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asylum seekers

This Report Carefully Explains Why Turning Back Boats Doesn't Work

Spoiler: deterrence policies don't work on people fleeing war.

A new report from the University of New South Wales' international law faculty says that turning back asylum seeker boats is both illegal and ineffective as a deterrence strategy. In other news, the sky is blue, the Pope is Catholic, and Malcolm Turnbull is, for now at least, the Prime Minister of Australia.

The report, The Interdiction of Asylum Seekers at Sea: Law and (mal)practice in Europe and Australia, was written by Violeta Moreno-Lax, co-founder of the Centre for European and International Legal Affairs at Queen Mary University in London. It addresses what it calls "the increasingly militarised measures" to counter boat people in Australia and Europe, and concludes that turning boats around threatens lives without accomplishing much else. This is because the boats of people are still out there—they're just not making it to Australia.


Moreno-Lax draws attention to the 1,992 border deaths that have occurred in Australia in the past 17 years, as well as the 46,000 asylum seekers who have drowned in the Mediterranean in that same time period. She points out that most of these people were from "war-ravaged, refugee-producing" countries and should have legally been granted international protection.

"These deterrence operations do not accord with the UN convention on the law of the sea, the search and rescue convention, the safety of life at sea convention, the refugee convention, or the core international human rights treaties," Moreno-Lax writes.

"They hamper desperate people fleeing war and persecution from finding safety. If the political will to save lives really existed, then governments in both hemispheres would replace the current securitised approach with a comprehensive, protection-centred vision."

At present, Australia has essentially the opposite approach to a "protection-centred" vision of how to deal with those pesky boats full of desperate people. Operation Sovereign Borders, run by the Australian Defence Force, has a zero-tolerance approach to maritime arrivals. The idea is to either turn back boats, or detain their passengers in offshore detention centres indefinitely.

The report outlines some "protection-centric" alternatives to Operation Sovereign Borders, saying that instead of running deterrence operations, Australia should "take account of the individual circumstances of each asylum seeker encountered at sea" instead of automatically deporting them. This would involve allowing asylum seeking boat people to disembark on Australian soil, "for the purposes of refugee status determination".

According to Moreno-Lax, opening up additional legal pathways for asylum seekers would take power from those evil people smugglers and trafficking rings that Peter Dutton is always going on about. "This would reduce the number of fatalities at sea and allow for more orderly arrivals….smuggling routes would be rendered obsolete," she writes.

While the report makes for interesting reading, it's unlikely to mean much. In the proudly unhelpful words of the Department of Immigration itself, "Australia's borders are stronger than ever, and our tough border protection policies are here to stay."

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