Asylum in Australia: "Operation Sovereign Borders" and International Law

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Australian Year Book of International Law, 2015, 34 pp. 33 - 64
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On 18 September 2013, the day the Australian Coalition government was sworn into office, a new border protection policy took effect. Termed ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ (OSB), it is based on the premise that Australia is facing a ‘border protection crisis’ that ‘requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation’.* 1 As a military-led operation, the government maintains a high degree of secrecy about its activities, which include intercepting and turning back asylum seeker boats. From early 2012 until mid-2013, there was a considerable increase in the number of asylum seekers seeking to reach Australia by boat — both in terms of total numbers (over 35,000 between January 2012 and July 2013) and intensity (over 3,000 arrivals per month between March and July 2013). Although these numbers remained very small in global terms (representing just three to four per cent of total asylum applications),2 and 88 per cent of them were found to be refugees or otherwise in need of international protection,3 the unauthorised arrival of asylum seekers became one of the key political issues in the 2013 federal election. Playing upon generally poor community understandings about forced migration and common anxieties about ‘the uninvited’, terrorism, and security, politicians on both sides had championed increasingly draconian deterrence mechanisms — even when couched in the ostensibly humanitarian language o f‘saving lives at sea’.4 It was in this context that OSB was developed.
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