SHAUN HANNS. There is no clear empirical basis for the current policy against resettling those on Manus and Nauru in Australia. 

The following policy piece by Shaun Hanns has been sent to all Federal Members of Parliament. (John Menadue)

I am writing to you as a concerned private citizen using publicly available data. However I was, until recently, an officer of the Department of Home Affairs and that this has informed my views. I have spent the past five and a half years working as a protection obligations decision maker. Essentially my role was to interview asylum seekers, assess the risk they faced and decide if they were entitled to refugee status. This has impacted my views in two ways. The first is that I understand just how high the death toll from attempted trips between Indonesia and Australia is. A two percent death rate for a population simply isn’t replicated many places around the world. It is my view that the vast majority of people I have interviewed were never in more mortal danger than when they were on that boat. The second is that I have spent hundreds of hours across from asylum seekers talking to them about their lives. This makes the weight of so many individuals unnecessarily losing their lives in such a tragic way sit heavily with me.  

I raise these two points because I want to make it clear that I would never advocate for a policy position that I believe would bring about a return of the people smuggling industry. The needless loss of life that such an event would cause is intolerable. Initially I was a supporter of the current policy. Working in the department at the time it seemed the only response that could end the large numbers of arrivals (and deaths) we were seeing. However, for almost a year now, I have been of the opinion that the system as it stands in 2018 relies entirely on boat turn-backs. This makes the continuing detention of those on Manus and Nauru not just tragic, but meaningless. I have struggled for some time with what to do about this belief. The events of the past few months led me, like many others, to genuinely fear we will see a child dying on Nauru and this has spurred me into action. I do believe that the focus must be wider though. At this point in time the any further deaths, of either children or adults, on the islands is completely unnecessary and preventable. Further deaths are also likely. This is why I’m writing to you today.

he current policy settings appear to be based on an anxiety that allowing people to settle in Australia will, in and of itself, result in out of control irregular migration again. This is a legacy of the department’s past experience of people smugglers being able to overwhelm measures designed to stem the flow of boats when the system was at its peak. What I hope to achieve here is to outline a detailed explanation of why this fear is irrational before providing what I believe to be a simple and achievable solution. This explanation relies on five key facts that have seemingly been overlooked, explored below.

Fact 1: The naval cordon has been 100% effective in preventing successful journeys from Indonesia

Since the start of the turn-back regime there have been 36 attempts to make it to Australia via boat. One can be dismissed as little more than an oddity. In August 2017 a boat carrying Chinese nationals made the short trip between Papua New Guinea and Australia. This saw two men charged and a further five returned immediately to China.[1] The other 35 boats seemingly departed from four countries; Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia.

Four of these boats have come from Vietnam, including the recent arrival in the Daintree of 17 Vietnamese nationals.[2] All 130 Vietnamese nationals on these four boats were returned to Vietnam, presumably after enhanced screening, including the August arrivals.[3] There has been a lot of concern over the one boat that did manage to make landfall, but it is important to note that Air Marshal Hupfield, chief of joint operations, recently stated the surveillance gap that allowed this to happen has been filled.[4] He further stated that our capacity to intercept boats has increased significantly in recent years.[5] Eight of the 35 boats were filled with Sri Lankan asylum seekers.[6] Of these one was from India carrying 157 Sri Lankan nationals who, presumably, went through the enhanced screening process before being transferred to Nauru in July 2014.[7] Since the arrival of this boat there have been 6 boats returned to Sri Lanka carrying 92 individuals.[8] Of these 92 only one was referred for refugee determination and sent to Manus Island on 15 November 2014.[9] He was the last person to successfully enter into the offshore detention system.

This leaves 23 boats that, presumably, departed from Indonesia. These are the most important boats. Vietnamese flagged boats carrying Vietnamese nationals and Sri Lankan flagged boats carrying Sri Lankan nationals will require enhanced screening of the passengers before return. Whether this happens on water or at Christmas Island is largely immaterial. Since November 2014 it appears no Sri Lankan or Vietnamese national has made it through the enhanced screening process. Asylum seekers from the rest of the world must travel through Indonesia and some of them certainly would be screened in. Preventing these boats from arriving is what closes the system. Not one of these 23 boats has made it through the naval cordon in almost five years.[10] This pathway to Australia, the one utilised by the vast majority of asylum seekers, has been comprehensively severed. More than anything else, this is what is preventing large scale attempts at irregular migration to Australia.

Fact 2: Boat turn-backs have had significantly more impact on asylum seeker decision making than the lack of resettlement options in Australia

Between September 2001 and February 2008, when the original ‘Pacific Solution’ was in place, a total of 1447 asylum seekers arrived before being processed offshore and a further 614 were turned back for a total of 2061 people in just over 6 years.[11] This was despite the majority of those who arrived and processed offshore eventually gaining asylum in Australia. In comparison there have been at least 33 boat turn-backs with 810 people on them since the 19 July 2013 announcement.[12] There have also been 4681 arrivals (including the 17 that arrived in August 2018 before being processed and deported) for a total of 5491 attempted or actual arrivals over the past five years.[13] This means that despite the policy to prevent people from resettling in Australia over twice as many people attempted the trip than did so under the original solution. Undoubtedly the global trend towards greater irregular migration has contributed to this, but it does make the impact of the never Australia solution on asylum seeker decision-making ambiguous at best.

What is less ambiguous is the relationship between boat turn-backs and attempted trips. After the last of the original turn-backs in 2003 the numbers of people attempting to travel to Australia climbed reasonably steadily for the next few years, even before Nauru was emptied.[14] Since the start of boat turn-backs in late 2013 the numbers of attempts have been dropping each year.[15] The only difficulty in drawing any clear inference from these data is that the numbers are so low when boats are being turned back it’s hard to distinguish between the causal effect of the policy and natural variation. This, in itself, underlines the efficacy of this approach. 

Fact 3: Past concessions have not led to increases in attempts

At present, the belief is that any concession or act of kindness to those who have already arrived will lead to an immediate re-opening of the people smuggling business. This position disregards the array of concessions, both big and small, since 2013 that have not led to such an outcome. The most significant is the December 2014 decision to allow those who arrived post 19 July 2013 but prior to January 2014 (without being sent to the islands) to remain in Australia and apply for protection visas. I wish to make clear that I have never been privy to any official documentation around this decision. I think that is important to acknowledge as it shows how readily apparent this policy shift was to anyone paying attention.

In late 2014 it was apparent that the islands were full. Whilst over 4600 had arrived post July 19, just over 3100 had ever been transferred to the islands.[16] This left over 1000 people who obviously could not be accommodated on the islands. If you were invested in the issue, the government’s plan for these people was of keen interest. The answer came in the Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload (RALC) bill in December 2014. Part of the definition of a fast-track applicant in this bill is ‘an unauthorised maritime arrival who entered Australia on or after 13 August 2012, but before 1 January 2014, and who has not been taken to a regional processing country’. Those paying attention had their answer. The intent was clearly to allow these people to stay in the Australian community and apply for protection visas. Given the low numbers of people in detention today[17], this is what must have happened.

This point is critical. Really think about it. This one act was an admission of defeat. It showed that the July 19 announcement was not practicable or actionable. Motivated actors, such as people smugglers, would not have missed this shift in policy. They almost certainly would have been using this to attempt to convince asylum seekers to make the journey. The conventional wisdom says that this should have led to a spike in the number of asylum seekers that attempted the journey in the next year. There was not. In 2015 there were half as many attempted asylum seekers as in 2014.[18]

The US deal also did not lead to a spike in activity, and it is unlikely that the New Zealand deal will either. Why is this? A recent piece by Kieren Kresevic Salazar based on interviews with those in Indonesia suggests that potential asylum seekers are much more focused on the most recent ventures. The article claims that these people are basing their decisions on what they believe will happen to them rather than on the ultimate fate of those who attempted to make the crossing so many years ago. This aligns closely with the above.

The December 2014 decision and the US deal have not impacted on behaviour. Similarly, the New Zealand deal, regardless of whether they are able to eventually make it to Australia, is unlikely to impact on behaviour. This is most likely because those in Indonesia do not credibly believe that they will end up in any of these countries. It is much more likely they believe that if they make the attempt they’ll almost certainly end up right where they are, just 6000 USD poorer. They believe this because it’s true: this is the only outcome anyone travelling from Indonesia has had since December 2013.

Fact 4: Build up from the current state of torpor to levels that can threaten solutions is slow

The orthodox position of the department is that we’re at existential risk of a flood of asylum seekers the moment anything is changed. How likely is this in reality, though? The only rational comparison that can be made to current conditions is with the immediate aftermath of the dismantling of the original Pacific Solution.

Despite the last detainees being removed from Nauru on 8 February 2008[19] only 7 boats arrived in Australia in 2008 carrying a total of 161 people.[20] This was only 2 more boats and 13 more people than arrived in 2007, when the Pacific Solution was in full effect.[21] It wasn’t until 2009 that boat arrivals truly ramped up (60 boats with 2726 individuals) and it took five years for the arrivals to reach the level of 3000 a month, the kinds of numbers that can genuinely threaten any solution.[22] This seriously undermines the claim that a shift today will see a huge number of boats tomorrow.

In 2008 it took over 12 months to restore trust from asylum seekers in people smugglers ability to deliver on their promise to get people to Australia.[23] This required a number of successful journeys. To restart the industry again will also require a number of successful journeys. This is what we can, and do, deny them. If the solutions of boat turn-backs and enhanced screening remain in place, and all future arrivals that somehow manage to elude this net are sent to Nauru, it is hard to see how this trust would ever be restored.

Fact 5: Out of control asylum seeking behaviour is dependent on immediate access to the Australian community

It is important to note that the highest level of asylum seeking was underneath a policy that saw asylum seekers able to enter the community prior to an assessment of their refugee status. On 13 October 2011 it was announced that bridging visas and community detention would be used to help ease pressure on the detention network, which immediately flagged that people could get into the community prior to being found to be a refugee.[24] It is my understanding that the period between 13 October 2011 and 19 July 2013 is the only time this century that single adult male asylum seekers regularly gained access to the Australian community prior to being found to be a refugee. It is also the only time this century where there have been tens of thousands of asylum seekers coming each year.

This is because the policy change allowed people smugglers to sell the bridging visa as ‘the product’. Essentially bridging visas were being used as de facto working visas.[25] Given delays in processing and review timelines this visa could last an asylum seeker many years. This attracted individuals who knew they had weak, or no, protection claims, which is evident in the drop off of approval rates for key cohorts.[26] For instance, there was a grant rate of 87.2% for finally determined Sri Lankan decisions in 2011/12, this dropped to 18.8% in 2013/14.[27] Whilst the situation was improving in Sri Lanka at the time, this alone is not sufficient to explain such a precipitous drop. There was also a significant drop in the approval rate of Iranians from 87.3% to 65.2% over the same period further, underlining the shift in who was coming.[28]

What I am trying to demonstrate here is that the large numbers seen in 2012 and 2013 were significantly swelled by a collection of people who never would have made the trip if they were not quickly released into the Australian community. Before this shift in policy the numbers arriving per year were broadly similar to the numbers around the turn of the century. In 2011 fewer asylum seekers arrived than in 2001.[29]

It appears extremely unlikely that such tens of thousands of people will attempt to make the trip again, unless Australia runs a similarly open system in the future. This is important as these are the only numbers that were high enough to overwhelm attempts to rein them in via offshore detention alone. If having such large numbers arriving again is unlikely then the risk to the turn-back system as it stands is negligible.


The above information suggests that the success of Operation Sovereign Borders is relying almost entirely on the boat turn-back policy. Whilst there is some ambiguity over the impact that the refusal to resettle in Australia is having on asylum seeker behaviour, the experience of agreeing to resettle some 2000+ people in Australia and the US goes some way to resolving this and suggests that it is insignificant. Past experience shows that the build up of capacity to move large numbers of people from Indonesia to Australia is slow. It appears that the risk of making small changes to policy in order to resolve the situation of those who have already arrived continues to be significantly overestimated.

Broadly speaking, the last 20 years of asylum seeker policy can be broken down into three different approaches that have had varying outcomes. The first is the open system whereby asylum seekers are allowed into the community prior to assessment. This has led to tens of thousands of asylum seekers arriving in any given year and is the only setting that has allowed people smugglers to successfully overwhelm attempted solutions with large numbers of asylum seekers. The second approach is mandatory detention in Australia, which has consistently seen numbers in the mid thousands arriving each year. The last is the current settings, offshore detention mixed with boat turn-backs. This combination has never seen more than a few hundred attempted asylum seekers per annum.

My concern is that current policy settings appear to be based on a belief that removing those currently on the islands will somehow lead to the kind of numbers only previously seen under an open system policy. The fear being that such numbers will be sufficient to overwhelm the turn-back regime. I cannot see any rational basis for this belief. In five years working in the refugee section of the department I have never come across any evidence that supports it. All of the evidence I have found appears to directly contradicts this belief. In no given year with offshore processing has there been more attempted arrivals than in 2014. All of these boats were intercepted. Air Marshal Hupfeld has recently stated that our capability has significantly improved since then. Previous pragmatic concessions have not led to any increase in activity at all. Past experience suggests that responses to policy changes build slowly, meaning they are unlikely to be able to quickly overwhelm the current system. All of this points to the refusal to resettle in Australia being meaningless.

It just doesn’t seem to make any sense at all.

If the architecture of the current system was sufficient to more or less stop the industry at its peak why would it not be able to deal with any small, short term increase in the number of attempts when the industry is at its weakest? Ultimately the almost certain outcome of slowly removing those currently on the islands is that we will end up with no people on them. The worst case scenario is we end up with significantly fewer.

It’s also time to accept that the efforts to resettle in third countries have failed. The US deal will not be sufficient to completely empty the islands. Even if fully implemented there will still be somewhere in the order of 800-1000 people either on the islands or in Australia for medical treatment but liable to be sent back. It is also excruciatingly slow. 294 people had been transferred by 30 April 2018 and just last week only a further 141 had made the journey despite almost six months elapsing.[30] This is less than 30 a month, at a time when the process should be operating at its peak. At this rate the final transferees will have to wait another two and a half years before being resettled. The New Zealand deal does little to resolve this issue as well. At 150 per year this means at least another five years of offshore detention for some people who are already, clearly, at breaking point. It’s not a solution.

There are significant costs involved with the current system. It involves continuing to engage in the risky practice of medical brinkmanship. It requires a never ending succession of court cases. It means continuous opprobrium from international bodies and allies. Undoubtedly, there will be more suicides. Given the serious financial, reputational and moral costs of keeping these people on the islands if it can be stopped it should be. And it can be stopped. 


To finally resolve the status of those on the islands in the short term the policy should remain the same with one key difference: parity for those who arrived before 1 January 2014.

Boat turn-backs and enhanced screening must continue. They are the most humane and effective tactic for dealing with attempts, in a way that dissuades others from trying whilst doing the least harm, that we have. Notionally the Nauru centre should also remain open, as a back up in the unlikely event that the naval cordon fails. However, there is a strong case for at least testing the hypothesis that allowing people currently on the islands to resettle in Australia will not increase people smuggling activity to a level where it could realistically threaten the feasibility of the system as it now stands.

Without going too deep into specifics, this could be enacted by a simple legislative change to the definition of a Fast Track Applicant under the Migration Act. All that is required is to delete the wording ‘…and who has not been taken to a regional processing country’. This would enable the majority of those on the islands to apply for protection visas in Australia whilst also denying that guarantee to any prospective asylum seekers. The only individuals not covered by this change on the island would be those remaining from the 160 Sri Lankans who arrived in 2014. I am unsure of how many of these people remain on the islands. However, they can be accommodated either through the US deal or by accepting New Zealand’s offer.

Whilst I do not believe personally that the lack of resettlement in Australia has had any significant impact on numbers, this option ensures that it is an ongoing concern for prospective arrivals. This option also provides equality of treatment for all who arrived before 1 January 2014 and goes some way to resolving the capricious nature of the original decision-making over who was sent to the islands and who remained.

Any drawdown should start with the immediate removal of children and other vulnerable people on the islands as a matter of urgency. If the hypothesis proves correct and there is no significant change in activity after this we can start to remove those who remain. Ideally, within months, the islands can be cleared without undermining the system of turn-backs and deterrence.


I accept that there are intelligence briefs that I am not privy to. However, it’s difficult to imagine what information they could contain that suggests resettlement in the US and New Zealand has had, and will have, no impact whereas resettlement in Australia would be catastrophic. Particularly given we walked away from the refusal to resettle any post July 19 arrivals in Australia almost four years ago. This leads me to suspect that the realistic impact of resettling those currently on the islands in Australia is not a question that has been rigorously considered in the department.

This is concerning as what can be loosely described as a doctrine of necessity has risen up around this issue. As a nation we are engaging in activities that are legally questionable and morally compromising. Public support for these measures is entirely contingent on the belief that they are necessary to restore and maintain order on Australia’s borders. This is a dangerous thing as people will accept actions they would not otherwise if they truly believe they are necessary. It is therefore vitally important that any claim to necessity is continuously interrogated to ensure that the conditions that justify it still exist. To not do so is to lead a country into folly. Given the information above I am simply not satisfied that this function is being discharged appropriately at this time.

This is why I’m writing to you. Take another look, with fresh eyes. Ask questions. Pause and decide for yourself whether you personally believe this is truly still necessary. A lot of the focus recently has been on the plight of children on Nauru, but any further deaths of men or women should be regarded as equally unacceptable. Any such death would be unnecessary and in aid of nothing.

So please, take another look.


[1] Ashlynne McGhee and Emilia Terzon 2017, Five people smuggled to Australia by boat, Australian Federal Police alleges, ABC News, viewed 18 October 2018, <>

[2] Harriet Spinks 2018, Boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia: a quick guide to the
statistics since 2001
, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <;query=Id:%22library/prspub/5351070%22>; Kristy Sexton-McGrath and Brendan Mounter 2018, Suspected asylum seekers found in Daintree taken to Christmas Island, Minister’s office says, ABC News, viewed 18 October 2018, <>

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rosie Lewis 2018, ‘Surveillance gap’ responsible for Vietnamese boat, The Australian, viewed 18 October 2018, <>

[5] Ibid.

[6] Janet Phillips 2017, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <>; Harriet Spinks 2018, Boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia: a quick guide to the statistics since 2001, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <;query=Id:%22library/prspub/5351070%22>

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Janet Phillips 2017, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <>; Harriet Spinks 2018, Boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia: a quick guide to the statistics since 2001, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <;query=Id:%22library/prspub/5351070%22>

[11] Janet Phillips 2017, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <>; Annual boat arrivals in Australian waters 2001, SafeCom, viewed 19 October 2018, <>

[12] Harriet Spinks 2018, Boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia: a quick guide to the statistics since 2001, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <;query=Id:%22library/prspub/5351070%22>

[13] Harriet Spinks 2018, Boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia: a quick guide to the statistics since 2001, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <;query=Id:%22library/prspub/5351070%22>; ABC Fact Check 2013, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison not telling the full story on asylum seeker arrivals, ABC News, viewed 19 October 2018 <>

[14] In 2004 15 asylum seekers arrived, this dropped slightly to 11 in 2005 before rising to 60 in 2006 and up to 148 in 2007 prior to the end of the Pacific Solution.

Janet Phillips 2017, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <>

[15] In 2014 there were 472 people who attempted to arrive via sea, this halved to 234 in 2015 before plateauing under 100 (55 in 2016, 65 in 2017).

Janet Phillips 2017, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <>

[16] ABC Fact Check 2013, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison not telling the full story on asylum seeker arrivals, ABC News, viewed 19 October 2018 <>; Operation Sovereign Borders and offshore processing statistics, Refugee Council of Australia, viewed 19 October 2018, <>

[17] Operation Sovereign Borders and offshore processing statistics, Refugee Council of Australia, viewed 19 October 2018, <>

[18] Janet Phillips 2017, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <>

[19] Elibritt Karlsen 2016, Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG: a quick guide to statistics and resources, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 19 October 2018, <>

[20] Janet Phillips 2017, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <>

[21] Ibid.

[22] Janet Phillips 2017, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <>

[23] Boat arrivals did not restart in any significant numbers until April 2009.

Annual boat arrivals in Australian waters 2009, SafeCom, viewed 23 October 2018, <>

[24] Elibritt Karlsen 2012, Developments in Australian refugee law and policy 2010–2011, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 19 October 2018, <>

[25] Presumably, this is what prompted the ‘no advantage’ policy on 13 August 2012. This policy failed to dissuade the behaviour, however, most likely as asylum seekers tend not to have a great understanding of policy in their destination country and do not make decisions based on policy nuance, which is important to remember.

Harriet Spinks 2013, Destination anywhere? Factors affecting asylum seekers’ choice of destination country, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 20 October 2018, <>

[26] Often referred to as ‘economic migrants’

[27] Asylum Trends Australia 2012-13 Annual Publication, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, viewed 20 October 2018, <>; Asylum statistics — Australia Quarterly tables — June quarter 2014, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, viewed 20 October 2018, <>

[28] Ibid.

Iranian decision making was also likely influenced by the knowledge that there is no agreement for returning failed asylum seekers between Australia and Iran.

David Wroe and Michael Koziol 2016, Iran rejects suggestions thousands of failed asylum seekers could be returned, Sydney Morning Herald, viewed 20 October 2018, <>

[29] Janet Phillips 2017, Boat arrivals and boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia since 1976: a quick guide to the statistics, Australian Parliamentary Library, viewed 18 October 2018, <>

[30] Operation Sovereign Borders and offshore processing statistics, Refugee Council of Australia, viewed 19 October 2018, <>; Michael Koziol 2018, Morrison government transfers refugees to Australia from Nauru amid internal pressure, Sydney Morning Herald, viewed 20 October 2018, <>


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8 Responses to SHAUN HANNS. There is no clear empirical basis for the current policy against resettling those on Manus and Nauru in Australia. 

  1. Avatar tasi timor says:

    ‘…from a wider “defence of Australia” perspective’

    I hope this is not revisiting arguments proffered by Navy when challenged to give up the patrol boat function by proponents of a civilian coast guard, who warned that ADF interfering in what should properly be civilian policing matters could push Navy into situations where they could be accused of human rights abuses, and reputational damage to the nation. This was the view of the late Michael O’Connor. Some in Navy regarded patrol boats as their ‘Pirate Navy’ directed against Indonesian fishermen for training purposes as well as punishing illegal fishing. This is precisely what created the conditions for people smuggling to grow and flourish in the first place. The brutal treatment meted out to the the fishermen from frontline communities on Rote impoverished them – and their children too – and turned them into at first reluctant, then enthusiastic and irreplaceable people smugglers supplying crew across the archipelago to the ‘syndicates,’ some run by Rote families.

    The first asylum seekers from the ME started to try out Rote-Ashmore in 1987, finding just a single fisherman willing to take them. Everybody could predict what was coming if Canberra didn’t ease up on the harsh measures, it wasn’t rocket science, it didn’t require a phd. As one apologetic officer said ‘Canberra gives us the bullets, we just fire them.’ Special mention to the late Andre Malan, a South African journo in WA who did his best to publicise these issues and warn of what could happen.

    Contrary to what I’ve read elsewhere on this blog, the asylum seekers then were not fleeing from ‘our wars.’ They were Turkish Kurd, Iraqi Shia and Kurd and Afghans fleeing from Saddam and the Soviets. Later they were joined by Hazaras fleeing the the Taliban. Many Hazaras had supported the Soviets. The early Iraqi asylum seekers included military men and their families, the Rote fishermen were scared of them and not inclined to assist, even for money. The more boats we confiscated and destroyed, the deeper in debt to the owners we forced the skippers and crews. The trajectory was clear during the Hawke and Keating years but policy makers were deaf. The situation was still salvageable had we taken action in the 90s but by 1999 it was too late. I would hope that policy makers will now acknowledge this, avoid repeating our previous mistakes and resist conflating ‘wider defence of Australia’ with what should be civilian policing matters. We need the civilian politicians and diplomats to do their job properly and resolve the underlying bilateral issues [if possible] rather than a permanent military operation. And if not possible, then to explain to the public why it isn’t. The lazy and false proposition that the Indonesian State, given political will, is incapable of stopping their own people smugglers has always been absurd.

    ‘I believe he makes a decent case in favour of turn-backs’

    We’re all entitled to our own versions of selective morality and rationalisations, and I’ve done far worse over the decades than Mr Hann. I can’t let this go though without reminding readers that there is nothing moral or even remotely decent about turning back children to Indonesia, where they are in far greater physical and moral jeopardy than they will ever be in Manus and Nauru.

  2. Avatar tasi timor says:

    Hann’s polemic begins with a false assumption and never recovers, cherrypicking facts he likes and ignoring facts he doesn’t. His listed references are exclusively English language sources, a great way to filter uncomfortable facts that don’t fit his narrative. His false assumption – and he’s not alone in making it – is that Indonesian people smugglers are independent actors who don’t exist within a political context and who respond to our levers like Pavlovian hounds. The key determinant is, and Morrison must know it, the state of the bilateral relationship. When the relationship is not in crisis, the smugglers are restricted to low intensity activity.

    The consequences of moving asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus to NZ will likely see an effort by smugglers to purchase and send larger vessels via the Pacific to NZ. They have the ability to do this [see the boat sent by a Sulawesi based syndicate to Yap and the tanker with 130 asylum seekers busted this year in Malaysia.]

    For developments on our doorstep see the plan by the new Govt of NTT to relocate some 400 asylum seekers to Ndana, promoted as a second Pulau Galang, a maritime border baseline island close to Rote protected by ALRI.

    For readers who may not know, the new Governor Vecky Laiskodat is a gangster from Jakarta married into the family of Tommy Winata. Winata finances TNI businesses and has come under pressure from Islamists to discontinue his gambling businesses in Batam. For the past decade he’s been considering transferring some of his gambling ventures to Rote, Semau and the small islands like Ndana. ALRI regards Ndana as an important border post and relocating asylum seekers gives them another reason to increase their presence. A new Governor financed by Winata lends the proposal an interesting synergy.

    ‘Ooops, some escaped on a boat…’

  3. Avatar Tony Ward says:

    A thoughtful and well-researched piece, thank you Shaun.

    I agree Manus and Nauru are no longer necessary as deterrents. In addition to the effective border security measures you outline, there are other steps we can also take to further reduce any attraction for boat trips. I discussed some of these in my book last year “Bridging Troubled Waters”:
    – more engagement with the region on migrant flows
    – develop better processing and other options for migrants

    • More engagement…better processing: yes. Also far more support for the far poorer countries than Australia carrying a totally disproportionate burden of care, while Australia cuts foreign aid and withdraws further into a nationalism that is as unintelligent as it’s untimely.
      There’s another matter, too, and I have written about it here on John M’s blog, and that is our acceptance that wars are inevitable and that the weapons industries should and will and do flourish. It’s largely wars – and the violence of poverty – that accounts for the 68 million people displaced in our world today.
      From my perspective, this acceptance – and the excitement that wars evoke when viewed from a distance – is as absurd as denying climate science. As weapons have become more and more deadly, and high streets and homes have become “battle fields”, we need our very best minds and dedicated, appropriate resources to considering how to diminish national and international conflict, how to better understand the causes of conflict, and especially how to address flash points before people’s lives are wrecked or lost. Is this beyond us? Is it beyond us even to demand this? Thank you to all contributing to this discussion, and particularly to Shaun Hanns, speaking up so bravely for the silenced.

  4. Avatar David Brown says:

    thank you for your carefully constructed argument for justifying Australia returning toward its historically and globally approved rational treatment of people

  5. Avatar Lawry Herron says:

    This is tightly argued, factually grounded with comprehensive references and citations, and highly persuasive. Shaun Hanns’ proposed solution is sensible, humane and practicable though more gradualist than I would like to see happen.
    It begs the question of our vaunted respect for a rules-based international order, specifically compliance with the Refugee Convention and its Protocol; consistently, Australia should denounce these (denunciation becomes effective after one year): there might be more honour in doing so than in shamelessly breaching them. We would nevertheless still be subject to international customary law, essentially to the same effect as the core principles of the Convention.

  6. Avatar Michael Liffman says:

    Congratulations on such a rigorous and powerful argument.

  7. Jon Stanford Jon Stanford says:

    This is a very important letter from a former insider. It is a courageous thing to do, but he seems to have been careful not to reveal any privileged information, particularly relating to national security issues. This, of course, is appropriate.

    His conclusion that there is no longer any point in keeping people in a miserable existence in offshore detention centres, while very welcome, also seems, from any rational perspective, difficult to refute.

    The other point about Australia’s increased efficiency in boat turn-backs is also very interesting. Whatever your moral position on this, and I believe he makes a decent case in favour of turn-backs, from a wider “defence of Australia” perspective it also says a lot about the ADF’s developing ability to prosecute anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) in the approaches to Australia. In a recent article in The Conversation, Admiral Chris Barrie suggested that this should be the focus of our future defence policy, which is currently constructed around coalition operations alongside the United States. Some of the aircraft we are acquiring, such as the Wedgetail and Poseidon, are greatly enhancing the ADF’s capability in terms of detecting sea (and air) incursions into Australia’s approaches. The success in detecting asylum-seeker boats, which are relatively difficult to find because of their size, is rather encouraging from this perspective.

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