The Abbott government’s boat turn-backs policy may be a political success but it cannot be called a policy success, in the sense of ‘saving lives at sea’. Who knows what has happened to the people whose boats are turned back? Certainly the Australian public doesn’t know due to the extreme secrecy applied by the government.
The people turned back, the majority of whom, past experience has shown, are genuine refugees, will still be fleeing persecution, will still be seeking a safe haven and will still suffer the uncertainty, the fear and the lack of rights that are features of transit countries. The question of what happens to them — do they die on a different sea, or in an airless container en route to Europe, are they jailed for working, or sent back to their country of persecution? These questions seem not to feature in our discussion of boat turn-backs, but they should. How can you claim to have ‘saved lives’ if you don’t follow the story through to the end?
The fact is that turning boats around and refusing to countenance what happens next is an abrogation of our duty to save lives imperilled at sea. We are violating international law and our own moral code, as well as common sense in adopting this approach.
The best way to combat people smuggling is to reduce demand for their services. Improve conditions and rights in source and transit countries, speed up resettlement, and significantly increase the intake of refugees in Australia and like-minded countries and you have reduced the incentive for people to get on boats in the first place and thereby broken the people smugglers’ business model’, without having to resort to harsh deterrence policies or to paying people smugglers.
I look forward to the day when politics is taken out of the refugee equation and human dignity is put back in.