Boat Turn Backs: the facts the left are ignoring and what the right can do better

Colin Chow

The current refugee crisis in Europe highlights and sharply contrasts with the situation in Australia. Opposition leader Bill Shorten recently conceded that the coalition's boat turn-back policy would be one of the measures which could be adopted by the ALP if it wins the next election. The shadow minister for immigration, Richard Marles, has been hinting at supporting boat turn-backs since 2014.

 Opponents to the coalition's border protection policies point to the detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island. Most independent observers agree that conditions in Nauru are tantamount to torture. Detainees are held without charge, with no end in sight to their predicament. Many are sewing their mouths shut on hunger strikes, and some are committing suicide. Riots are a common occurrence. Senate committee reports allege physical and sexual abuse by detention centre staff. It is a crime for doctors working in detention centres to speak out about what they see. Doctors who have been brave enough to defy orders give atrocious accounts of child abuse. 

 But just because the coalition has done many things with which I also personally do not agree, it does not necessarily follow that all of their ideas are without merit. Tony Abbott’s stance on withholding welfare payments for parents who refuse to immunise their children is an example of good policy. The fact that hundreds of asylum seekers continue to remain in indefinite detention in Nauru and Manus Island, facing torture-like conditions, is bad policy.

 All ideas should be assessed with honest academic scrutiny rather than on the basis of one’s political compass. The debate should focus on what is scientifically correct, not what is politically correct.

 I, like most Australians, strongly oppose the current indefinite detention of asylum seekers without charge in Nauru and Manus Island. But the policy of boat turnbacks is a separate aspect of Operation Sovereign borders, and should therefore be assessed on its own inherent advantages and disadvantages.

 The degree of risk of the boat journey may not be immediately apparent to asylum seekers in Indonesia, who are probably offered false hopes by people smugglers. But it should be clear to Australians who have seen the horrifying pictures of rickety, overcrowded boats smashing to smithereens on our shores. We recall footage of locals desperately throwing floating aids into the water in vain. 

 To put risk in perspective, consider air travel, which has an excellent safety profile (despite recent high-profile cases). In 2014, only one in 3 million departures was fatal. Therefore, the risk of taking off in a plane in 2014 was 3 x 10-7, or roughly 0.00003% chance of death.

 Driving is far more dangerous than flying. The Queensland road toll in 2014 was a record low of 223 deaths out of a population of 4 million. This is roughly equivalent to 5x10-5, or 0.005% chance of death.

 The New Zealand road-toll in 1993 was approximately 600 deaths out of a population of 4 million, which represents 1.5 x10-4, or 0.015% chance of death. This risk was considered to be unacceptably high, and millions of dollars were spent by the government on education campaigns to raise public awareness of road safety. As a result, the road-toll in New Zealand steadily declined, and in 2014 it was 297 deaths out of 4 million (similar to Queensland in 2014). 

 Contrast this with asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australian shores during the Rudd-Gillard years. About 1000 people tragically died out of the 20,000 who attempted the journey. This represents a 5% chance of death.

 To reiterate: 

· Flying in 2014 = 0.00003% chance of death

· Driving in Queensland in 2014 = 0.005% chance of death

· Driving in NZ in 1993 (a bad year) = 0.015% chance of death

· Asylum seeker boat from Indonesia to Australia = 5% chance of death

 My analysis may not be acceptably presentable in a pure mathematical sense but the sheer scale of difference in risk should be clear. The following website tabulates asylum seekers who have died at sea and in Australian detention centres from 2000 to present:

Many other independent authorities, such as the Monash Australian Border Death Database, have figures which are consistent with the above data:

 The data shows that boat turn-backs save lives. Had Kevin Rudd not dismantled the Pacific solution, almost 1000 people who perished may still be alive today. On the basis of this analysis, I think Bill Shorten has made the correct decision to retain the option of boat turn-backs should the ALP win power at the next election.

 Common criticisms of boat turn-backs

 Criticism 1:

Australia’s Shame – “turning back the boats” doesn’t save lives. It just condemns refugees to death elsewhere. Usually out of sight.

A similar line of thought can be seen from prominent Australian barrister and refugee advocate Julian Burnside, who states “stopping refugee boats arriving is not a self-evident good. It might stop people drowning inconveniently in view of Australians at Christmas Island. But if they do not get on a boat and are, instead, killed by the Taliban, they are just as dead as if they drowned. The real difference is that our conscience is not troubled by their un-noted death somewhere else.”

The three most common source countries for people who arrive in Australia by boat are Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. But most of them do not come directly; rather they have arrived by way of Indonesia. Therefore, the alternative to making the boat journey is not, in most cases, facing the Taliban. The alternative is usually being stranded and stateless in Indonesia. Therefore, an analysis of this alternative should be our focus. 

If being stranded and stateless in Indonesia is worse than a 5% chance of death, then taking a boat to Australia is justifiable. If not, then boat journeys should be discouraged. 

If Mr. Burnside’s own brother were stranded and effectively stateless in Indonesia, having arrived there after fleeing from Afghanistan or Iraq, would he advise his brother to attempt the boat journey to Australia? Or would he advise his brother to remain stranded in Indonesia? Keeping in mind the aforementioned data, how would you advise your loved one if he or she were a refugee in Indonesia contemplating the boat journey to Australia? 

Let us discuss the alternative in more detail. What does it mean for a refugee to be stranded in Indonesia? The outlook is bleak. Effectively, you are in limbo. Officially, you are not allowed to work and cannot access social services, such as health care. Your children cannot legally attend school. This is because Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee convention. Refugee advocates have valid concerns that this also brings into question Indonesia’s ability to properly process asylum seeker claims and to keep refugees safe from wrongful return to their home country, or refoulement.

Being a non-signatory country, refugee status in Indonesia is determined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Refugee advocates rightly point out that asylum seekers have great difficulty in accessing the UNHCR. Their claims may experience significant delays and there are legitimate concerns about standards of procedural fairness in the processing of their claims.

All these concerns are of course valid and require careful consideration when determining policy. However, despite being a non-signatory to the convention, there is no evidence of Indonesia conducting mass torture or murder of asylum seekers, or that Indonesia engages in deliberate refoulement.

To reiterate: if being stranded and stateless in Indonesia is worse than a 5% chance of death, then taking a boat to Australia is justifiable. If not, then boat journeys should be discouraged.

 Criticism 2:

Look at the current situation in Syria. Look at the goodwill of the Germans and how this compares with Australia’s brutal treatment of refugees.

The situation in Europe is different from that in Australia. Refugees are coming directly from Syria, where they are fleeing from the barbarity of Islamic State and the Assad regime. At the time of writing, almost 300,000 Syrians have lost their lives in this conflict, and the number continues to rise. 

The exact risk faced by people in Syria is hard to determine. The country is currently far less stable than Indonesia and its future stability or instability depends largely on the destiny or fate of Islamic State, so in this case, the risk of the boat journey may possilbly outweigh the risk of staying in Syria.

 Having said that, it may not. Bear in mind the case of Aylan Kurdi. The world has been shocked by images of the 3 year-old’s body washed up on a Turkish beach. Aylan was a Syrian refugee who drowned along with his mother and brother as they attempted to reach the Greek island of Kos from Turkey. His father, who spoke at the funeral, warned fellow Syrians not to risk the lives of loved ones in attempting to flee the country. 

There are reports of brutality from Australian officials in dealing with refugees during boat turn-backs. Such allegations are difficult to prove due to the secrecy surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders. There is also secrecy surrounding allegations of Australian border protection paying people smugglers to turn boats back to Indonesia. This is completely counter-productive to the coalition’s stated aim, as it encourages more people smugglers to send boats.

Any such behaviour, if it is happening, needs to be condemned at the highest level, and all perpetrators need to be held to account. The coalition also needs to explain the reason surrounding the ongoing secrecy of the operation. The claim that secrecy is required may have had some validity during the beginning of the operation. But given that they have already had considerable success in stemming the flow of boats from Indonesia, this no longer seems to be the case.

However, as sickening as this behaviour sounds, it does not detract from the evidence that boat turn-backs in the Indonesian-Australian scenario do save lives. Whether or not this is also the case with the current situation in Europe is not entirely clear.

 Criticism 3:

If we simply turn back the boats, Indonesia and other countries are tackling the lion’s share of the refugee crisis. Australia is not pulling its weight and is therefore abdicating its responsibilities as a global citizen.

This is the strongest criticism I can think of against the boat turn-back policy. When Australia successfully stops the boats, what happens to the refugees?  

We should continue boat turn-backs to discourage further attempts of the hazardous journey. We should release all current refugees held in detention, especially women and children, and we should increase our refugee quota. We should engage more with Indonesia and the UNHCR to facilitate fair processing of claims and safe passage of asylum seekers. This would give stranded, stateless refugees more hope of a successful outcome after staying in Indonesia and decrease the likelihood of them risking the perilous boat journey to Australia. 

The only sustainable solution to the problem lies in assisting Indonesia and the UNHCR to properly process asylum seeker claims, and forging an agreement with all nations in the region on refugee quotas, many of which are woefully inadequate. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, is currently under fire to increase the country’s refugee quota of 750 refugees per year, which has not changed since 1987.

 Currently the “queue” currently does not work. We need to fix it. Allowing boat arrivals, with the associated tragic deaths, is clearly not the solution, something which Bill Shorten has finally come to realise. How much will it cost to fix the “queue”? How practical is it to do so, given the current strained diplomatic relationship between Australia and Indonesia? I don’t know. But I think that all efforts should be directed to this type of solution rather than the futile finger-pointing controversy over boat turn-backs. Stopping the boats is not the end of the story, it is just the beginning. In the meantime, boat turn-backs should continue so that no further lives are lost.


Please note any views or opinions presented in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Rotaract Club of Brisbane Rivercity or Rotary International and its subsidiaries.