December 06, 2013
Lawyers for the Australian Defence Force have told the Government they fear that turning back asylum seeker boats under Operation Sovereign Borders could be illegal, leaving their personnel exposed to personal and professional risk.
By Karen Middleton
SBS has reported exclusively that Defence representatives held a series of meetings with the Attorney-General’s office this week, detailing their legal concerns and requesting that the Government examine its duty of care to defence employees.
To see all developments regarding Operation Sovereign Borders follow the SBS story stream.
It is understood the Government has agreed to clarify the duty-of-care issue.
But it is still requiring the Navy to turn back asylum boats at sea.
The Attorney-General’s office and the Immigration Minister’s office declined to comment. They directed queries to Customs and Border Protection, which did not provide a response.
In his weekly briefing, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison revealed that four asylum boats arrived this week, including one which ran aground and broke up at Greta Beach, on the south-east coast of Christmas Island, late on Monday night.
“This was an unusual incident,” Mr Morrison said. “There will be a post incident assessment as you would expect. It’s a big ocean. These are small boats.”
The 27 people aboard all survived but spent three days wandering in the jungle before they were found and taken into custody.
Border Protection Commander Lieutenant General Angus Campbell said the incident was another reminder of the risks.
“This is extraordinarily dangerous, people take their lives in their hands, people smugglers lie, the boats are unseaworthy in many cases and the weather is deteriorating significantly,” Lieutenant General Campbell said.
“Do not attempt to come to Australia without a visa on an open boat across the ocean.”
General Campbell said another 162 people and six crew had arrived on the previous three boats, this week.
“What we are seeing in the period of Operation Sovereign Borders is what I might describe as clustering of arrivals,” General Campbell said. He declined to speculate on what might be causing it.
But sources told SBS that the diplomatic row with Indonesia appeared to be hampering border protection efforts, with Indonesia “looking the other way” to teach Australia a lesson and another four boats expected before the monsoon season fully set in.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott hinted that the strain in relations was affecting the people smuggling efforts.
“I do expect continued cooperation from Indonesia in our anti people-smuggling campaign, because let’s face it, people smuggling is illegal in Australia,” Mr Abbott said. “And the point I’ve been making as politely as I can to the Indonesians is that as far as we’re concerned this is a sovereignty issue.”
Indonesia and Australia have agreed on a plan to restore relations, including establishing a diplomatic “hotline” to deal urgently with pressing issues.
But Mr Abbott said neither country had agreed to stop gathering intelligence on the other.