Australian police are seeking around a dozen suspected asylum seekers believed to be hiding in a crocodile-infested rainforest after their boat ran aground near Port Douglas in Queensland.
Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton confirmed Monday that “Australia has received the first vessel, the first people smuggling venture in over 1,400 days,” adding there was an “operation underway” to locate the migrants, believed to be from Vietnam.
Around 15 of those who were on board the boat have been detained by border force officers, Queensland Police Minister Mark Ryan told reporters, but a similar number are believed to be seeking refuge in the Daintree rainforest, an area of dense mangroves known to be infested with salt-water crocodiles.
The arrival of a migrant vessel on the Australian mainland is a dramatic failure of the country’s expensive and highly criticized zero-tolerance “stop the boats” immigration policy.
It also comes just days after the man responsible for that policy – Scott Morrison – became Australian Prime Minister, after turfing out his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull in an inter-party battle.
‘Open air prisons’
Australia has long been an attractive destination for those in Asia and beyond seeking refuge from conflict, poverty and political repression.
Under successive conservative governments, the country has passed hardline policies designed to dissuade asylum seekers from making the often dangerous water crossing from Southeast Asia to northern Australia.
Following the 2013 election, the ruling Liberal-National Coalition – with Morrison as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection – launched Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB), vowing to “stop the boats.”
Since then, the number of asylum seekers arriving in the Australian mainland by boat has fallen from a peak in 2013 of 20,587 to zero, according to a parliamentary research paper released last year.
A group of Chinese nationals landed on Sabai Island, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of the Australian mainland close to Papua New Guinea, in August 2017.
While no asylum seekers have made it to mainland since OSB launched, they have not gone away. Since 2012, the Australian government has intercepted boats headed to Australia and moved migrants to offshore detention camps on the Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Under international law, people seeking asylum are guaranteed certain rights and protections, but in most cases may only make a claim on landing in the country they are attempting to gain refugee status in. By preventing asylum seekers from reaching Australia, Canberra effectively dodges these obligations.
Detainees within offshore the camps are banned from being settled on the Australian mainland, leaving many without any alternative but remaining in what have been described as “open air prisons.”
Last week, a 12-year-old boy was airlifted to Australia for medical attention after refusing food and water for weeks. A 2016 United Nations report found many cases of “attempted suicide, self-immolation, acts of self-harm and depression” among children detained on Nauru.
According to UNICEF, the operation has also been hugely costly to the Australian taxpayer, running up a bill of at least $7 billion (9.6 billion AUD) “between 2013 and 2016 in maintaining offshore processing, onshore mandatory detention and boat turn-backs.”
‘Should be sent to Nauru’
Steve Ciobo, the recently named Defense Industry Minister, told CNN affiliate Sky News Australia Monday the suspected asylum seekers “should be taken into custody … and they should be sent to Nauru.”
“They should be sent somewhere offshore if we’re able to do it under our international obligations,” he added. “They should not be allowed to stay in Australia. We may not be able to do that under conventions, we’ll have to have a look at it.”
David Manne, executive director of the Refugee Legal, said that “at the very time that Australia should be trying to resolve the plight of so many people who have been marooned in Nauru and (Papua New Guinea) … we should not be compounding this humanitarian crisis by exiling more people there.”
Under international law, Australia is obligated to process asylum seekers without exposing them to additional harm, which Manne said would inevitably occur if they were sent to offshore camps.
“If these people are seeking asylum Australia should honor its obligations under the Refugee Convention by processing and providing protection to them in Australia instead of sending them into indefinite exile and inevitable anguish,” he said.
Key Liberal policy
While Australia’s hardline migrant policies have been roundly criticized by rights groups and international bodies, they remain a point of pride for the ruling Liberal Party.
On the Liberal Party’s website, recently revamped under new leader Morrison, “securing Australia’s borders” is listed as an achievement of the Coalition government.
“It has been over three years without a boat arrival,” the website still said Monday. “We have turned around Labor’s failure and taken back control of our borders from the people smugglers.”
Both Morrison and his challenger in last weeks Liberal party leadership battle, Peter Dutton, built their reputations on anti-migrant policies.
Dutton was returned to Morrison’s cabinet Monday as Home Affairs Minister, however, a separate Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs was also named, shifting certain powers from a ministry under Turnbull that was seen as growing too powerful.
Manne said, due to the uncertain political situation, it was unclear what effect the changed would have on migration policy, but that “successive governments have locked themselves into a deterrence policy where protection of borders has been prioritized over the protection of people.”
“In the last five years, Australia has spent billions of dollars to exile and indefinitely incarcerate and ultimately destroy thousands of people that it is morally and legally duty bound to protect,” he said.