John Menadue and Peter Hughes. Slogans vs Facts on Boat Arrivals, Part 2

Dec 31, 2015

Reposted from 23/09/2015

Tony Abbott did not stop the boats

In this blog yesterday (22 September 2015) we pointed out that Tony Abbott kept the door open for tens of thousands of boat arrivals by opposing legislation that would have enabled implementation of the Malaysia Arrangement in September 2011. By this action, he helped turn on the green light for people smugglers.

Moreover, the data just does not support the claim that, after coming to power in September 2013, Tony Abbott “stopped the boats”. The media uncritically accepted the Coalition’s line in the confused period of the changeover of governments and in the context of drama and secrecy surrounding a small number of boat turn-backs.

The data shows that the downward trend in boat arrivals began in August 2013. By October and November 2013 maritime asylum seeker arrivals had dropped by 90% compared to the corresponding two months in 2012 (547 arrivals versus 5115 arrivals). These reductions occurred well before the first boat turnaround by the Coalition Government on 19 December 2013. See table below:

Number of illegal maritime arrivals who arrived in Australia by month            (1 January 2011 to 31 December 2014), by port arrival date.


2011 January 3 223
February 3 149
March 7 419
April 6 318
May 6 333
June 4 235
July 4 228
August 5 335
September 4 319
September Abbott failure to support Malaysian Arrangement
October 5 259
November 10 734
December 13 1,070
TOTAL 70 4,622
2012 January 5 301
February 9 849
March 3 110
April 11 837
May 16 1,286
June 24 1,642
July 31 1,756
August 37 2,078
September 31 2,062
October 47 2,452
November 44 2,663
December 18 1,017
TOTAL 276 17,053
2013 January 11 541
February 17 973
March 35 2,320
April 47 3,329
May 47 3,252
June 40 2,750
July 48 4,230
19 July 2013 Rudd announcement not to settle IMAs in Australia
August 25 1,585
September 15 829
October 5 339
November 5 208
December 7 355
19 Dec 2013 First Abbott turn-backs
TOTAL 302 20,711
2014 January 0 3
February 0 1
March 0 0
April 0 0
May 0 0
June 0 0
July 1 157
August 0 0
September 0 3
October 0 0
November 0 0
December 0 4
TOTAL 1 168

The source of this data is the Senate Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru: Submission 31 from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP). Crew are excluded. 

Note that the table refers to the number of ‘Illegal’ Maritime Arrivals (IMAs). ‘Illegals’ is not a term that we think is appropriate, but the term is used in the material from DIBP.

Three measures put in place by the Labor Government before the election caused the dramatic fall in the number arrivals, (allowing for a short time lag).

The first was “enhanced screening” of Sri Lankans and quick return of non-refugees to Sri Lanka.

The second was a decision by Indonesia, at Australia’s urging, that Iranians could not enter Indonesia without visas.

The third and most important was the announcement by Kevin Rudd on the 19 July 2013 that in future any persons coming by boat, who were found to be refugees, would not be settled in Australia. We may argue about the wisdom of that policy, but it effectively crippled the people-smugglers.

Fortuitously for the Abbott Government when it was sworn in on 18 September 2013, the flow of maritime arrivals was well on its way to being finished as a result of measures already taken.

By the time Operation Sovereign Borders geared up for its first boat turn-back on 19 December 2013, the number of boats was down from 48 in July to 7 in December.

Operation Sovereign Borders was applied to the “tail end” of a phenomenon that had largely been stopped. The game-changer was Kevin Rudd’s announcement in July 2013.

Arguably, boat turn backs would not have been ‘successful’ at all without the July 2013 decision. For example, the Navy and Customs were able to turn back three boats in December 2013. It’s hard to believe that it would have been physically possible to turn back 48 boats if they had continued to arrive at the monthly rate that occurred in July 2013 and that Indonesia would have quietly acquiesced.

Tony Abbott’s role in “stopping the boats” was at the margins and vastly overrated.

John Menadue was Secretary, Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs 1980-83. Peter Hughes was a senior officer in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for 30 years until he retired as Deputy Secretary in 2011.


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2 thoughts on “John Menadue and Peter Hughes. Slogans vs Facts on Boat Arrivals, Part 2

  1. John. Here’s what happened. There were two major ethnic cohorts – Hazara and Iranian. Rudd’s statement that nobody who arrived by sea, combined with harsh and lengthy detention, deterred the Iranian cohort within weeks. This cohort were mostly wealthy and had options. The flow of Iranians in the pipeline to Indonesia stopped. Hazaras however kept arriving. They chose to access our resettlement program of 650 people from Indonesia per annum, and were/are taken care of with our funding to IOM while waiting. This became a new pull factor and selling point for smugglers, and Hazaras began entering Indonesia in such numbers that Morrison was forced to announce July 2014 as a cut-off date for acceptances, and reduce the resettlements to 450.

    So many had been deterred by Rudd’s approach that the syndicates could no longer get the numbers to pack boats. Hence the initial boats turned back by OSB had only 40-50 passengers. Unable to be overloaded, the boats were not in danger of losing stability. Most boats that sank en route to Christmas island did so near the Indonesian coast soon after departing due to overloading, as more than one syndicate forced their ‘block’ of people onto the boat at departure point. Stopping overloading saved lives. Rudd did this not Abbott and OSB. The other factor was the installation of the new Kelvin Hughes Sharp Eye radar on Christmas Island in Dec 2013. No lives have been lost between Java and Christmas Island since. Tragedies of the sort witnessed at Christmas island are now very unlikely to be repeated. The media has ignored this. And no boats sink on the Sulawesi-NTT-Ashmore route anyway. Abbott and OSB did not save lives. Rudd and Kelvin Hughes did.

    The boats never stopped and the smugglers have not just resumed as the media would have us believe. Boats continued to depart ex Sulawesi and were turned back. These turnbacks were sometimes covered in the NTT press but not in the Jakarta or Australian media. The latest was in the first week of August when some 25 people were turned back from Ashmore and then detained at Tablolong West Timor.

    The new business model that applied to that venture was:

    The syndicate supplied the boat, crew, stores and fuel. each passenger pays just Rp 7-8 juta , 75% paid upfront, with one of them required to promise to pay the rest upon proof of arrival at destination. As OSB returns smuggling crews without trial, crews no longer have to be paid compensation for jail time. The cost of the operation is scaled down. fewer passengers paying less, smaller cheaper boats, fewer crew paid less. The syndicates are slimmer but still make money. People can be brought in directly from Malaysia and the information they receive strictly controlled until departure. Malaysia is where IOM should begin to counter the rumours spread by smugglers, not Indonesia. Because OSB refuses to publicly detail turnbacks in real time, agents and smugglers are able to tell clients that Australia still takes boats, that not all are turned back, but Australia keeps this a secret. Thus, OSB secrecy is facilitating not deterring the smugglers. Turnbacks should be made public immediately, in detail, to prevent smugglers from deceiving future clients.

    Smugglers have for some months been telling prospective crews and clients that Australia will have a new PM this year or next. Abbott’s demise has given them renewed street cred. Not only with clients, but in the communities from which they recruit crews. There are now over 13,000 people registered with UNHCR in Indonesia, 3000 more than when OSB began. Resolving this ‘legacy issue’ without reviving old pull factors is now Turnbull’s challenge.

    Nor is this week’s boat on Java the first this year to be stopped by Indonesian authorities. Just prior to the Rohingya exodus, a boat with Rohingyas was stopped from departing ex Sumatra earlier this year and the incident was covered extensively in the local Sumatra press. But not covered by the Australian media.

    Richo. The problem was initially created by Howard when he too hastily accepted the boat from Papua. The blowback from that was bequeathed to Rudd, who, with his advisors, foolishly thought the Lombok Treaty would magically prevent smugglers thriving again.

  2. The stats show that the flow of boats slowed under the last 2 months of Labor Government but they did not stop completely until 2014. The article also presumes that the Malaysia ‘solution’ would have been effective which I am doubtful it would considering the number of asylum seekers was capped at 800 (about 3 months worth of boat arrivals). The article also completely ignores the fact the Labor were scrambling to find solutions to a problem they created following the 2007 election.

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