The many faces of asylum seekers. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen In the spotlight: Tony Abbott and the coalition’s policy to turn back the boats. Photo: Andrew Meares
Unrest grows over large asylum seeker numbersSearch for survivors continues after boat capsizes
When Australian Navy sailors boarded an asylum seeker boat known as SIEV 12 just before dawn on December 17, 2001, the volatile situation on board exploded.
Young men among the 133 passengers, realising the navy officers intended to steam the boat back to Indonesia, tore down a tarpaulin and used parts of the boom to threaten members of the boarding party.
”At the same time, I saw flames coming from the fore part of the vessel … (and) several [unauthorised arrivals] freely jumping over the side,” a crew member on the interdicting vessel HMAS Leeuwin, Lieutenant Casey, said.
The passengers’ protests were in vain. Three days later, the SIEV 12 was released near Indonesia, but not before four people had jumped overboard, three fires had been lit, a child held – though not thrown – over the side and the boat sabotaged twice. A child fell and suffered a fractured arm, one man doused himself in petrol and another threatened to slash his own throat.
Turning boats back has always been, quite simply, a nightmare of an operation to carry out – violent, traumatic, dangerous and difficult. Of the 12 times it was attempted during the Howard government’s Operation Relex, only four attempts were successful.
It was difficult then but some experts say it is even more problematic now.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, however, is betting big on his capacity to revive the practice. Turning back the boats ”where it is safe to do so” is a central pillar of his undertaking to ”stop the boats”, a phrase he has uttered hundreds of times since becoming Opposition Leader. And stopping the boats, and hammering the government for the surge in boat arrivals on its watch, underpins the Coalition’s bid for government. A slew of outer suburban seats are up for grabs, especially in western Sydney, where the asylum seeker issue resonates strongly.
For the past three years, it has worked a treat for the Coalition.
But Kevin Rudd’s return as prime minister and open denunciation of the policy by the Indonesian government are changing the debate. What was once an unassailable political plus for the Coalition is now under challenge, starting with Rudd’s assertion it risked conflict with Indonesia, a proposition which drew scorn from some commentators but nonetheless focused public attention on the policy and its pitfalls.
Labor argues turning back wooden boats packed with human cargo is dangerous, reckless and simply will not work. Tony Burke, the new Immigration Minister, said this week people-smugglers had learnt in 2001 that all they needed to do was scuttle the boats, leaving the navy no choice but to rescue everyone on board.
”Once they worked out that Australia was not the sort of country that would turn around and leave people drowning in the ocean they knew that they could turn any circumstance into a safety-at-sea operation,” he said. ”From that moment, the Howard government stopped turning boats back.”
This was flatly rejected by Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, who said: ”The reason [the Howard government] stopped doing it was because the boats had stopped coming.”
The figures appear to support Morrison. While there is little doubt international ”push factors” have played a role – in 2002, there was a 14 per cent drop in the global movement of asylum seekers – the fall in boat arrivals immediately after 2001 was extraordinary. According to the federal parliamentary library, 5516 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2001. In 2002, the figure was one person.
Abbott, who often points to the Howard era as an argument for the election of a Coalition government, has repeatedly insisted, ”it’s been done before, it can be done again.”
But can it? Whether it would work again is hard to judge because the Coalition refuses to reveal the detail of its plans, citing operational reasons. Like any good military tactic, it will not work if the other side knows what is coming, the Coalition says, though their reticence leaves voters at a disadvantage in weighing up the merits of the plan.
Morrison again refused to discuss how the plan would work this week, saying it ”actually can jeopardise the implementation of these policies and put people at risk”.
Broadly speaking, interdiction of a vessel means intercepting it at sea, boarding it, taking charge and steaming it back to the edge of Indonesia’s territorial waters, 22 kilometres offshore. There, it will be left with enough fuel to get back to an Indonesian port but not enough to turn around and have another crack at going south. How much variation to that model – and therefore scope for ”operational secrecy” – can there be?
Supporters of the turn-back policy say there are all sorts of clever ways to outfox the people smugglers. There is ”infinite flexibility” to the navy’s bag of operational tricks, according to Jim Molan, a former army general, and now a military commentator and supporter of turning back boats. But he won’t say what they are.
Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James says people-smuggling operations have evolved and staying one step ahead is a matter of ”perpetual measures and countermeasures”.
At least one of the Coalition’s ideas he is aware of is ”extremely imaginative and reasonably daring” – in a positive way – he says, though he won’t explain further, saying it will lose its value as a surprise.
”Even if you can’t turn all boats back, you’ve got to be able to bluff that you can,” he said.
Indeed, the signal it sends is the most important thing, advocates argue. Former foreign minister Alexander Downer said it was the timing and context of the tough approach that was so effective in 2001.
”Howard’s basic point was, people are not going to come to Australia this way. I’m just not going to allow it. That set the tone.”
Philip Ruddock, immigration minister from 1996 to 2003, said when asylum seekers were returned in 2001, they went to get their money back from people smugglers, forcing the smugglers to ”go to ground” and destroying their business.
But there are experienced heads who see it differently. Retired admiral Chris Barrie, who was chief of the defence force when the Howard policies began, knows as much as anyone about the tactics of turning back boats. He says there is little operational secrecy at stake because people smugglers and passengers can always play their trump card of creating a dangerous situation and engaging Australia’s obligations to protect the safety of life at sea.
”Operational detail I don’t think matters much because the way the system will unfold is these guys will either simply sink boats or burn boats or do both when they’re in the vicinity of something that might rescue them and that sort of obviates the whole thing,” he says.
”I’m not saying it would never work. What I am saying is that a declared policy is going to invite people smugglers to act in ways which will make sure that policy can’t work, and that is going to put people’s lives at risk. That’s what worries me about it.”
No high-ranking current or former navy officers who have spoken out on the matter have said it cannot be done. Chief of Navy Ray Griggs made headlines in late 2011 when he told a Senate hearing there were ”risks involved in this whole endeavour” to asylum seekers and navy personnel but stopped well short of saying it could not or should not be done.
Retired vice admiral Chris Ritchie, chief of the navy from 2002 to 2005, said it had been done before and there was no reason it could not be again ”if the conditions are similar”.
”It is a risky business and it’s not for you or I to say it’s too risky – that’s something for the government and the navy to decide.”
In 2011, Abbott backed away from his original proposal of a prime ministerial hotline to navy vessels. He now says it is an operational decision for commanders to turn back boats ”when it is safe to do so”.
One navy commander, Richard Menhinick, famously disobeyed directions in 2001 and took all 154 asylum seekers from an imperiled boat onto the HMAS Warramunga. Writing later in an ethics manual for navy officers, Commodore Menhinick said the incident illustrated ”how our sense of duty, our readiness to accomplish missions and follow direction and our conscience are in a complex web”.
Still, there is lingering disquiet within the navy about the position in which commanders are left, with one former officer describing it as being ”the meat in the sandwich”.
Paul Barratt, a former secretary of the Department of Defence who was sacked by the Howard government, said the government would be putting navy commanders in difficult legal and moral territory.
”When people join the armed forces, they sort of put one hand on the Bible and the other in the air and say they’ll do what they’re told,” Barratt said. ”But this implies a contract with the government that the government won’t go on to do things that are unlawful.
”So it’s up to the government to make sure that it never puts these people in the invidious position that they have to decide between that oath and their understanding of international law.”
The other outstanding question mark is Indonesia. The communique after Rudd met President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last week stressed the ”importance of avoiding unilateral actions which might jeopardise such a comprehensive regional approach and which might cause operational or other difficulties to any party” – a clear swipe at Abbott’s policy.
But Morrison insists Australia needs only Indonesia’s ”acquiescence”, not its agreement – a crucial difference in language.
”I know for a fact that it was never an issue discussed between John Howard and the President of Indonesia,” he says.
There is a school of thought among Canberra’s elite that Australia will inevitably need to assert itself on the issue with respect to Indonesia, which they say is not doing all it can. Meanwhile each side of politics is accusing the other of imperilling the relationship with Indonesia in a bid to score political points. And experts say we will be lucky to get another Indonesian president as patient and easy to deal with as Yudhoyono after the country holds elections next year.
Like his vow to repeal the carbon tax, Abbott’s promise to ”stop the boats” is one on which his credibility rests. He argues Labor essentially doesn’t believe it can be done. Whether he is able to persuade voters that the figure of 17,202 – the number of boat arrivals in 2012 – can fall to zero is looming as his biggest challenge in the countdown to the election.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.