John Menadue. Stopping the boats and turn-backs at sea

Feb 3, 2015

In the Saturday Paper of January 24 this year, in an article by Mike Seccombe, two refugee advocates were quoted as saying:

‘Things like offshore processing and TPVs, mandatory detention – these sorts of measures don’t stop the boats.  It’s turnbacks that stop the boats.  It’s when you start dragging people back to Indonesia. That’s what we saw in 2002-03. That’s what we’ve seen again now.’


‘The one thing that stops people is sending them back.  If you look back, the way they stopped the outflow from China in 1994, it was by interdiction. The same from Haiti to the US.  Deterrent measures don’t work. Even Nauru, et cetera, by themselves, are not deterrent enough.’

The facts tell a very different story as I pointed out in an earlier blog of 8 December 2014 “Tony Abbott did not stop the boats ‘which is reposted below. In short, that blog contended

  • It was the decision of the Rudd Government on 19 July 2013 that in future any persons coming by boat and found to be refugees would not be resettled in Australia. People arriving by boat fell dramatically from 4,145 in July 2014 to 837 in September when the change of government occurred. The number continued to fall thereafter. There are obviously lags following a government announcement but the trend after July 2013 is clear. (This downward trend was also helped by two other actions by the Rudd Government. The first was getting Indonesia to impose a visa requirement on Iranians, thereby denying them a visa transit point to Australian territory. The second was ‘enhanced screening’ of Sri Lankans that resulted in high rejection rates and fast return to Sri Lanka).
  • The effects of Operation Sovereign Borders and turn-backs of boats to Indonesia where minor by comparison. In any event OSB would have been impossible if boats had continued to arrive at 47 per month as they had in July 2013.
  • The game changer was Kevin Rudd and offshore processing and denial of resettlement in Australia and not OSB and turn backs.

John Howard was similarly successful in stopping the boats. In 1999-2000 there were 75 boat arrivals. It fell in subsequent years to 54, 19, 0 and 3.  It worked in the short term but it was undone by two factors.

  • As the concern about long-term detention of asylum seekers in Nauru grew, the Howard Government relaxed its policy and many of the asylum seekers in Nauru were resettled in New Zealand and Australia. It became clear to people smugglers and asylum seekers that even the horrors of Nauru were acceptable if they knew that after some delay they were likely to be resettled in Australia. Andrew Metcalfe, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, told the parliament that the Pacific policies of John Howard could not be repeated because asylum seekers knew that at the end of the day they were likely to be resettled in Australia or New Zealand if they were found to be refugees.
  • The Rudd Government abandoned the Pacific policies of the Howard Government and boat arrivals steadily grew. They increased from 3 in 2007-08 to 23, 117, 89, 110 and 403 by 2012-13. Asylum seekers coming by boat were confident that even if intercepted, they would eventually be settled in Australia if they were found to be refugees.

There is a good deal that refugee advocates can do to advance the cause of asylum seekers and refugees rather than put a gloss on the facts about offshore processing and denial of resettlement in Australia.

  • Advocate a speed-up in the processing of the 30,000 asylum seekers in Australia whose status and future is still to be determined.
  • Increase the humanitarian quota to 25,000 p.a.
  • Abolish mandatory detention that punishes, does not deter and is very expensive.
  • Negotiate orderly departure arrangements with Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

Advocacy in these areas is likely to be more productive than continuing an argument which we as refugee advocates have lost. Offshore processing, which the Rudd Government introduced was the game changer. We may not like it but the issue of boat arrivals is really concluded for the foreseeable future. It has been decided by agreement by all the major parties.

Refugee advocates like me have reluctantly concluded that offshore processing, coupled with denial of any resettlement in Australia did largely stop the boats. That is a fact and claiming that the turn-backs to Indonesia did the job is just not supported by the evidence.

I concluded some time ago that offshore processing is acceptable provided it is humane, just and efficient – and supported by the UNHCR. None of that is occurring on Manus or Nauru.


Repost:  Tony Abbott did not stop the boats (8 December 2014)

The data just does not support the never-ending claims by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison that they stopped the boats. The under-resourced and uncritical media accepts the Coalition’s line.

I will come to the recent data, but first the evidence is clear that action by the Coalition along with the Greens in the Senate to prevent amendments to the Migration Act greatly assisted people-smugglers and boat arrivals from 2011 onwards.

The rejection of the arrangement with Malaysia by the High Court started the rot. The High Court decision may have been sound in law, but it had powerful consequences for boat arrivals. The arrangement with Malaysia needed improvement but it did provide guarantees that Malaysia had never provided before. The UNHCR was prepared to actively cooperate. When the High Court rejected the Malaysian arrangement in August 2011, irregular maritime arrivals were running at less than 300 per month. That number increased to 1200 by May 2012, and kept on rising.

The Labor Government attempted to amend the Migration Act to address the problems identified by the High Court but the Coalition together with the Greens blocked the amending legislation. They bashed Malaysia at every opportunity. The failure of the Malaysian arrangement sent a very clear message to people smugglers that boat arrivals would succeed. Boat arrivals were running at over 4,000 per month in July 2013.

The action by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison in association with the Greens triggered this dramatic increase in boat arrivals. Both Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison made it abundantly clear that they did not want to stop the boats with an arrangement such as that with Malaysia. They wanted to stop Labor stopping the boats. Their political intentions were revealed by WikiLeaks that reported that ‘a key Liberal Party strategist told the US embassy in 2009 that the more boats that come the better’. (SMH 10 December 2010). Scott Morrison became Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship in December 2009.

Action by the Coalition in the Senate triggered a large increase in boat arrivals in 2012 and into 2013.

But did Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison really stop the boats when they came to power?

The data shows that the downward trend in boat arrivals occurred from July 2013, two months before the Coalition came to power. See data below.

2013 Boat people arrivals(excluding crew) Boats
January 2013 471 10
February 925 16
March 2455 37
April 3396 47
May 3315 47
June 2715 41
July 4145 47
Aug 1591 25
September 837 15
October 339 5
November 207 5
December 355 7

Source: Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and Australian Parliamentary Library.

What largely stopped the boats, although not completely, was the announcement by Kevin Rudd on the 19th July 2013 that in future any persons coming by boat and found to be a  refugee would not be settled in Australia. We may argue about the wisdom of that policy, but it effectively crippled the business case of the people-smugglers.

In the data above, there are undoubtedly some leads and lags and seasonal factors, but the data shows that the Rudd announcement of 19 July 2013 dramatically cut the number of boats and people arriving by boat. The major turnaround occurred between July and August, before the Coalition came to power.

As the Abbott Government was not sworn in until 18 September 2013, its policy on boats would also have had only marginal effect on September arrivals.

So between July and September, people arriving by boat fell from 4,145 to 837 and the number of boats fell from 47 to 15. The trend largely continued after that time.

Peter Hughes a former deputy secretary in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship put it this way in an article in the Canberra Times in late 2013. ‘The arrival of 546 asylum seekers in October and November 2013 represents only 14% of the number of arrivals for the corresponding months in 2012. This is a dramatic reduction … The announcement of long-term resettlement of refugees in Papua New Guinea and Nauru by the previous government has likely been decisive in changing the decision to travel to Australia on the part of those asylum seekers who have not yet handed over their money to a smuggler. ‘

The game-changer was Kevin Rudd’s announcement of 19 July 2013 on no resettlement in Australia for boat arrivals. It is also likely that tighter visa procedures on Indonesia’s part would have helped reduce the number of boat arrivals.  In effect the Rudd Government slammed the door although the boat turn a rounds pushed the final bolt home. In other words, if there was any doubt in the minds of people smugglers and asylum seekers trying to come by boat those doubts were removed.

The Abbott Government capitalised on a trend which the Rudd Government clearly started in July 2013.

Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison have wrung every political advantage they could from boat arrivals. But the evidence is clear that they helped accelerate the numbers before they came to power and it was the action of the Rudd Government, before they came to power in September 2013 that put boat arrivals on a downward track

Operation Sovereign Borders has really been quite marginal and would not have been ‘successful’ without the July 2013 decision. Navy and Customs were able to turn a few boats around. This would have been impossible if boats had continued to arrive at 47 a month as they were in July 2013. OSB has been very high profile and very expensive – and offensive to Indonesia. But OSB has not been the main game.

The game-changer was Kevin Rudd’s announcement in July 2013.


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