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This Is What Happens When Other Countries Implement Australia's Boat Turn-Back Strategy

Around the world, authorities are pointing to Australia's controversial asylum policy as a success. But is "stopping the boats" solving the problem?

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Thousands of migrants are stranded at sea on rickety boats, severely malnourished and fighting over what remains of their food and water. Southeast Asian countries are in a stand-off, refusing to rescue the desperate people adrift off their coasts.

Christophe Archambault / Getty Images

Up to 8,000 Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar have been trapped on the boats for days. A Thai clampdown on human trafficking networks led to people smugglers abandoning their vessels at sea. Those who have escaped tell horror stories of violence, murder and starvation.

The Malay Mail has reports of brutal fighting over supplies on one boat, using metal bars and knives. It is believed 100 people died in that fight.

“One family was beaten to death with wooden planks from the boat, a father, a mother and their son. And then they threw the bodies into the ocean”, one survivor told The Guardian.

"We didn't have food for two weeks. We were starving. I saw small, innocent children slaughtered at sea."


ข่าว 3 มิติ คืนนี้ พบเรือชาวโรฮิงญา ต้องช่วยเหลือด่วน มีเด็กเล็ก ผู้หญิง ผู้ชาย 450 คน มีคนป่วย

This report from Thailand’s Channel 3 shows one of the boats with hundreds of people crammed aboard. Every government in the region refused to come to their rescue.

Indonesian authorities have told fishermen not to help the migrants, "even if they were drowning". Despite this, the UNHCR says 1,300 people have been rescued by Indonesian fishermen after they drifted or swam to shore.


An 18-year-old mother of two told the UN Refugee Agency how she fled Myanmar on a boat that soon became severely overcrowded. Then the crew abandoned them on the open seas and left on a speedboat. The passengers tried to steer the boat themselves, and some people swam to get help.

"The fishermen and the local people are extremely helpful and kind to us," said Fatimah. "They took us to the closest mosque and allowed us to rest while providing us with food, water and snacks."

In Malaysia, an online petition is calling for the migrants "to be rescued and cared for by our elected Malaysian government" and a prominent Islamic scholar has criticised the government for spending millions looking for the wreckage of MH370 while abandoning those at sea, AP reports.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have been towing the stricken asylum boats out of their own territorial waters, a method which has been used extensively by Australia as part of its government's hard-line immigration policy.

Christophe Archambault / Getty Images

On Saturday, one boat was towed out to sea by the Thai navy and then intercepted by Malaysian vessels.

The southeast Asian countries have been accused of playing "maritime ping-pong" by the International Organisation for Migration.


What is the Australian "turn back the boats" policy?

Ishara S.kodikara / Getty Images

When Liberal leader Tony Abbott came to power in 2013, he vowed to "stop the boats".

So the conservative coalition government reintroduced a policy to stop vessels carrying asylum seekers from arriving in Australia. The government deploys the Navy to intercept asylum boats and then turn them around or tow them back to the port where they initially left, if it is safe to do so. This policy was first used in 2001 under the Howard government.

Since this policy was implemented under Operation Sovereign Borders, 15 boats have either been turned around or their passengers put in orange lifeboats and sent back by Australia.

The boat turnbacks policy is highly controversial.

Afp / Getty Images

There are reports of asylum seekers being mistreated at the hands of Australian authorities, and concerns about the dangers of turning people around aboard unseaworthy vessels. The practice also risks breaching obligations under international maritime law (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), and there are instances where Australia has violated Indonesian sovereignty by pushing boats back into their territory.

Under the principle of non-refoulement in the UN Refugee Convention and other human rights legislation, Australia has agreed not to return people to countries where they face a risk of persecution or serious harm. But Australia mostly sends boats back to Indonesia and Sri Lanka, which have not signed the Refugee Convention and have a history of human rights violations.

An academic study released in March found there was no conclusive evidence that Australia's towback policy saved lives. In fact, the policy had directly contributed to the deaths of at least eight people.

Ishara S.kodikara / Getty Images

The researchers found consistent patterns of people taking measures including self harm and violence, to avoid towbacks.

"Given the official secrecy surrounding this topic, it is not possible to say with certainty that there have not been further cases of death or injury," the University of Queensland report says.

Despite describing Australia's boat turn-back policy as "unacceptable" in the past, Indonesia has admitted to turning back one of the boats carrying 400 people towards Malaysia.

Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

The Indonesian government was keen to distance itself from the Australian practice.

“This case cannot be considered similar to Australia’s (policy),” said a foreign ministry spokesperson as reported in The Australian.

“We didn’t put them in lifeboats and then send them to remote islands.”

Now, I'm in no way critical of regional countries for the efforts that they make to stop the boats. Yes, we've always got to be humane and we've always got to be decent, but in the end we have to stop the boats. And if that means taking more vigorous action on the high seas, if that means taking more vigorous action to uphold safety at sea closer to Burma and other countries which appear to be the source of this latest surge of boat people, well so be it. But I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary and if other countries choose to do that, frankly, that is almost certainly absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten.

Europe is facing its own humanitarian crisis, with the UN estimating that 60,000 migrants have tried to cross the Mediterranean in this year alone. More than 1,800 have died at sea trying to get to Europe this year.

Alberto Pizzoli / Getty Images

"Australian legislation authorising officials effectively to do what they like when dealing with asylum seekers at sea would never pass muster in Europe, because it is wholly inconsistent with international law and EU law" says University of NSW professor Jane McAdam.

The European Commission will meet in June to discuss a migration policy.

The group of countries will launch an EU naval mission to crack down on people smugglers operating out of Libya. They have ruled out the Australian model of offshore processing. One of the most controversial proposals is to force EU member states to accept a quota of asylum seekers.

With this bold agenda, the European Union has proven itself ready to address the plight of those escaping from wars, persecution and poverty. Migration is a shared responsibility of all Member States and all member States are called now to contribute to tackling this historical challenge. And this is not only a European but a global challenge: with this agenda we confirm and broaden our cooperation with the countries of origin and transit in order to save lives, clamp down on smuggling networks and protect those in need.

But Britain is pushing back against the EU proposals, instead suggesting that some asylum seekers should be forcibly returned.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

British home secretary Theresa May said many of the people were not genuine refugees but economic migrants seeking a better life in Europe, an argument that was used by the former Australian Labor government minister, Bob Carr.

Australia's immigration policy has been lauded as a success, with only one boat arrival in 18 months.

Stringer Thailand / Reuters

But as can be seen in the humanitarian crisis playing out on Australia's doorstep, when several nations turn back the boats, they risk turning their backs on the people who need their help the most.