Journalists have confirmed that up to five boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia have been turned back to Indonesia since December 10.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott went to the election promising he would “turn the boats around”, but refused to detail how this would be carried out in practice. He described this secrecy as akin to being “at war”. "If we were at war we wouldn't be giving out information that is of use to the enemy [“people smugglers”] just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves,” he said. It’s a contemptible comparison given that most of the countries refugees are fleeing have been suffering under brutal wars and occupation, in most cases supported by the Australian government.
However, despite this state secrecy, consistent reports have been emerging that Australian Navy personnel and customs officials have used force against asylum seekers as they try to implement the government’s policy. This includes allegations from an Indonesian officer and several asylum seekers that the Australian Navy fired warning shots to try to turn one of the boats around, as well as lying to asylum seekers about their destination before abandoning them in Indonesian waters.
Continuing the government’s practice of absolute secrecy about the implementation of its refugee policy, immigration minister Scott Morrison has refused to confirm boats are being turned back. He also denied any shots were fired. He simply said in a weekly briefing to journalists that officials were “doing things differently to provide active deterrents to those seeking to enter Australia illegally by boat''.
Fairfax journalists interviewed asylum seekers who had travelled on the boats and said they were tricked into returning to Indonesia. They said the Australian Navy intercepted their sinking boat on December 26 and told them they would be taken to Christmas Island.
Instead, they were transferred to a customs boat and sailed for three days, unknowingly being taken back to Indonesia. Once they were within three hours of land, they were transferred again onto a small orange lifeboat and handed a document that said: “You only have enough fuel to reach land in Indonesia. You do not have enough fuel to continue your voyage to Australia … if you continue on your journey, the master and crew of your boat will face harsh penalties, which may include a jail term.”
The larger boat then left them there.
Another group of asylum seekers told media on January 17 that they were given a boat and told to go back to Indonesia under their own steam.
Morrison has refused to discuss whether and how boats are being turned back at sea. But Operation Sovereign Borders commander General Angus Campbell confirmed at a January 15 press conference that the navy had bought several lifeboat vessels, appearing to support the description of events given by the asylum seekers.
SBS reported on January 8 that asylum seekers have alleged the navy used force on people during a boat turnaround operation. This included asylum seekers being handcuffed before their boat was towed back to Indonesian waters and abandoned in rough seas. Asylum seeker Yousif Ibrahim from Sudan said: "We asked for water, they didn't want to give us. They called us inhuman words, like illegal refugees, monkeys from Africa.”
Three asylum seekers on board another boat told Fairfax they were mistreated by navy personnel as their boat was being turned around. One was kicked in the thigh and two others were forced to put their hands on the boat’s mufflers, resulting in burns.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is interviewing the asylum seekers who were on board the boats that were turned around, now residing in Indonesia, and has warned that Australia could be violating international law with the policy.
UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch told ABC radio: “It's a very concerning policy ... Because if people who are in need of international protection seek a country's safety, then they must be allowed to go through a process which helps to determine if these certain people are in need of international protection or not. So in that case, these people are not supposed to be turned back from their territory.”
Information about how the government’s refugee policies are being carried out is about to get even scarcer. Morrison has announced he will no longer hold weekly briefings to update journalists and briefings will now be held on an “as needs basis”.