Have asylum seeker deaths at sea really ended?

Last Monday, when questioned about the UNHCR’s report on the torture of asylum seekers in our care, Tony Abbott dismissed the report, saying that rather than lecturing him, the UN should be congratulating him because:

We have stopped the boats, and by stopping the boats we have ended the deaths at sea.

It’s a phrase we’re all familiar with now.  And Abbott has used this assertion – that his policy has saved lives – to claim the moral high ground in relation to the manner in which asylum seekers are treated on numerous occasions.  He has stated emphatically that his government deserves kudos – rather than condemnation – from human rights’ groups such as the Australian Human Rights Commission and the UN.

When the report on ‘The Forgotten Children’ came out last month, when asked if he felt any guilt about children in detention committing self-harm or being sexually abused, he replied that he had “none whatsoever”, and that:

“The most compassionate thing you can do is stop the boats,”

And most people accept that Abbott’s claim to have stopped the boats, and saved lives.  But how true is it?

Breaking it down….

Abbott’s claim has two components:

1. That the boats have stopped, and
2. That as a result, his government has ‘ended the deaths at sea’

Looking at each one of these in turn…..

Stopped the boats doing what?

The problem with the “we’ve stopped the boats” phrase, is that it doesn’t state what exactly the boats are supposed to have stopped doing. Are they supposed to have stopped coming? Or are they supposed to have stopped arriving?

Now given that the Abbott government often describes asylum seekers  as ‘illegal arrivals’ – not true by the way, but nevertheless – you could legitimately argue that the government’s main aim of the “stop the boats” policy is border protection – to stop the boats from arriving. And if that is the aim of their policy – to stop boats arriving – then bar one arrival last year, they have largely been successful.

The trouble with saying that it is boat arrivals that have stopped, is that it doesn’t allow the government to claim that the policy is saving lives. To claim to have saved lives, to have successfully stopped any further asylum seekers from drowning, the policy would have to have eliminated the risk of drowning. But the risk of dying at sea exists only when you are on the water (ie when you are coming here).

So for the government to claim to have eliminated the risk of drowning (and therefore to be able to truly claim that they have “ended the deaths at sea” as a result), they would need to be able to say that the boats have stopped coming.

But they haven’t stopped coming.  The Department of Immigration confirmed in January, that since September 2013, they have turned back 15 boats containing 429 refugees. Now that’s a lot less than arrived in the previous 12 months, but nevertheless, the boats have not stopped coming.  And the government knows this.  They recently purchased 18 fishing boats to use to turn back future asylum seekers.  So they are clearly expecting the boats to continue coming.

Which leads me to be Abbott’s next claim……

Have the deaths at sea at ended?

No. They haven’t.

Asylum seekers may have stopped dying in our waters, but last year, according to the UN, some 62,000 of them got into boats in the oceans above our shoreline. And some 540 of them died at sea.

As far as we know, none of them died in our waters.  But they still died.  In boats.  Seeking asylum.

Truth or……?

The statement that Abbott made – “We have stopped the boats, and by stopping the boats we have ended the deaths at sea” – is not true.  The boats are still coming. Deaths at sea are still occurring, and with over 50 million asylum seekers globally, there is little indication that they are going to stop anytime soon.

If Abbott were to amend his claim to say that “We have stopped the boats from arriving and protected our borders”, then this would, on the whole, be true.  But he cannot legitimately claim that stopping boats from arriving has saved lives – or ended deaths at sea.

Nor does he have any basis to try to claim the moral high ground in regards to human rights, since improving our border protection does nothing to save the lives of asylum seekers, and may arguably have endangered them even more.



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