Deaths at Sea

Do Boat Turnbacks Work? Well, It Depends on What You Mean by “Work”…

I was intrigued by an article that appeared in The Australian newspaper a few weeks ago. Under the front-page heading, “Boat turnbacks don’t work: UN”, the article quoted the UN refugee agency’s chief, Thomas Vargas, who claimed that turning back boatloads of asylum seekers at sea “just [doesn’t] work”. Later, Vargas conceded that such a policy might indeed “work” for some countries (or rather, he said that some countries might claim as much), although he insisted that they put vulnerable people “in harm’s way”.

Two points about Mr Vargas’ comments are worth noting. First, whether or not the policy of turning back vessels laden with asylum seekers “works” rather depends on your definition and your starting-point. If by “work” one means “the successful calibration of means with ends”, then I’d say that boat turnbacks have “worked” tremendously well. To my knowledge, not a single life has been lost at sea during a turnback operation, as the government has successfully used the tactic to deter asylum seekers from making the perilous voyage from the southern fringes of Indonesia (and, on occasion, other nations) to Australian territory. It has been so successful that at least one former immigration official has said that it makes offshore processing redundant (“Boat turn-backs ‘make offshore detention meaningless'”, The Australian, October 25, 2018; article paywalled).

As of October last year, about 36 boats had attempted to reach Australia since the re-introduction of the turnback policy in 2013. In that time, only one boat has made landfall – a vessel travelling directly from Vietnam. Every boatload of asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia has been successfully halted. Where the vessel has been deemed seaworthy, it is forcibly turned around. In other instances, orange lifeboats – complete with internal motor, life jackets and on-board supplies – have been used to ship asylum seekers back to (e.g.) the Indonesian mainland. Such vessels, it needs to be remembered, are practically unsinkable, so any safety issues are all but non-existent.

In any case, if the goal of turnbacks was to maintain the country’s maritime borders and dissuade asylum seekers from such an irregular – not to mention dangerous – means of travel, then the policy has “worked” perfectly. Even the outgoing director of the International Office of Migration’s Indonesia station, Mark Getchell, has stated that boat turnbacks have been the “single biggest” deterrent in the Australian government’s effort to reduce sea-borne asylum seeker flows (“Turnbacks best deterrent, says IOM chief”, The Australian, February 1, 2019; article paywalled). Now, Mr Vargas may dislike the policy; he may condemn it morally. At this point, however, he has chosen to critique Australia’s approach on practical grounds. The ethics of turnbacks is a distinct — though related — argument (I for one am not exercised morally by the enforced repulsion of asylum seeker vessels, provided such practices are conducted in a safe and humane way. Turnbacks have also been crucial in preventing deaths at sea, which means they can, in part, be defended on ethical grounds as well). As far as I can tell, its utility cannot be gainsaid.

Second, it’s somewhat ironic that Mr Vargas should castigate Australia for a policy that apparently places people in mortal jeopardy. His favoured approach – “…rescuing them [i.e., asylum seekers], bringing them to safety and then figuring out how best they can be helped” – is sure to lead to the very loss of life he so desperately wishes to avoid. I don’t doubt Mr Vargas’ sincerity or good-will. I assume he is genuinely concerned about the plight of asylum seekers, refugees, and internally displaced persons around the world. But what he is advocating has been shown to lure asylum seekers to their deaths.

How has this been demonstrated? Well, soon after winning office in 2007, the ALP began dismantling the border protection regime implemented by the Howard government. Whether or not they intended to, the Labor Party offered a fairly clear signal to both asylum seekers desperate enough to make the dangerous voyage across the Indian Ocean and to the (often unscrupulous) people smugglers who were only too willing to facilitate their passage. The result was an explosion in the number of vessels bound for Australian territory, far beyond anything the Royal Australian Navy could handle. In the five years that followed, at least 1,200 people either drowned in open water or were dashed against the treacherous shorelines of outlying islands. Navy personnel have recounted the trauma of having to retrieve the decomposing bodies of infants and children from the ocean, after yet another unseaworthy vessel sank. Labor policies between 2008 and 2013 – policies to which Mr Vargas would like to see Australia re-commit itself – set in motion this tragic state of affairs.[1] Again, one may wish to question the ethics of boat turnbacks. But I wouldn’t be too quick to condemn something as potentially fatal, especially if my preferred solution was likely to lead to precisely that outcome.

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Mr Vargas’ views on this issue are a product of the rigid application of globalist logic to what, in many respects, is a national or inter-national problem. As an employee of the UN, he is of course wedded to the idea that these problems must admit of a global, multi-national solution; any effort on the part of individual states to carve out an independent response to irregular migration is condemned as intrinsically immoral. Perhaps. But states do have a right to maintain the integrity of their borders, something that needs to be weighed against the rights of individuals to seek asylum. Notwithstanding efforts to trivlialize the concept of national sovereignty, it remains one of the basic building-blocks of the international order.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as wholesale support for Australia’s current border protection regime. As I have indicated elsewhere, the country’s system of offshore processing facilities has clearly failed on multiple levels, exacerbating the trauma and mental ill-health that asylum seekers have already experienced. The government’s response to that troubling body of evidence looks increasingly stern and cold-hearted; many people on Manus and Nauru, meanwhile, continue to languish under the weight of acute psychological distress. I also think Mr Vargas is right to criticise the government for dramatically reducing the numbers of refugees it selects from Indonesian detention centres. It simply seems churlish to exclude asylum seekers based in Indonesia from the opportunity of re-settling in Australia — and, in light of the overall success of the country’s border protection regime, completely unnecessary (accepting people from mainstream, legitimate sources probably won’t encourage a re-activation of the people smuggling trade. If anything, the present policy would likely be an incentive towards irregular migration to Australia, at least in the absence of a broader deterrence approach).

But put all that aside for now. Mr Vargas’ views on the issue at hand aren’t simply in diametric opposition to reality; they unwittingly – and indeed, ironically – contain the seeds of a policy that would see the kinds of tragedy he earnestly seeks to avoid.

[1] I realize this is a contentious point, and that not all commentators agree that there is a causal link between Australia’s policy settings in this space and the relative volume of boat-borne asylum seekers. I shall attempt to substantiate my position in a forthcoming post.

 

 

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