Forcibly pushing back migrant boats is a “cruel and deadly practice” that violates international law, and risks sending people back to death, torture or persecution, a senior UN official has said, warning countries that militarised borders and boat interdictions were contributing to deaths, not saving lives.
In a report to the UN human rights council, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, specifically noted Australia had pushed back an estimated 800 people on 38 vessels since 2013, but that there were few details on Australia’s actions at sea.
“Migrants have reportedly been turned back on their original vessels that might have been repaired or refuelled by Australia; they have been transferred to lifeboats or wooden ‘fishing’ boats purchased by Australia; occasionally, they have been detained aboard customs or navy vessels before being returned.”
In a submission to a UN forum overnight on Wednesday, senior research fellow at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Madeline Gleeson said that Australia’s “militant secrecy” over “on-water matters” obscured any oversight over what was being done to asylum seekers intercepted at sea.
Those seeking asylum in Australia by boat were “out of options”, Gleeson told the UN-hosted panel, and desperate to find safety.
“So what measures of coercion are being deployed against them by Australian officers to convince them to simply turn around and go back to Indonesia?
“We have seen reports that Australian officials paid smugglers to take people back –which, if true, would appear to involve serious breaches of both Australian and international law.
“But what else is occurring in the seas north and west of Australia?”
Gleeson said Operation Sovereign Borders’ “militant secrecy” meant the Australian people, even its parliament, were prevented from knowing what happened at sea.
Gleeson said migrants were pushed back, often to the countries they had fled, without any consideration whether it was safe for them to be returned. Australia is legally obliged to individually consider each person’s protection claim.
“Historically, between 70% and 100% of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat have been found to be refugees. It is thus implausible that not a single person intercepted since 2014 has engaged Australia’s protection obligations. In fact, we know that people have been taken back to their countries of origin, only to flee again and be recognised as refugees elsewhere.
Operation Sovereign Borders, run by the Australian Border Force, within the Department of Home Affairs, maintains “it is Australia’s policy to turn back people-smuggling boats where safe to do so”.
“No one who travels to Australia illegally by boat is allowed to remain in Australia.”
Across Europe, the issue of boat turnbacks is particularly acute at present. The Libyan coastguard was accused this month of shooting at an asylum seeker boat in an attempt to stop it crossing the Mediterranean.
In January, the UN human rights council found Italy was responsible for failing to promptly respond to a distress call and dispatch a vessel to rescue more than 200 migrants – including 60 children – who died as a result of the delay. Italy’s co-operation with Libya has seen more than 60,000 migrants intercepted at sea returned to Libya despite known rights abuses.
A pushback by Maltese authorities led to the death of 12 migrants in 2020, and allegations have been made implicating the EU’s border agency, Frontex, with claims Frontex-operated surveillance technology was misused to facilitate pushbacks to Turkey and Libya.
Last year, official documents seen by the Guardian showed the British government had trialled a blockade in the English Channel to stop migrant boats reaching the UK.
In his report to the human rights council, Morales demanded governments adhere to international law, which prohibits collective expulsions and refoulement to a country where a migrant may face death, torture, ill-treatment, persecution or other irreparable harm.
States hardening borders had made migration less safe for people seeking sanctuary and contributed to deaths rather than saved lives.
“The loss of life at international borders has been a tragic consequence of states increasingly relying on militarisation, extraterritorial border control and deterrence to attempt to control migration,” his report said.