SYDNEY: Australia on Thursday revealed it has turned back 12 asylum-seeker boats and prevented 45 more from leaving port as it lifted the veil of secrecy over its hardline border protection policy.
The admission coincided with the first anniversary of Operation Sovereign Borders, introduced when the government came to power to tackle almost daily arrivals under the previous Labor administration.
The policy has been shrouded in secrecy, particularly the controversial turning back of boats, with Immigration Minister Scott Morrision refusing to comment on “operational matters”.
But he relented Thursday, while praising cooperation from countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
“A total of 45 ventures have been stopped before they even set sail through disruption operations with partner countries and 12 ventures, with 383 people on board, have been turned back at sea, as we promised we would do,” he said.
The first turn-back occurred in December last year and the most recent in May.
“There have been no deaths at sea since last year compared with over 300 missing, confirmed or presumed deaths at sea in the year prior to Operation Sovereign Borders under the Labor government,” he added.
All the turn-backs were to Indonesia with six of them occurring when Australian authorities accidentally breached Indonesian territorial waters, sparking a diplomatic spat.
Despite this, Morrison said the cooperation from Jakarta and other nations had been crucial, particularly in preventing boats bound for Australia from leaving.
“That is right across a range of different countries who we work with as close partners and that’s been an important part of the regional deterrence framework we put in place with our regional neighbours,” he said.
“So that’s everywhere from Sri Lanka, in Malaysia, Indonesia. Those countries have been fantastic partners in Operation Sovereign Borders.
“Also, there are countries such as India and others who have also been engaged in disrupting activities of their own volition.”
Only one boatload has reached Australia since the operation began, a group of 157 Sri Lankan Tamils held for weeks on the high seas on an Australian customs vessel while Canberra decided what to do with them.
Morrison said in the last year of the Labor government, there were 401 successful people-smuggling ventures with 26,543 asylum-seekers reaching Australia and hundreds more dying on route.
Under Canberra’s immigration policy, boatpeople arriving since July 2013 have been sent to camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the remote Pacific state of Nauru.
They are resettled in those countries if their refugee claims are approved.
Despite the success, Morrison said Australia’s vigilance had not dropped.
“The mission is never fully accomplished and we must maintain constant vigilance,” he said.