Australia's Stop the Boat Policy

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Australia’s new asylum policy aimed at cracking down on refugees coming by boat has sparked much international controversy. Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently introduced the new “military-led Operation Sovereign Borders.”[1] This policy allows the Australian navy to turn around any boat containing asylum seekers without giving them any chance of having their refugee claims heard.[2]

This new policy made international headlines when a group of 56 asylum seekers from Pakistan and Bangladesh were sent back to Indonesia by the Australian navy.[3] The navy placed the refugees in an Australian lifeboat near the Indonesian maritime border with a document stating they only had enough fuel to make it back to Indonesia, and that any attempt to continue their voyage towards Australia would be futile.[4] The document went further to say that if the refugees were to continue their voyage to Australia, then they would face harsh penalties, including the possibility of jail.[5]

There is a legal element to this controversy. The UN high commissioner for refugees has recently stated that this new policy may be a breach of Australia’s international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.[6] The convention, to which Australia was a signatory, requires that no country turn away asylum seekers without first considering their refugee claims.[7] Despite such concerns, Prime Minister Abbott has maintained the belief that the policy is legal and safe. Scott Morrison, Australia’s Minister for Immigration, released a statement saying “[t]he government is taking steps necessary to protect our borders consistent with our domestic laws and international obligations.”[8]

This new policy has also renewed tensions between the Australian and Indonesian governments. Just last year Edward Snowden provided evidence that Australia had been illegally spying on high-ranking Indonesian officials.[9] As a result of the spying incident, Indonesia “downgraded” its relationship with Australia and subsequently suspended all joint military cooperation.[10] Soon after, Australia vowed that it would never again breach Indonesia’s sovereignty.[11] However, it was recently uncovered that this new asylum policy has resulted in numerous violations of the Indonesian maritime border by Australian navy vessels.[12] In response to these violations, Indonesia has demanded that the new asylum policy be suspended until Australia can ensure that there will be no more violations.[13] One professor at Melbourne Law School suggests that Australia’s actions may trigger even stronger reactions from Indonesia due to Indonesia’s lack of a coherent navy, thus making a political statement its only true line of defense to a maritime border breach.[14]

Indonesia has also reacted negatively to Australia’s policy of giving asylum seekers new lifeboats with only enough fuel to reach Indonesia.[15] Though this issue is not a direct breach of maritime borders, Indonesia’s foreign minister stated it would set a dangerous precedent for future policies if left unchecked.[16] Unfortunately, it seems this animosity has not swayed the Australian government. Chris Morrison, in his statement of apology, suggested that the Australian government would “not ‘let this setback get in the way of the job we were elected to do, and that is to stop the boats.’”[17]

In light of these international issues raised over Australia’s new border policy, it may be wise for Tony Abbott to reconsider this new policy. However, Abbott’s silence on the topic leaves many unanswered questions for both the international community and Australian citizens.[18] Until Abbott releases a formal statement or until legal recourse is taken, any hope for refugees seeking asylum in Australia remains uncertain.


[1] UN Warns Australia over Reportedly Turning away Refugee Boats, Yahoo! News (Jan. 11, 2014, 4:07 AM), https://sg.news.yahoo.com/un-warns-australia-over-reportedly-turning-away-refugee-170701195.html.

[2] Lenore Taylor, Coalition’s ‘Stopping the Boats’ Strategy Taking on Water, The Guardian (Jan. 16, 2014, 9:58 PM), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/17/coalitions-stopping-the-boats-strategy-taking-on-water.

[3] George Roberts, Asylum Seeker Turn-Backs: Indonesian Spokesman Says Claims Being Investigated, Yahoo! News (Jan. 17, 2014, 8:46 AM), http://au.news.yahoo.com/a/20812509/asylum-seeker-turn-backs-indonesian-spokesman-agus-rookiyan-barnas-says-claims-being-investigated (no longer available).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] UN Warns Australia over Reportedly Turning away Refugee Boats, supra note 1.

[7] Taylor, supra note 2.

[8] Natalie O’Brien, Boat Turnbacks May Breach International Law: UNHCR, The Sydney Morning Herald (Jan. 11, 2014), http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/boat-turnbacks-may-breach-international-law-unhcr-20140111-30n8v.html.

[9] Jamie Smyth & Ben Bland, East Timor Take Australia to Court over Spying Dispute, Financial Times (Jan. 20, 2014, 7:55 PM), http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5499c5e6-819f-11e3-87d5-00144feab7de.html#axzz2qy87VcEO.

[10] Australian Associated Press, Indonesian President Says He Felt Betrayed by Tony Abbott over Spying, The Guardian (Jan. 17, 2014), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/18/indonesian-president-betrayed-tony-abbott-spying.

[11] See Taylor, supra note2.

[12] Lenore Taylor, Indonesia Demands Suspension of Australia’s Asylum Operations, The Guardian (Jan. 17, 2014, 5:35 AM), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/17/australia-apologises-patrol-boats-indonesian-waters.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Taylor, supra note 12.

[18] SeeUN Warns Australia over Reportedly Turning away Refugee Boats, supra note 1.


Posted by Raymond L. Echevarria (Ray) on Mon. February 10, 2014 8:00 AM
Categories: Australia, United Nations

Comments for this post are now closed.

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