Australia’s coalition government won a resounding electoral victory last September after campaigning on the need for stronger border protection in a country that is a magnet for asylum seekers from war-torn countries. Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed to turn back refugees' boats before they could reach Australian waters.
Now the government is embroiled in a political row about disclosure of information on its pushback tactics, a strategy that raises questions about whether the public right to know can compromise the effectiveness of the same strategy.
After taking office Mr. Abbott’s government began limiting information on asylum seeker issues to weekly media briefings and handing responsibility for border control to a military officer answerable to the immigration minister. Critics have compared Abbott’s control of information to a ‘North Korean-style’ media blackout amid reports that asylum seekers had been mistreated and their vessels towed back to Indonesia.
On Friday, Abbott justified the media controls by arguing that releasing information helped people smugglers and put asylum seekers' lives at risk.
“We are in a fierce contest with these people smugglers,” he said. “And if we were at war, we wouldn't be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves.”
Refugees pay tens of thousands of dollars to traffickers who arrange for boat crossings from Indonesia to Australia. Authorities in Indonesia, an island archipelago, have made limited progress in shutting down smuggling operations, to the frustration of Australia’s government.
Refugees who travel to Indonesia in hope of entering Australia are often well informed about Australian policies, which have alternated between harsh and more accommodative approaches. In the past six years, more than 50,000 asylum seekers, mainly from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East, have attempted the perilous sea voyage. More than 1,000 are believed to have drowned.
The government’s tough line has seen a dramatic drop in the number of boat people reaching Australia.
In the first 100 days of Operation Sovereign Borders, as its new policy is known, 1,106 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat, an 87 percent drop from the previous 100 days. Arrivals are now running at their lowest point since 2008.
Opposition parliamentarian Anthony Albanese is among those critical of the government's refusal to comment on any operational details of its asylum-seeker policy. “This is not North Korea. This is not a Stalinist regime. The government needs to get its act together and tell the Australian people what is going on,” he said.
The government’s silence on border protection has drawn criticism for stifling free speech. "This government is seeking to weaken democracy by doing away with checks and balances, weakening accountability and transparency," says Ben Wadham, a senior lecturer at Flinders University in Adelaide.
Dr. Wadham adds that making the three-star general in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders report directly to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison could expose the military to undue politicization. “The integrity of the civilian-military divide is very important to prevent the militarization of executive governance and the politicization of the military,” he says.
The blurring of the chain of command, he says, could also put lives at risk when ADF officers are torn between their maritime obligations and following the orders of the government. In 2001 the government ordered a Navy commander to fire over the bow of an asylum seeker boat and to tow the unseaworthy craft that ultimately broke up, spilling its human cargo into the sea.
The Australian newspaper reported Friday that as many as five boats had been either towed or turned back to Indonesia in the last month. It said that two asylum-seeker boats were towed to Rote Island, near Indonesian West Timor, while up to three other vessels were persuaded to return home without being towed.
Earlier, the Seven television network aired mobile phone footage it said was filmed by asylum seekers of Royal Australian Navy personnel boarding their boat before towing it back to Indonesia. The network said some of the asylum seekers were in an Indonesian hospital as a result of alleged mistreatment by Australian authorities.
Lifeboats for refugees
The Chief of Australia’s Defense Force David Hurley rejected the claims, saying that defense personnel operated in difficult and unpredictable conditions yet “consistently demonstrate great compassion and courage, often at great risk to their own safety.”
He refused to comment on reports that the government had purchased as many as 10 lifeboats, worth $62,000 apiece, as part of a strategy to help turn back asylum-seekers in unseaworthy vessels.
Australia’s tough refugee policy has angered Indonesia, which has warned that turning boats back could breach its territorial sovereignty. Relations between the two countries have been under a cloud since details emerged last November of alleged Australian spying on Indonesian President Bambang Yudhyono.
“The Australian Government action, by returning the two boats back to Indonesia, is a provocative action,” Mahfudz Siddiq, the chairman of Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Commission said.
“Instead of solving problems, it will trigger more conflict, it will have an impact broadly and fundamentally on the bilateral relations, it will cost both countries.”