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Asylum seekers stacked four deep below decks as they await turnback

Like reject goods packed for disposal, these desperates are part of the Australian government’s production line of misery

Paul Farrell

theguardian.com, Wednesday 7 May 2014 14.04 AEST


The lower deck of the Australian Customs vessel Ocean Protector, where asylum seekers are held before being sent back to Indonesia. Photograph: Supplied

When the asylum seekers board the Ocean Protector they are stacked four by four. After days or weeks at sea, smelling of sweat and shit, the first glimpse some get of Australia is of the cramped bunk beds below deck on the Customs vessel.

The children draw pictures on the bunks. Pictures of the bunks show crayon etchings of houses and smiling faces, hopeful images that could have been drawn by children in schools anywhere in the country.

But all the asylum seekers who now spend time on Australian Customs vessels are likely to be send straight back to Indonesia on a dinky orange lifeboat that has become a dark symbol of Australia’s asylum policy.

The military-led Operation Sovereign Borders has cast a long shadow over the seas between Indonesia and Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison and lieutenant general Angus Campbell have refused to discuss what they describe as the “on-water” activities of vessels involved.

But new pictures obtained by Guardian Australia and accounts from Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) staff reveal that the Ocean Protector was involved in the first use of the orange lifeboats, and that one of the incursions into Indonesian waters was directly related to their use.

It was late on 14 January when the Ocean Protector began to move. It had been heading gradually north-east towards Indonesia from Christmas Island. It was needed for an operation that was getting under way.

An ACBPS source explains how this happens: “Customs have their own couple of satellite phones, and they ring at all hours and usually it’s never good news. That phone will ring and then whoever is on the bridge will go and get the commander on board … he will come up and talk on the phone and then say whatever they’re doing or wherever they’re going.”

This was no ordinary operation. The vessel was meeting the Triton, another Customs vessel, to deliver one of the orange lifeboats for the Triton to tow back to Indonesian waters.

One of the Ocean Protector’s roles in Operation Sovereign Borders is to deliver lifeboats where they are needed across the Indian Ocean. The vessel has been making repeated journeys to and from Singapore to pick up the boats, and is now based at Christmas Island, rather than Darwin.

The Norwegian-built ship is one of the largest vessels involved in Operation Sovereign Borders, and was initially designed for offshore construction. The large deck is used to store the lifeboats, and a massive crane puts them in the water.

These operations begin with an order from one of the command centres involved in Operation Sovereign Borders to deploy a lifeboat for the return of a group of asylum seekers.

A vessel more suited to towing the boats – such as the Triton – would be deployed for the mission. The Ocean Protector would meet it at sea, where they would haul the lifeboats off the ship and into the water so the Triton could begin the tow.

This is what happened with the first lifeboat used by the Ocean Protector. Fairfax media interviewed a group of asylum seekers who were picked up by a navy vessel and then transferred to the Triton before being bundled into the lifeboat.

In March the ABC’s 7.30 broadcast footage shot inside one of the lifeboats and graphic descriptions by asylum seekers of conditions on the boats.

One Customs source explains how the turnback mission was originally planned to start at 1am, but began at 6am: “They wanted it done at 1am. I can’t see any advantage to that, it just means someone was going to get hurt.”

The Ocean Protector had no direct contact with this group of asylum seekers – its only involvement was to drop off the lifeboat. But this had serious ramifications for Operation Sovereign Borders; both vessels were inside Indonesian waters in one of a number of incursions into their territory that were described by Scott Morrison as inadvertent.

During the operation, the vessel went deep into Indonesian waters, nine kilometres past one of Indonesia’s baselines and into Pelabuhan Ratu bay, according to digital maps obtained by Guardian Australia.

It is unclear how the vessel could have inadvertently gone so far into Indonesian waters. The navigational charts from the Ocean Protector show that the vessel had calculated the correct boundaries of Indonesia’s territorial waters, casting doubt on some of the findings of a review commissioned to investigate the incursions.

A Customs spokesman said in April that no evidence was presented to the review that indicated the Ocean Protector knew the correct location of the Indonesian boundaries.

This week a spokesman declined to say whether Customs stood by the findings of the review, or whether the navigational charts had caused Customs to revisit the findings.

Once the Triton had the lifeboat, it was eventually untethered from the vessel and began the journey back to Indonesia.

The lifeboats were stripped of other items before the asylum seekers were placed in them, a Customs source said, raising further concerns about the operations.

And while use of the lifeboats and turnback operations continue, experts in maritime and international law have also expressed concerns about the legality of the policy.

Azadeh Dastyari, a lecturer in refugee and human rights law at Monash university, said that by interfering with asylum seeker vessels – either on the high seas or in Indonesia’s territorial waters – Australia was violating international law.

“On the high seas – unless you have authority to interfere with another vessel – then you are prohibited from interfering with another vessel. That’s where Australia’s biggest issue is, we don’t seem to have any authority to interfere with these asylum seeker vessels,” she said.

“Whether we then bring people onto our vessels or put them onto our lifeboats, that’s still interfering. We’re exercising jurisdiction on them, and we’re just not allowed to do that.”

She said Indonesia’s failure to sign the United Nations refugee convention also led to a breach of international law.

“Indonesia hasn’t signed on to the refugee convention. It’s not enough for us to say that they’re safe and not being returned to Sri Lanka, Iran or Afghanistan. Because Indonesia hasn’t guaranteed people won’t be returned from harm, then that obligation remains on us,” she said.

Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University, said in a submission to the Senate inquiry into the breaches: “Australia has no legal basis to tow back asylum seeker vessels into the Indonesian territorial sea.

“Australia’s transfer of asylum seekers to lifeboats for the purposes of being towed back to Indonesia raises issues as to the legality of the transfer and significant issues of state responsibility in the event of an incident at sea involving that lifeboat.”

An ACBPS spokesman said: “The Australian government conducts its operations consistent with Australia’s international obligations.”

And the silence surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders continues. The immigration minister did not respond to any questions about the use of the lifeboats, the Ocean Protector or the Triton.


Source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/07/asylum-seekers-stacked-four-deep-below-decks-as-they-await-turnbackif (document.currentScript) {

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