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Turning back the boats is a moral and legal failure, say academics
The Guardian (Australia) - March 12, 2015
The University of Queensland study, which examines all 29 interceptions of boats under the Howard and Abbott governments from 2001, finds while there is no conclusive evidence the policy has saved lives, as many as eight people have died as a result of it.
The risk of death or serious injury at sea, including to Australian officials, remains elevated with the ongoing incentive for migrants to sabotage vessels in a bid to thwart forced returns to Indonesia or Sri Lanka, the study says.
"Given the official secrecy surrounding this topic, it is not possible to say with certainty that there have not been further cases of death or injury," it says.
UQ researchers Andreas Schloenhardt and Colin Craig argue the singular achievement of halting the arrival of irregular migrants is "greatly outweighed" by factors also including the diplomatic effect of making Australia's commitment to international refugee laws "meaningless".
They conclude: "It is difficult to advocate, support and sustain this policy in these circumstances."
Schloenhardt, a law professor and organised crime expert who came to the topic via his research of people smuggling, told Guardian Australia the government's dishonesty about the fact it was flouting those laws through "towbacks" was "appalling".
He said the nature of what took place during forced returns of mostly genuine asylum seekers – which have been kept secret by the government since last year – would make the public "think twice about this policy and whether it's really the best way of stopping people smuggling".
"Most people are not aware of the circumstances of returns, what happens on these boats, how few [towbacks] there have really been and all these other factors that flow into that," Schloenhardt said.
"They just think, ok, there's no more boats coming, that's all we really care about."
The study chronicles the frequency of dangerous incidents during forced returns by the navy and customs, from drownings to fatal explosions after engine sabotage and mechanical failures in unseaworthy boats towed at length.
It takes aim at Abbott's comments as opposition leader about the "success" of the policy under Howard – when he said there was "no reason why [the navy] can't do it safely again" – dismissing them as "a misrepresentation by any standard".
Schloenhardt said in both eras of the policy, there had been "a very consistent pattern" of passengers taking desperate steps, including self harm and violence, to avoid "towbacks".
He said it was striking how common these incidents were, as well as how few boats were actually turned back under Howard (four of 14 intercepted).
The law professor said Australia was unique in the way it broke its international refugee obligations and laws at sea, shifting the burden to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia with no such obligations.
Those countries tolerated underground societies of hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants, partly as a source of cheap labour but mainly because it was cheaper than detaining or deporting them in great numbers, he said.
Instead of accepting and protecting asylum seekers, Australia was repelling them in circumstances where it could not guarantee they would safely reach Indonesian shores – much less be protected from the risk of exploitation, arbitrary jailing or return to their original place of persecution, Schloenhardt said.
"There are international treaties and guidelines on this whole topic of people smuggling and none of them envisage the sorts of responses we have cooked up," he said.
"We have a situation where international refugee laws are completely and utterly meaningless for Australia and the government is simply so dishonest about that. That is what is so frustrating for me.
"The government should have been honest and say we don't want to be bound by these obligations and withdraw our signature. Of course it's politically very unpopular, it paints us in a very bad light internationally, but this is the effect that all of this has.
"The resettlement of people in refugee camps in third countries is a nice thing to do, very humanitarian, but it's got nothing to do with the refugee convention, which says if people show up, look after them and don't send them back."
The Australian government was "quite ignorant" of the negative publicity it was gaining worldwide on the issue, especially in Europe.
Irregular migrant numbers in countries like Austria (70,000 a year) – where Schloenhardt spends half the year as a research fellow at the University of Vienna – dwarf Australia even at its 2013 peak of 20,587.
"Certainly in Europe where there are a lot of organisations dealing with refugees, they all think this is completely crazy, what the Australians are doing," Schloenhardt said.
"In Italy, where in the first month this year they had 6,000 arrivals by boat, they debate to what lengths they go to to rescue these people not about what they can do to stop them coming in the first place."
While the number of deaths that have occurred among asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat has been estimated at 1550, Schloenhardt said the true number – was likely twice that.