Boat turn-backs are illegal

Labor leader Anthony Albanese informed the media on April 14 that there would be no need for a government he leads to detain refugees because he supports the policy of boat turn-backs, which would prevent refugees getting here in the first place.

This was an attempt by Albanese to have it both ways: to recognise and appeal to the growing horror that many feel at the condition of detention of refugees still being held in Australia or offshore and, at the same time, pander to the notion that refugees pose a “border protection” problem.

This is underpinned by the lie that, somehow, boat turn-backs prevent the loss of life at sea.

Let’s be clear: Labor has supported the mandatory detention of asylum seekers for a long time. In fact, Labor started the policy some decades ago and, for five years now, has also supported turn-backs.

The policy of boat turn-backs is now so entrenched, that some refugee advocates, including sadly even the Greens, while recognising the policy is wrong; have effectively given up on the possibility of publicly campaigning to change it. They seem to believe that the majority of Australians will never accept the idea of refugees coming here by boat.

Not only are boat turn-backs immoral, they are also fundamentally illegal on two counts.

First, the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which Australia has signed, states that if someone comes to your door fleeing persecution you have an obligation to offer protection. Australia seems to think that the world’s refugees should just go to some other country first to make their claim for asylum. There is no legal basis for that.

Secondly, boat turn-backs are an act of piracy. There is no right under international law to intercept a boat in international waters and turn it around. In most cases, Australia has pushed boats back to Indonesia, which does not recognise the UN convention.

Even worse, some asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, particularly Tamils who have attempted to come here directly and not via another country, have had their boats intercepted and been taken prisoner by the Australian Navy. The navy has sunk their boats and forcibly returned them to the very regime they are fleeing from.

This practice represents the most brutal and complete rupture with the Refugee Convention, and Australia is not alone. 

All the wealthy industrialised countries are trying to shut refugees out. While United States’ President Joe Biden may have scrapped Donald Trump’s plan to build a physical barrier the length of the US southern border, the practice of repelling people remains. The European Union is building walls and fences to keep people out, and also practising boat turn-backs at sea. More recently, Britain has copied Australia’s policy of offshore detention with its proposal to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda.

For anyone naive enough to believe that there is any humanitarian motivation behind Australian policy, it’s worth remembering that for a maritime country, boat turn-backs are our version of Trump’s wall. 

This is the very approach that Pauline Hanson was advocating in the late 1990s. Over time, both Labor and the Coalition have essentially adopted her vicious anti-refugee policy.

Make no mistake, “stop the boats” is the modern-day catch cry of the White Australia policy.

Australia must do a whole lot more to assist asylum seekers. We are a wealthy country that can easily afford to look after refugees who flee to our shores begging for protection. The vast majority of the world’s refugees end up in other poor, less-developed countries.

Furthermore, Australian foreign policy has inflamed and worsened the conflicts and civil strife that have given rise to the world-wide refugee crisis in the first instance.

Here are just three examples:

1. Giving military aid to Myanmar during the Rohingya genocide.

2. Participation in the illegal invasion of Iraq, a war in which 1 million people died, utterly shattering Iraqi society, fuelling the emergence of the Islamic State and leading to a new cycle of war and another wave of refugees.

3. Provision of military and diplomatic support to Sri Lanka, a regime whose persecution of the Tamil population meets the contemporary legal definition of genocide, while forcibly returning people who are fleeing this terror into the hands of their tormentors.

Let’s be honest. Turn-backs don’t save lives at sea. The real meaning of this barbaric practice has always been, “Fuck off and die somewhere else”.

The only way to save lives is to organise safe passage to both here and to other countries in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Australia can and must do better. Albanese might have abandoned the Refugee Convention, but we are committed to fighting for it every step of the way. Anything less is a betrayal of our common humanity. Vote 1 Socialist Alliance.

[Sam Wainwright is a founding member of Refugee Rights Action Network in Fremantle and a national co-convenor of Socialist AllianceHe is running for the lower house seat of Fremantle.]