Clarity needed over Abbott’s ‘turn back boats’ policy

29th Apr 2013

An opinion piece by ALA National President Anthony Kerin

Mr Abbott, long criticised for being scant on detail when it comes to policy, has announced his latest grandiose idea of how to solve the problem of asylum seekers risking their lives to find freedom in Australia – he will turn them around.

Now, given that he is the man who looks like leading this country come the September 14 election we, as Australian citizens, should be asking a little bit more from the candidate who would be Prime Minister.

So far we have heard that if it was good enough for the Howard Government, it would be good enough for him, and little else.

Social policy analysis given to all politicians and available on the Federal Government website reads, “The magnitude and complexity of the issues arising from the flow of asylum seekers globally poses huge challenges for the world’s ‘receiving’ countries—Australia included.”

So why is the Opposition Leader being so flippant regarding such an important policy, and why are we, as potential anointers of such vested power, not asking more from this electoral candidate?

The way we treat asylum seekers has huge ramifications, not just for those seeking refuge who risk being put back to sea and potentially lose their lives, under Mr Abbott’s policy, but also for the rest of us.

We already know that the journey by boat to reach Australia can have devastating consequences. The numbers are not clear, because no one knows for sure how many boats actually leave Indonesia bound for our shores, but the best estimate is around 2 – 3% of those who try to make it here drown. So the numbers are in the hundreds for the last decade.

The boats Mr Abbott would turn around contain men, women and children who would be guaranteed, under our Migration Act, the right to apply for asylum. They are guaranteed under international law the right to seek protection when escaping from persecution.

Turning back boats, leaving those on board stranded at sea, will lead to even more deaths.

Can we forget the screams of parents and children on board the SIEV 221 which smashed into Christmas Island in 2010? Can we forget the sobbing of those who stood on the shores of Christmas Island forced to watch and not able to assist? Can we ignore the effect the event had on those young sailors who fished dead bodies out of the ocean for hours that stormy day?

Can we ignore the fact that this policy will force our young men and women on board Navy vessels to take part in condemning innocent people to death? They will be forever affected by this cruel policy.

Imagine if we heard that those sheltering the escaping Syrians in Turkey and Jordan were instead forcing people to turn around and head back into Syria? We would be shocked and asking the world to prevent it. Yet this policy is just as cruel; just as harsh and will have equally devastating consequences.

Our international reputation is not unlike the good will of a business when it comes to trade. If we continue to treat desperate people with such indifference, we continue to market ourselves as indifferent to human tragedy and unreliable in terms of our international obligations. This will impact our economy.

Also, the potential litigation from those turned back, who are genuine asylum seekers, is another responsibility and ultimate cost of our behaviour.

But it is the cost to our collective psyche that is the most insidious because we are unaware of the negative impact of such actions on ourselves as human beings. We live in what is very much a global society with global responsibilities and this is only going to become more so with advances in technology and transport speeding communication and travel processes.

The movement of displaced people isn’t going to end any time soon with destabilisation of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sri Lanka only going to lead to more people taking the dangerous journey in future.

Both sides of politics need to consult internationally to help find solutions for this difficult global problem and then present their policies to the public. And as citizens about to elect a government to office we should be asking for such detail from any prospective administration.

So to help Mr Abbott get his policy detail started, here are some questions for consideration:

  • Does he intend to leave boats in international waters after towing them to that position?
  • Will he provide food and water to asylum seekers on the boats while towing them?
  • Will he acknowledge that a ‘duty of care’ is activated once towing commences and when would such a duty end?
  • Maritime officers already have power to restrain people. What if the boat starts to make its way back to Australia? Will the navy then remove its engine?
  • Does Mr Abbott intend to make agreements with neighbouring countries regarding the towing of boats?
  • How is the international community likely to view such actions?
  • Might such action constitute unlawful detention?
  • Human Rights Watch has recently criticised the Myanmar government for ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Rohingya Muslims from Burma. Is Mr Abbott aware of the international criticism directed at Thailand when it towed boats into international waters, filled with Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar/Burma, many of whom died?
  • What does he intend to happen to boats that begin to disintegrate or break down?
  • What does he think should happen if people start jumping off boats, as happened this year in Thailand, when the Thai navy began towing them into international waters?
  • What specific actions will officers be authorised to take in instances where any of the above happens? For example, if people jump off the boat, does Mr Abbott intend to authorise officers to save or restrain them?
  • What checks and balances does Mr Abbott intend to put in place to ensure that authorities towing the boats are publicly accountable?
  • What cost to Australia is estimated by Mr Abbott for the ‘tow back’ policy?

Tags: Human rights Migration law Asylum seekers and refugees