Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday defended his government’s secrecy over its border protection policy, following reports that boats had been turned back to Indonesia and asylum seekers mistreated.
Under the conservative government’s hardline Operation Sovereign Borders, officials refuse to discuss “operational matters.”
The reports said that at least one boat was forcibly turned or towed back to Indonesia and that members of the Royal Australian Navy subjected those on board to verbal and physical abuse.
Canberra has refused to confirm or deny that it is planning to buy 16 hard-hulled lifeboats to ferry asylum seekers back to Indonesia, sparking claims from the Labor opposition that it is overseeing a “Stalinist”-style media blackout.
Abbott said he would rather have the boats stop arriving than provide a running commentary as “sport for public discussion.”
“I’d rather be criticized for being a bit of a closed book on this issue and actually stop the boats,” he told Sydney commercial radio. “I’m pleased to say it is now several weeks since we’ve had a boat and the less we talk about operational details on the water, the better when it comes to stopping the boats.”
His comments follow claims made by asylum seeker Yousif Ibrahim from Sudan to Agence France-Press on Wednesday that people on a boat towed back to Indonesia were mistreated by the Australian navy.
Ibrahim claimed they were handcuffed and called insulting names. He said one person was beaten with shoes after their vessel was intercepted and towed for four days back to Indonesia.
Australian Defense Force Chief Lieutenant David Hurley yesterday defended the navy.
“Defense force personnel assigned to [border protection] are required to conduct operations in an unpredictable and demanding environment under intense scrutiny,” Hurley said. “They are trained to operate with the highest degree of professionalism and integrity and consistently demonstrate great compassion and courage...”
Australia’s tough policies on stemming the flow of asylum boats — a key plank of Abbott’s successful election campaign this year — have irked Jakarta, which has warned that turning boats back could breach Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty.
Tensions between the neighbors have been strained for months after a diplomatic row erupted in November over claims that Canberra tried to tap the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and ministers.
Abbott yesterday said that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia was “strong” and marked by “a lot of cooperation and mutual understanding.”
He said he understood Indonesia’s concern for its sovereignty “but when these boats keep coming illegally to our country, that is a sovereignty issue for us.”
“It’s absolutely non-negotiable — these boats will stop, these boats must stop, and we will do whatever is necessary, consistent with our international obligations and ordinary decency, to stop the boats,” he said.