The boats that “just kept coming and coming” under Labor have been “all but stopped”, Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared to the Press Club in his widely described as “crash-and-burn” address on February 2.
“The Abbott government has stopped the boats — and only this government will keep them stopped.”
In fact, new immigration minister Peter Dutton reported on January 28 that 15 boats containing 429 asylum seekers had tried the journey to Australia since Abbott's Operation Sovereign Borders came into effect.
Those boats were turned back to Indonesia — with or without Indonesia's cooperation — and Sri Lanka. It is understood the navy conducted these turn-backs by forcing passengers into lifeboats and directing them back to Indonesian waters or, in the case of refugees from Sri Lanka, actually handing over whole groups of people to the Sri Lankan navy.
In most cases, Australians never heard about their existence.
The military head of Sovereign Borders, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, said one boat made it to Australia last year. “All of those on board were transferred to Nauru,” he said.
This achievement — the all-but-stopping of “illegal” boats — was marked by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its World Report 2015. Australia was identified as one of the world's worst violators of human rights, its treatment of refugees being a key reason why.
Australian HRW director Elaine Pearson said Australia's “obsession with 'stopping the boats'” has had “disastrous consequences”.
The World Report 2015 discussed population displacement as an increasing crisis, which is being compounded by the hostilities asylum seekers face in new countries, “including draconian policies in Australia diverting [them] to third countries”.
It said asylum seekers being held on Nauru and Manus Island — totaling 1930 including 135 children as of December 31 — were suffering “significant cost[s] to … physical and mental health”.
“The detention centres are overcrowded and dirty. Asylum claims are not processed in a fair, transparent or expedient manner.”
It also criticised Australia's “enhanced screening”, under which: “More than 3500 asylum seekers, over 99 per cent of whom are from Sri Lanka, have been screened under this procedure, with no access to legal representation or right to appeal.”
Countries that Australia has colluded with in denying safety to refugees were also mentioned in the report, including Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.
The report said PNG and Australia were “failing to provide safe and humane conditions for asylum seekers in detention and that the lengthy delays in refugee status determinations and lack of timeframes for durable resettlement amount to punishment for affected asylum seekers”.
Despite protests and growing alarm over conditions on Manus, conditions continue to worsen. A recent letter released by journalist Shane Bazzi said routine medical care has ceased and IHMS is “only providing emergency care till further notice”.
— Shane Bazzi (@shanebazzi) February 3, 2015
PNG PM Peter O'Neill also made the alarming claim that most of the 1035 asylum seekers in the Manus camp were not genuine refugees and would be repatriated to home countries such as Iraq and Iran. “We’re now talking to their governments and we will start repatriating many of them in a very short time,” he said.
He told ABC's Leigh Sales on January 27 such disastrous moves could take place “within weeks”.
HRW's report said there were “serious concerns” over asylum seekers being returned to Sri Lanka, given the government “has made little progress in providing accountability for wartime abuses”.
“Human Rights Watch and others have documented the authorities’ use of torture against people suspected of links to the [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam], including those returned as failed asylum seekers.”
Australia was also “ignoring concerns about safety and the lack of capacity of the Cambodian government” by planning to have Nauru send refugees there.
The report believed Australia's government “has muted its criticism of authoritarian governments in Sri Lanka and Cambodia in recent years, apparently in hopes of winning the support of such governments for its refugee policies.”