution that the majority will embrace; I don’t think there is one. And, Marilyn, all the expletives in the world won’t create one. What I would propose is that Australia accepts across its borders only those people who apply through the processes Australia establishes and who meet the criteria determined by Australia. If this is inconsistent with international obligations, then we should pull out of those obligations. Such a policy, if strongly and consistently applied – to all arrivals – would provide the “clear message” needed to deter unapproved entry. Secondly, complementing this, we should monitor overstayers and deport them if they fail to meet the requirements they signed up to for their visas. Thirdly, we should take a consistent line on individuals who deliberately manipulate the system – such as those who arrive on a family visit at an advanced age and then claim medical reasons for not leaving Australia – requiring them to lodge deposits with their visa applications or their families to pay the full cost of their residence here. Fourthly, we should put pressure on majority Muslim countries to accept Muslim refugees. Finally, we should require the granting of Australian citizenship as a lifelong good behaviour bond.

    If you want more compassion – such as through an appeals process – build this into the framework openly and from the beginning. We cannot afford it to be an easy way around our asylum/refugee/temporary entry policies.