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The boats may have stopped, but at what cost to Australia?

It is reasonable to surmise that the number of boats attempting to reach Australia has fallen dramatically in the Abbott government’s first year. AAP/Jon Faulkner

In opposition, Tony Abbott and his alternative government set itself a three-word performance indicator for success in its refugee policy if and when it took office: stop the boats.

With one recent exception, the last boat to make it to Australian waters was on December 19, 2013. In June, Abbott and immigration minister Scott Morrison held a press conference to mark the six-month anniversary of the last boat arrival. They noted that “almost 200 boats with 13,000 people” had reached Australia in the corresponding period the year before.

In answer to the obvious follow-up question of how many boats had attempted to reach Australia but not made it, Abbott was less forthcoming. He said he did not want to “compromise the effectiveness of our operation”. He indicated that:

… a full account of all of this will one day be given, but not yet.

The secrecy surrounding the military-led Operation Sovereign Borders remains a significant obstacle to properly assessing the government’s policy.

The one exception to stopping the boats is noteworthy in this regard. In July 2014, 157 Tamils were intercepted on a boat that had set sail from India. They were detained at sea on an Australian Customs vessel for many weeks, with little information about their circumstances.

What followed was a messy incident that revealed the darker side of the government’s turn-back policy. The government attempted to have the asylum seekers returned to India without having their claims properly assessed. That sparked a legal challenge (which remains ongoing) to its power to do so.

Despite doubts raised by this incident, it is reasonable to surmise that the number of boats attempting to reach Australia has fallen dramatically in the Abbott government’s first year.

There was never any question that a developed nation like Australia, with an expensive and powerful navy, could stop a trickle of unseaworthy fishing boats from reaching Australia if the resolve was there. The Howard government had established the blueprint for getting the job done in 2001. The Gillard and Rudd governments had adopted much of this blueprint in the year before the 2013 election, leading to a sharp decline in boat arrivals from the middle of the year.

However, a proper assessment of the government’s policy must move beyond the simple metric of boat arrivals. It needs to account for the broader costs and benefits of stopping the boats in light of the reasons Australia signed up to the Refugee Convention in the first place.

Scott Morrison has been criticised for the collateral costs of the government’s asylum policy. AAP/Joe Castro

The government has been able to sustain a clear narrative of the benefits. Stopping the boats undermines the industry that had developed around securing unauthorised entry to Australia by boat; it prevents loss of life at sea; and it prevents an unknowable number of asylum seekers reaching Australia, leaving Australia to contribute to the world refugee phenomenon through its resettlement program.

The government has had to ride a wave of criticism of the collateral costs. It has managed to do so because the costs are either borne by others, or will be felt in the future.

First, there is a cost to the asylum seekers to whom Australia has denied entry. People are left with no resolution to their claim for protection.

Those who have been intercepted and pushed back remain in limbo in Indonesia, a transit country, with no government assistance, no means to earn a living and no legal rights. Some asylum seekers in Indonesia reportedly beg to be detained so they can receive a meal and not starve.

Other asylum seekers intercepted under Operation Sovereign Borders are in detention on Christmas Island, Nauru or Manus Island. Investigations by the Australian Human Rights Commission, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International have declared conditions of detention to be grossly inadequate. Mothers are on suicide watch and there are grave concerns for the mental health of children.

Despite a government promise to introduce a fast-track process for determining claims, processing has remained painfully slow.

Asylum seekers face the prospect of indefinite detention in barely humane conditions, uncertain whether they will ever receive a resolution to their claim. Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed in a riot on Manus Island in February, and there are thousands of incidents of self-harm – most of which do not reach the press.

Second, there is a cost to Australia’s international reputation. Australia is uniquely hardline in its response to asylum seekers arriving by boat. No other country has employed as aggressive an interception and tow-back policy as Australia, using navy vessels to turn back boats in international waters, or transferring asylum seekers to disposable lifeboats and teaching them to steer themselves. No other country has utilised connections with small developing nations to shoulder the burden of its asylum seeker issue.

Australia’s immigration detention network remains harsh in length and in conditions. AAP/Eoin Blackwell

Australia’s immigration detention network, both onshore and offshore, remains harsh in terms of both the length of and conditions in detention. Current policy settings mean Australia is in breach of many of its obligations under the Refugee Convention. These facts are known to countries around the world. This will affect Australia’s reputation as a country that upholds human rights norms – but perhaps enhance it among countries with a strong sense of national self-interest.

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, already shaky as a result of the spying revelations last November, has been damaged as a result of Australia’s unilateral approach to pushing back boats and incursions of the Australian navy into Indonesian territory. The presence of Australian-branded disposable lifeboats stranded on the Javanese coast was a bad look.

Indonesia rejected the Australian government’s plan to buy back Indonesian fishing boats and this was abandoned after bilateral meetings. Many have pointed to a lost opportunity to manufacture a mutually beneficial resolution to the asylum seeker issue, and thus use it as a means to improve relations between the two countries.

Finally, there is a cost to Australian democracy. The government has shrouded its asylum seeker policy in secrecy. It has constructed it as a military operation to withhold almost all information of an operational nature, including the number of boat intercepts, progress in the processing of claims and conditions in detention.

Secrecy has never been used so extensively in Australia during peacetime to shield the government from accountability for implementation of policy. It is a dangerous precedent and comes at a cost to Australia’s democratic system of government.

Refugee policy is always fraught. When Abbott next declares the government’s overwhelming success at “stopping the boats”, we would do well to remember these costs.

Editor’s note: Alex will be on hand for an Author Q&A session between 11am and noon tomorrow (August 29). Post any questions about Australia’s refugee policies in the comment section below.

Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Remaking Australia series here.

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