Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders

One of the most prominent mass migration issues that dominated the mainstream media in 2015 was the boat people in Australia. Most of them come from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran or Myanmar/Burma where they face violence or persecution. In 2012 -3, more than 18,000 people arrived in Australia through illegal channels by sea, compared to 7,300 between 2011 and 2012.[i] The government saw it as an immediate border security problem and the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott commenting on the migrant crisis in Europe, said ‘if you want to stop the deaths, if you want to stop the drownings you have got to stop the boats’.[ii] The government adopted the ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ policy, which put the military in control of asylum operations. Under this policy military vessels patrol Australian waters and intercept migrant boats, towing them back to Indonesia or sending asylum seekers back in inflatable dinghies or lifeboats. The government says its policies have restored the integrity of its borders, and helped prevent deaths at sea. It has turned back boats carrying asylum seekers. One alleged case involved the Australian Navy paying Indonesian smugglers to turn back the boat full of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants.[iii] The number of boats that arrived in Australia plunged in 2014 after the government introduced the policy.[iv] Among those turned back are genuine refugees who face persecution and institutionalize discrimination against their ethnicity and religion when returned. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people coming to Australia by boat are found to be refugees. In 2012-2013, 88.6 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat were found to be refugees.[v] This is consistent with data from previous years: in 2010-11, 93.5 per cent of boat arrivals were refugees; in 2011-12, the figure was 91 per cent.[vi]


[Source: Australian Department Immigration and Citizenship, Asylum Statistics, March quarter 2013,]



Australia has sent asylum seekers back to source countries in lifeboats


Australia’s tough border security measures are part of its broader immigration policy. It runs several offshore detention centres such as those in Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Christmas islands where numerous allegations about physical violence, rape, child abuse and mental illness are stemming from. The government also negotiated an AUD55 million (US$39.7 million) deal with the Cambodian government to set up a camp in Cambodia.[vii] Just a few months later, however, when the Syrian refugee crises dramatically surfaced in international news, Australia decided to admit 12,000 Syrian refugees.[viii] The two decisions on Rohingya and Syrian refugees may look inconsistent but are in line with the mainstream sovereignty and border security arguments before imminent humanitarian crises.

The government may have stopped the boats in 2014. However, the long-term consequences of this decision can be detrimental for human security and development for the region. Many of those returned face persecution and institutionalized discrimination against their religion and ethnicity. Those who are detained in the offshore facilities will be another lost generation who will miss education and training, as a result of their irregular migration. The decision may push these vulnerable migrants into more dangerous and illegal channels to cross the borders to enter Australia in future. With imminent possibility of ISIS’ reach to broader Asia, borders of the region are less secure than before. The region’s economy with a large number of unskilled workforce in the offshore camps are also at stake. Policy-makers should be able to see these long-term effects and make rational choices.


[i]Australian Department on Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), ‘Asylum Trends – Australia: 2012-13 Annual Publication’, 2013,

[ii] ‘Migrant crisis: Australia PM says stopping boats key for Europe,’ BBC, 4 September 2015,


[iv] Shalailah Medhora & Ben Doherty, ‘Australia confirms 15 boats carrying 429 asylum seekers have been turned back’, The Guardian, 28 January 2015,


[v] Australian Department Immigration and Citizenship, Asylum Statistics, June quarter 2014,



[vii]Ben Doherty, ‘Cambodia deal doomed after just four Nauru refugees resettled for $55m’, The Guardian, 31 August 2015,


[viii]Australian DIBP, ‘Australia’s response to the Syrian and Iraqi humanitarian crisis’, 2015,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s