Turning back people-smuggler boats

Whether foreign boats smuggling people into Australia can be turned back, or not, is a different issue to whether they should be turned back. Unfortunately, politically-polarised, narrow or emotive views regarding asylum-seeking generally mean this important distinction is often lost in public discussion. No matter whether such boats should be turned back, or not, the ADA notes that proper debate on the issue is advanced if it based on the following six-point summary of military professional judgement concerning the matter.


Letter to The Australian Financial Review
Saturday, 27 July 2013
(published Tuesday, 30 July 2013 and, with corrections to misleading editing of the original version, on Friday, 02 August 2013)

John Kerin , “Military leaders split on boat turnbacks” (AFR, July 27), surely over-simplifies professional discourse about turning back people-smuggler boats at sea.

The Australia Defence Association position, for example, has always noted six points: 

  • turning back at least some boats is possible;
  • the option to do so should never be ruled out publicly otherwise the people smugglers and corrupt Indonesian officials concerned win by default;
  • how turnbacks might be done cannot be discussed publicly but only because it is a dynamic problem and no law enforcement action involves telling the crooks what policing action you will do next;
  • turning boats back is difficult and getting harder as the people smugglers get more ruthless, particularly with their hull-integrity sabotage preparations and general indifference to the plight of their customers;
  • any decision to turn back or not can only be made by the on-scene commander of the intercepting Australian vessel because only he or she can appropriately weigh potentially competing law enforcement, crew safety and safety-of-life-at-sea considerations; and
  • there must be no ministerial or other interference in such on-scene command decisions or any repercussions for the commanders concerned from anyone.

It is probable that all the serving and former military experts cited in the article broadly agree on all six points.

Professional debate overwhelmingly centres instead on applicable circumstances, methods, potential strategic consequences, or legal aspects depending on where or how a boat might be turned back.

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