AUSTRALIA’s prime minister Tony Abbott yesterday boasted that no asylum seeker had reached the country by boat in 50 days – the longest period since 2008 – thanks to his anti-refugee measures.
Mr Abbott, a conservative, described the measures to turn refugees back as tough but effective.
It has emerged that the Australian navy sent 34 asylum seekers from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, who tried to reach Australia aboard a rickety Indonesian boat, back to the main Indonesian island of Java on Wednesday night in a lifeboat.
Canberra has maintained its policy of refusing to say whether it had ever turned back asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat.
Mr Abbott has likened operations against alleged “people smuggling” as like being at war, and border policing activities have been shrouded in unprecedented secrecy.
“I’m pleased that we’ve now had 50 days without an illegal boat arriving in Australia, and the message is getting out loud and clear to the people smugglers and their would-be customers that the way is shut … you will not pass,” he said.
“Yes, they’re tough policies, but they’re working,” he added, without detailing what exactly is being done.
In other changes under his government, Australia is refusing to resettle genuine refugees who arrive by boat and will not allow their relatives in under family reunion schemes open to other refugees.
Some Australians have criticised the secrecy surrounding Mr Abbott’s asylum crackdown.
Mr Abbott said the government would not release any footage of the navy’s operations to intercept asylum seekers, saying it “might complicate the task of stopping the boats”.
However, opposition leader Bill Shorten said the government was “hiding behind” the military. “What we need here is to forget the secrecy,” he said. “The Australian people will give a fair bit of slack to governments provided they are up-front.”
Indonesian officials oppose Australia’s policies, introduced after Mr Abbott was elected last September, as an abuse of Indonesia’s sovereignty.
Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has described the Australian navy providing the lifeboats to transport foreigners to Indonesian shores as a potentially greater abuse.
“This kind of policy of transferring people from one boat to another and then directing them back to Indonesia is not really helpful,” Mr Natalegawa said of the latest lifeboat arrival.
Australian officials last month confirmed lifeboats had been acquired as part of a strategy to stop asylum seekers, but refused to say how the lifeboats were to be used. It has been reported that Australia was buying 16 engine-powered and enclosed lifeboats – similar to those carried by cruise ships and oil tankers – for border protection boats to carry as an alternative to rescuing asylum seekers found in unseaworthy vessels.
Crews on boats smuggling people often resort to sabotaging engines or sinking their vessels to avoid being turned back, it has been claimed.
The number of boats rose sharply in 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and dozens of people have died making the journey to Australia’s coast.
The Abbott-led Liberal-National coalition government, which succeeded Kevin Rudd’s Labour administration, introduced “Operation Sovereign Borders”, putting the military in control of asylum operations.
In January reports emerged of navy vessels turning asylum boats back to Indonesia and the United Nations has warned the policy may breach international law.
In January, Australia apologised for violations of Indonesia’s territorial waters by navy vessels on asylum operations.