Australia's Secret Refugee Boat Operations

Sydney Opera House under stormy sky. Pixabay/Public Domain

Refugees must be managed, but they shouldn't be punished.

Like the United States and the European Union, Australia is an extraordinarily attractive destination for refugees. But unlike the United States and the EU, Australia is separated from asylum seekers by hundreds of miles of deep ocean. Crossing the Mediterranean is child's play compared to crossing the Timor Sea.

Still, Australia has a refugee crisis. The difference is that the crisis in Australia is over the treatment of the few refugees who actually attempt a crossing, not over the integration of the handful of asylum seekers who actually make it. These days boat arrivals in Australia are as scarce as Tasmanian tigers.

It wasn't always this way. Between 2009 and 2013 Australia faced a deluge of refugees arriving by boat from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The wave crested in 2013 with more than 20,000 unauthorized arrivals on 300 boats.

In 2013 Tony Abbott's Liberal Party (Australia's conservatives) came to power on a pledge to "stop the boats" -- and did just that. Tony Abbott has since been replaced as prime minister by fellow Liberal Malcolm Turnbull, but the policy remains the same. Refugees simply are not allowed to arrive in Australia by boat.

Which is not to say that they don't try. In November 2015, a refugee boat got within shouting distance of the Australian Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, and in May 2016, a dozen Sri Lankans almost made it to the remote Australian-administered Cocos Islands.

Both attempted landings were foiled by the Australian Navy under its Operation Sovereign Borders, a program ordered by the Liberal government immediately upon taking office in September 2013.

Under this program, refugee boats approaching Australian territory are towed back to sea. If the boats are unseaworthy, the asylum-seekers are transferred to lifeboats, which are then towed to the edges of Indonesian territorial waters and let go. These operations are shrouded in military operational secrecy but enough details have leaked to paint a clear picture of what is going on.

Lives saved, souls lost

There is no doubt that Australia's "stop the boats" strategy has (mostly) stopped the boats -- and that it has saved thousands of people from drowning in the attempt to reach Australia by boat. The number of lives saved is almost certainly larger than the reduction in deaths actually recorded because boat arrivals were spiraling out of control in 2012-2013 and deaths would likely have risen as well.

On this count the Australian experience must be judged against German Chancellor Angela Merkel's disastrous 2015 open invitation to refugees to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, which has led to thousands of deaths by drowning with no end in sight.

Australia has staunched the loss of life, but at a cost. The Australian government's pledge that, "No refugee who arrives by boat will ever be settled in Australia" -- a legacy of the previous Labor administration that has been reaffirmed by the current Liberal administration -- has severely strained Australia's relations with neighboring countries and has proven extraordinarily expensive.

Most of the boats that approach Australia's shores set sail from Indonesia. They're not carrying Indonesians, but the people smugglers operate from obscure Indonesian fishing villages. Australia's aggressive turn-back policy has effectively transformed Indonesia into a kind of refugee purgatory, an outcome that is not appreciated by the Indonesian government.

One of the most controversial aspects of Australia's turn-back policy is the allegation that the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection actually pays people smugglers to return their human cargos to Indonesia. As part of the secrecy surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders, the Australian government neither confirms nor denies such reports.