Operation Sovereign Borders
Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) is a border protection operation led by the Australian Defence Force, aimed at stopping maritime arrivals of asylum seekers to Australia. The operation is the outcome of a 2013 federal election policy of the Coalition, which commenced on 18 September 2013 after the election of the Abbott Government. The operation has implemented a "zero tolerance" posture towards so-called "illegal boat arrivals" in Australia, in conjunction with mandatory detention in offshore detention facilities. The current Commander Operation Sovereign Borders, Major General Craig Furini, was appointed to the command on 14 December 2018.
During the 2013 federal election, the Abbott-led Coalition campaigned on a policy that, if elected to government, they would "stop the boats" and would launch Operation Sovereign Borders, combining the resources of multiple government bodies under direct control of a three star general. Following the election, Angus Campbell was promoted and appointed to oversee the operations.
Following the 2013 election, the portfolio of the Minister for Immigration was renamed as the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. The appointed ministers, initially Scott Morrison and subsequently Peter Dutton, refused to release information on asylum seeker boat arrivals as they occurred, and a weekly media briefing was announced. In January 2014, having not held a media briefing for almost a month, Morrison announced that briefings would be held on what he described as "an as needs basis". On 10 July 2014, Morrison stated that the secrecy policy was put in place by Lieutenant General Campbell, which had been rigorously implemented by ministers, their advisers, and various government departments.
Regional Deterrence Framework
On 23 August 2013, during the election campaign, the Coalition announced a key component of Operation Sovereign Borders called the Regional Deterrence Framework. Budgeted at A$420 million, the RDF aimed to engage with other countries in the region, particularly Indonesia, to prevent asylum seeker vessels leaving for Australia. The framework included a $20 million proposal (titled "The Indonesian community engagement programme") which was to include:
- communications campaigns to raise awareness within local villages that people smuggling is a criminal activity;
- a capped boat buy-back scheme that was to provide an incentive for owners of decrepit and dangerously unsafe boats to sell their boats to government officials rather than people smugglers;
- support for wardens in local communities, whose role was to be to provide intelligence information to the Indonesian National Police on people smuggling operations;
- the option in exceptional circumstances for bounty payments for the provision of information resulting in significant disruptions or arrests leading to convictions.
The "buy-the-boats" plan was widely ridiculed, with fact-checking group PolitiFact Australia calling the proposal "ridiculous". Lieutenant General Campbell told a Senate Estimates committee that, two months into the OSB program, no boats had been purchased because Indonesia did not support the idea, although he stated that the measure remained available.
- Detection, Interception and Transfer Task Group – led by the Australian Border Force (incorporating Maritime Border Command)
- Disruption and Deterrence Task Group – led by the Australian Federal Police
- Offshore Detention and Returns Task Group – led by the Australian Border Force
|Rank||Name||Post-nominals||Service||Term began||Term ended|
|Lieutenant General||Angus Campbell||Army||18 September 2013||16 May 2015|
|Major General||Andrew Bottrell||Army||16 May 2015||1 February 2017|
|Air Vice Marshal||Stephen Osborne||RAAF||1 February 2017||14 December 2018|
|Major General||Craig Furini||Army||14 December 2018||Incumbent|
In response, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Richard Marles claimed there was a 40 per cent reduction in arrivals in the month following the introduction of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea, shortly before the 2013 election.
July 2014: Legal challenge
On 7 July 2014, a vessel containing 153 mostly Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka was intercepted by Australian authorities 27 kilometres (15 nmi) from Christmas Island. The government refused to confirm the existence, location, or status of the boat, until the High Court placed an injunction on any attempted refoulement of the vessel's passengers to Sri Lanka, while the full bench of the Court considered a challenge to the handover on the grounds that the government was breaching non-refoulement obligations under international law. Under Article 33 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory, this principle forbids a nation state from sending a refugee back to anywhere where they may face persecution.
Pre-empting the decision of the court, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Morrison announced that the people on the boat would be transferred to the Curtin Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in Western Australia, where they would be assessed by Indian consular officials under an arrangement made with that country to repatriate any Indian citizens or residents. On 2 August, Morrison announced that the group had refused to meet with Indian officials and were then transferred to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre.
The government's response was to rush through Parliament the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014, which was passed by both Houses in December 2014, placing border policing ahead of asylum seeker rights as expressed in UN Convention.
|Unlawful arrivals by boat per month|
|From 18 September 2013||5||205|
|Source: "Operation Sovereign Borders:|
log of boat arrivals and other asylum seeker incidents".
ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 5 February 2015.
Months with no arrivals are not listed.
The number of arrivals given in OSB operational updates is defined as those "transferred to Australian immigration authorities", and does not include arrivals in Australian territorial waters who have been subject to a turnback operation—that is, sent out of Australian waters on their own vessel, or an Australian vessel employed for this purpose. As of 7 February 2014, The Australian newspaper estimated that at least "six boatloads" of asylum seekers had been subject to turnbacks by OSB authorities.
On 15 January 2014, an orange fibreglass "survival capsule", containing about 60 asylum seekers, came ashore at Cikepuh in West Java. A second containing 34 people arrived at Pangandaran on 5 February. The Daily Telegraph reported that the Australian government was believed to have purchased eleven of the capsules from Singapore at a cost of around $500,000.
In January 2015, Minister Dutton announced that 15 vessels, containing 429 asylum seekers in total, had been subject to turnback operations of some kind towards Indonesia or Sri Lanka since the beginning of OSB.
In July 2015, Labor Shadow Minister Richard Marles conceded that "Offshore processing and regional resettlement, together with the Coalition's policy of turn-backs, is what actually stopped the boats."
On 6 August 2015, the new immigration minister Peter Dutton announced it had been 12 months since the last successful people smuggling operation, with the last SIEV arriving in Australia's care in July 2014. The ABC News' Fact Check subsequently listed the Coalition's "We Will Stop the Boats" promise as delivered. In August 2015, Dutton stated that, since December 2013, 633 people on 20 vessels have been subject to turnback operations, including a boat from Vietnam in July. In March 2016, Dutton stated that 698 people on 25 vessels had been turned back since the beginning of the OSB program.
In 2014, the status of asylum seekers sent to offshore processing centres in Nauru Regional Processing Centre and Manus Regional Processing Centre was decided: 13 people (9 people from Iran and 4 people from Pakistan) were granted asylum, while 7 people (from Iran, Pakistan, and Cameroon) received negative assessments. The asylum protection in Nauru was valid from 2014 for up to 5 years.
The Indonesian government has voiced concern over the operation due to its implications for Indonesia's national sovereignty. A member of the Golkar party, Tantowi Yahya, described the plan as "offensive", and officials from the Indonesian Navy said "forcing the boats back would also unfairly shift the burden of dealing with the asylum-seeker problem back on Indonesia". The policy also came under fire from refugee advocates.
On 26 September 2013, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa took the "unusual step" of releasing details of his talks about the policy with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop, which was later blamed on a clerical error.
Australia has apologised for violating Indonesian waters during their "tow back" operations. These incursions occurred after Chief of the Defence Force David Hurley stripped naval personnel of workplace safety protections that would have required them to exercise "reasonable care" to protect their safety and that of the refugees. On 21 January 2014, Customs (now Australian Border Force) and Defence announced that a joint review would be conducted to investigate the circumstances under which Australian naval vessels entered Indonesian territorial waters. The inquiry, which covered the period between 1 December 2013 and 20 January 2014, found that two Royal Australian Navy frigates had crossed into Indonesian territory four times during the period, while Customs vessels did so on another two occasions. In response, one Australian Navy officer lost his command, while several others were disciplined. Indonesia has responded to the incursions by deploying military assets to intercept people-smuggling boats.
Several journalists and media outlets have expressed concern and frustration over the tightly-controlled release of information about Operation Sovereign Borders, usually restricted to the weekly briefings held on Friday afternoons. In the weekly briefings, both Minister Morrison and Lieutenant General Campbell have refused to discuss "operational" or "on-water" matters in response to questions from journalists. The Minister has rationalised the control of information by stating that the government was not "operating a shipping news service for people smugglers".
Allegations of navy mistreatment
On 22 January 2014, the ABC broadcast allegations that Royal Australian Navy personnel had mistreated asylum seekers during an OSB operation, including video footage of passengers receiving medical treatment in Indonesia for burns on their hands, which they claimed were sustained when they were forced to touch a hot boat engine. Morrison downplayed refugee claims of being abused by the Navy, and called for the ABC to apologise to the Navy. The ABC's Media Watch program opined that ABC News had "over-reached" when reporting the story, and should have been more thorough in verifying the claims. On 4 February, ABC managing director Mark Scott issued a statement saying "The wording around the ABC's initial reporting needed to be more precise on that point", referring to the video footage verifying the injuries but not how they had occurred. On 7 February, Yousif Ibrahim Fasher repeated the initial allegations, as well as several further claims of mistreatment and possible breaches of maritime law in an interview with a Fairfax correspondent.
Political focus on boat arrivals
Immigration law specialists, academics and others have criticised the political over-use of border control in general to win votes, and in particular of the exaggerated focus on boat arrivals being a danger to security and bringing illegal immigrants, when in fact the vast majority of illegal immigrants arrived by plane, with valid visas initially.
- Australian Border Force (est. 2015)
- Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976
- Manus Regional Processing Centre
- Operation Resolute, Australian Defence Force contribution to patrolling Australian waters, 2006–2013
- Nauru Regional Processing Centre
- Pacific Solution, previous policy to Sovereign Borders (2001–2007, then 2012–2013)
- PNG Solution, part of Pacific Solution, announced 2013
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