Over the past 20 years, successive Australian governments have pursued a range of policy measures to prevent or limit the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat.

Among the most controversial has been boat “turnbacks”: boats carrying irregular migrants are prevented from entering Australian waters and towed back to their place of departure by Australian officials. This approach has been credited with significantly reducing the number of boat arrivals. It has also been widely criticised on humanitarian grounds.

A history of the turnbacks

Asylum seekers fleeing conflict and persecution have been arriving in Australia by sea since the end of the Vietnam War.  However, it was not until 2001, under the leadership of Prime Minister John Howard in the aftermath of the Tampa Affair, that the Australian Government first introduced a boat turnback policy, known as Operation Relex.

Operation Relex, part of a suite of policy measures to deter asylum seekers from travelling to Australia by sea known as the Pacific Solution, authorised the Royal Australian Navy to intercept boats at sea and, if seaworthy, tow them back to their point of departure, typically Indonesia.

Between 2001 and 2006, a total of 12 boats were intercepted attempting to reach Australia. While a number of these boats were returned to Indonesian waters, many were considered unseaworthy or sank. The surviving passengers were taken to immigration detention centres on Nauru or Christmas Island.

Following a change of Government in December 2007, the new Labor Government, first under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and then under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, discontinued the boat turnback policy.

In September 2013, a new Coalition Government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, reinstituted a boat turnback policy as part of Operation Sovereign Borders. Current policy dictates that “anyone who attempts to travel illegally by boat to Australia will be turned back”. The Government has purchased a number of large life-boats with the aim of ensuring that even people on unseaworthy or sinking vessels can be returned to their point of departure.

Impact of Operation Sovereign Borders

Comprehensive information about the number of boats that have been intercepted since the implementation of Operation Sovereign Borders is not available. What has been released shows that between 21 September 2013 and 13 December 2013, 22 boats, carrying 1151 people, were intercepted attempting to reach Australia. None of these boats was turned back and the majority of passengers were transferred to immigration detention centres.

The Government has subsequently stated that between the start of Operation Sovereign Borders and 17 March 2016, 25 boats carrying 698 people have been turned back. This includes the return of boats to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India.

The hardline position on boat turnbacks under Operation Sovereign Borders may have contributed to a decrease in boat arrivals. It has also been the subject of significant controversy. In May 2015, for example, an Amnesty International investigation alleged that Australian government officials paid the crew of one vessel $32,000 to turn back to Indonesia. The Australian Government has refused to comment on these allegations, citing the need for secrecy in relation to ‘operational matters’.

The morality and legality of boat turnbacks has also been heavily criticised. In April 2014, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees publicly stated that Australia was breaching its obligations under international refugee law. As part of the boat turnback policy, Australian officials have also been conducting refugee assessments at sea. This process of ‘enhanced screening’ has also been widely condemned by leading legal academics as breaching Australia’s obligations under international law.

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Last updated 23 October 2016