FRANK BRENNAN. Seeking Clarity on Boat Turnbacks and the Utility of Offshore Refugee Warehousing


Erika Feller (former Assistant High Commissioner UNHCR) and Michael Pezzullo (Secretary, Dept of Immigration and Border Protection) spoke at this year’s ANU Crawford Australian Leadership Forum on borders and the movement of people.  The convenor of the forum is ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans.

Erika Feller said, ‘Perhaps the refugee issue has been warehoused in Australia’. ‘Australia has had a wonderful record for resettlement of refugees but overshadowed by what’s perceived to be an ungenerous response to refugees arriving at the border’. Gareth Evans agreed that Australia has a serious reputational problem with both sides of politics having engaged in a race to the bottom.

Michael Pezzullo said that the protection of the borders is the foundation for public confidence in our migration program. Erika Feller countered that facts are the foundation for public confidence. She was surprised that refugees had been mentioned only once in the opening plenary sessions at the forum.

There was a useful discussion on boat turnbacks to Indonesia and the connection, if any, between stopping boats and the ongoing inhumane treatment of proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island.

Michael Pezzullo was adamant that the only turnbacks to Indonesia are those reported to Parliament after the fact.  At the Senate Estimates hearing on 22 May 2017,  Air Vice Marshall Osborne, Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force,  said, ‘Our ability to detect, intercept and turn back people smuggling boats is stronger than ever. We have a committed and highly capable civil maritime surveillance and border security response fleet with access to the combined resources of the Australian Border Force and the Australian Defence Force.  Since Operation Sovereign Borders commenced in 2013, we have intercepted and returned 30 people-smuggling boats and more than 765 people who attempted to reach Australia illegally. ’

Recommendation 19 of Angus Houston’s 2012 expert panel report stated: ‘The Panel notes that the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently met, but that this situation could change in the future, in particular if appropriate regional and bilateral arrangements are in place.’  We are still no wiser as to what has changed.  What would Angus Houston and Michael L’Estrange say about the present practice of turnbacks?

Mr Pezzullo restated that there have been (only) 30 turnbacks to Indonesia since December 2013 and claimed that each of them has been safe, legal and transparent.  In the past, he has told Parliament, ‘No persons who are taken back, turned back or provided with assisted return services in a Safety of Life at Sea engaged Australia’s international protection obligations.’ At the forum, he claimed the turnbacks were transparent, but with a time delay – being reported to parliament, but only after operations are complete.  It’s just that transparency is delayed until operations are concluded.

He could not comment on whether the ongoing financial and human cost of holding proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island was any longer warranted. Gareth Evans rightly pointed out that the boats have stopped and thus there is no possible justification for maintaining the inhumane arrangements on Nauru and Manus Island.  In the past, Mr Pezzullo has told Parliament: ‘If you do not have regional processing, you lose a vital element of your deterrence’.  Given Air Vice Marshall Osborne’s unchallenged claim that ‘Our ability to detect, intercept and turn back people smuggling boats is stronger than ever’, one wonders why the need for ongoing inhumane practices on Nauru and Manus Island which now entail admitted legal liability in Australian courts.  Some financial and human costs are too great, especially when the boats will remain stopped anyway.

Frank Brennan SJ, CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, is attending the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum 2017.

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