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Operation Sovereign Borders

Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) is a border protection operation led by the Australian Defence Force, aimed at stopping maritime arrivals of asylum seekers to Australia.[1] The operation is the outcome of a 2013 federal election policy of the Coalition, which commenced on 18 September 2013 after the election of the Abbott Government.[2] The operation has largely addressed the issue of people smuggling into Australia, by implementing a "zero tolerance" posture towards illegal boat arrivals in Australia, in conjunction with mandatory detention. The current Commander Operation Sovereign Borders, Air Vice Marshal Stephen Osborne, was appointed to the command on 1 February 2017.


Persons arriving by unauthorised boat to Australia by calendar year
Persons arriving by unauthorised boat to Australia by calendar year

During the 2013 federal election, the Abbott-led Coalition campaigned on a policy that, if elected to government, they would "stop the boats" and would launch Operation Sovereign Borders, combining the resources of multiple government bodies under direct control of a three star general. Following the election, Angus Campbell was promoted and appointed to oversee the operations.[3]

Following the 2013 election, the portfolio of the Minister for Immigration was renamed as the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. The appointed ministers, initially Scott Morrison and subsequently Peter Dutton, refused to release information on asylum seeker boat arrivals as they occurred,[4] and a weekly media briefing was announced.[5][6] In January 2014, having not held a media briefing for almost a month, Morrison announced that briefings would be held on what he described as "an as needs basis".[7] On 10 July 2014, Morrison stated that the secrecy policy was put in place by Lieutenant General Campbell, which had been rigorously implemented by ministers, their advisers, and various government departments.[8]

Policy proposals

Regional Deterrence Framework

On 23 August 2013, during the election campaign, the Coalition announced a key component of Operation Sovereign Borders called the Regional Deterrence Framework.[9] Budgeted at A$420 million, the RDF aimed to engage with other countries in the region, particularly Indonesia, to prevent asylum seeker vessels leaving for Australia. The framework included a $20 million proposal (titled "The Indonesian community engagement programme") which was to include:[10]

  • communications campaigns to raise awareness within local villages that people smuggling is a criminal activity;
  • a capped boat buy-back scheme that was to provide an incentive for owners of decrepit and dangerously unsafe boats to sell their boats to government officials rather than people smugglers;
  • support for wardens in local communities, whose role was to be to provide intelligence information to the Indonesian National Police on people smuggling operations;
  • the option in exceptional circumstances for bounty payments for the provision of information resulting in significant disruptions or arrests leading to convictions.

The "buy-the-boats" plan was widely ridiculed,[11] with fact-checking group PolitiFact Australia[12] calling the proposal "ridiculous".[13] Lieutenant General Campbell told a Senate Estimates committee that, two months into the OSB program, no boats had been purchased because Indonesia did not support the idea, although he stated that the measure remained available.[14]

Communication campaign

An example of an advertisement in the campaign.

The government runs a "communication campaign to counter people smuggling"[15] with advertisements in multiple languages,[16] targeting "press, radio, social and search media" across Australia. Between January and May 2015, $750,000 had been spent on the campaign.[17]


Operation Sovereign Borders operates as a Joint Agency Taskforce (JATF), with the support of a range of government agencies, organised as three operational task groups:[18]


Rank Name Post-nominals Service Term began Term ended
Lieutenant General Angus Campbell DSC, AM Army 18 September 2013 16 May 2015
Major General Andrew Bottrell CSC & Bar, DSM Army 16 May 2015 1 February 2017
Air Vice Marshal Stephen Osborne AM, CSC RAAF 1 February 2017 Incumbent


Immigration Detention Population to December 2014

Abbott's government claimed a ninety per cent reduction in illegal maritime arrivals.[19] There were 207 in November 2013, as opposed to 2,629 in November 2012.[20][21][22]

In response, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Richard Marles claimed there was a 40 per cent reduction in arrivals in the month following the introduction of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea, shortly before the 2013 election.

On 30 March 2014, the Coalition announced that 100 days had passed since a "successful boat arrival".[23] On 19 June, the Government announced six months since the last successful illegal boat arrival.[24]

On 7 July 2014, a vessel containing 157 (mostly Tamil) asylum seekers from India was intercepted by Australian authorities 27 kilometres (15 nmi) from Christmas Island. The government refused to confirm the existence, location, or status of the boat, until the High Court placed an injunction on any attempted refoulement of the vessel's passengers to Sri Lanka. Pre-empting the decision of the court, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Morrison announced that the people on the boat would be transferred to the Curtin Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in Western Australia, where they would be assessed by Indian consular officials under an arrangement made with that country to repatriate any Indian citizens or residents.[25] On 2 August, Morrison announced that the group had refused to meet with Indian officials and were then transferred to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre.[26]

On 6 August 2015, the new immigration minister Peter Dutton announced it had been 12 months since the last successful people smuggling operation, with the last SIEV arriving in Australia's care in July 2014. The ABC News' Fact Check subsequently listed the Coalition's "We Will Stop the Boats" promise as delivered.[27]

Unlawful arrivals by boat per month
Month Boats Persons Notes
From 18 September 2013 5 205
October 2013 5 339
November 2013 5 207
December 2013 7 355
January 2014 0 1 [28]
July 2014 1 157 [29]
Source: "Operation Sovereign Borders:
log of boat arrivals and other asylum seeker incidents"
ABC News
. Australia. Retrieved 5 February 2015.

Months with no arrivals are not listed.

Turnback operations

The number of arrivals given in OSB operational updates is defined as those "transferred to Australian immigration authorities",[30] and does not include arrivals in Australian territorial waters who have been subject to a turnback operation—that is, sent out of Australian waters on their own vessel, or an Australian vessel employed for this purpose.[31] As of 7 February 2014, The Australian newspaper estimated that at least "six boatloads" of asylum seekers had been subject to turnbacks by OSB authorities.[32]

On 15 January 2014, an orange fibreglass "survival capsule", containing about 60 asylum seekers, came ashore at Cikepuh in West Java. A second containing 34 people arrived at Pangandaran on 5 February.[33] The Daily Telegraph reported that the Australian government was believed to have purchased eleven of the capsules from Singapore at a cost of around $500,000.[34]

In May 2014, Australia was alleged to have placed two persons who had arrived earlier in the year onto a boat with other asylum seekers which was turned back to Indonesia.[35]

In January 2015, Minister Dutton announced that 15 vessels, containing 429 asylum seekers in total, had been subject to turnback operations of some kind towards Indonesia or Sri Lanka since the beginning of OSB.[36]

In July 2015, Labor Shadow Minister Richard Marles conceded that "Offshore processing and regional resettlement, together with the Coalition's policy of turn-backs, is what actually stopped the boats."[37]

In August 2015, Dutton stated that, since December 2013, 633 people on 20 vessels have been subject to turnback operations, including a boat from Vietnam in July.[38] In March 2016, Dutton stated that 698 people on 25 vessels had been turned back since the beginning of the OSB program.[39]


In 2014, the status of refugees sent to offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea was decided: 13 people (9 people from Iran and 4 people from Pakistan) were granted asylum, while 7 people (from Iran, Pakistan, and Cameroon) received negative assessments. The asylum protection in Nauru was valid from 2014 for up to 5 years.[40] As of 2015, more than 400 people who had their refugee claims rejected had been returned home from the Australian-run detention centre in Papua New Guinea, some of which did so voluntarily.[41]


International response

The Indonesian government has voiced concern over the operation due to its implications for Indonesia's national sovereignty.[42][43] A member of the Golkar party, Tantowi Yahya, described the plan as "offensive", and officials from the Indonesian Navy said "forcing the boats back would also unfairly shift the burden of dealing with the asylum-seeker problem back on Indonesia".[44] The policy also came under fire from refugee advocates.[45]

On 26 September 2013, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa took the "unusual step" of releasing details of his talks about the policy with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop,[46] which was later blamed on a clerical error.[47]

Australia has apologised for violating Indonesian waters during their "tow back" operations.[48] These incursions occurred after Chief of the Defence Force David Hurley stripped naval personnel of workplace safety protections that would have required them to exercise "reasonable care" to protect their safety and that of the refugees.[49] On 21 January 2014, Customs (now Australian Border Force) and Defence announced that a joint review would be conducted to investigate the circumstances under which Australian naval vessels entered Indonesian territorial waters.[50] The inquiry, which covered the period between 1 December 2013 and 20 January 2014, found that two Royal Australian Navy frigates had crossed into Indonesian territory four times during the period, while Customs vessels did so on another two occasions.[51] In response, one Australian Navy officer lost his command, while several others were disciplined.[52] Indonesia has responded to the incursions by deploying military assets to intercept people-smuggling boats.[53][54]

Media response

Several journalists and media outlets have expressed concern and frustration over the tightly-controlled release of information about Operation Sovereign Borders, usually restricted to the weekly briefings held on Friday afternoons. In the weekly briefings, both Minister Morrison and Lieutenant General Campbell have refused to discuss "operational" or "on-water" matters in response to questions from journalists. The Minister has rationalised the control of information by stating that the government was not "operating a shipping news service for people smugglers".[55]

On 22 January 2014, the ABC broadcast allegations that Royal Australian Navy personnel had mistreated asylum seekers during an OSB operation, including video footage of passengers receiving medical treatment in Indonesia for burns on their hands, which they claimed were sustained when they were forced to touch a hot boat engine.[56] Minister Morrison downplayed refugee claims of being abused by the navy, saying that they had "strong motivations to fabricate stories", and was among several ministers to call for the ABC to apologise to the Navy.[57] Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: "if there is any co-operation we can extend to ensure that these allegations are scotched then we'd be prepared to do it".[58] The ABC's Media Watch program opined that ABC News had "over-reached" when reporting the story, and should have been more thorough in verifying the claims.[59] On 4 February, ABC managing director Mark Scott issued a statement in which he said that "The wording around the ABC's initial reporting needed to be more precise on that point", referring to the video footage verifying the injuries but not how they had occurred.[60] On 7 February, Fairfax Media's correspondent in Indonesia, Michael Bachelard, interviewed Yousif Ibrahim Fasher who repeated the initial allegations, as well as several further claims of mistreatment and possible breaches of maritime law.[61]

Legal response

53 Australian legal scholars signed a joint statement condemning the transfer of asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, claiming a breach of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[62][63]

On 7 July 2014, the High Court of Australia placed an injunction on the transfer of 153 asylum seekers to Sri Lankan authorities while the full bench of the court considered a challenge to the handover mounted by refugee advocates on the grounds that the government was breaching "non-refoulement" obligations under international law.[64] Under Article 33 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, in which Australia is a signatory, this principle forbids a nation state from sending a refugee back to anywhere where they may face persecution.[65]

In 2016, Operation Sovereign Borders is still in effect, with international law allowing Australia to deny any vessel entry into their territorial waters, as long as Australia does not return these asylum seekers to a place in which they may be threatened.[66] Australia therefore recognises there to be no violation of their international obligations, as refusing entry of asylum seekers does not equate to a breach of non-refoulement.

See also


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  2. ^ Liberal Party of Australia & The Nationals. "The Coalition's Operation Sovereign Borders Policy" (PDF).
  3. ^ Brissenden, M.; Roberts, G. "Tony Abbott appoints Angus Campbell to lead Operation Sovereign Borders policy". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
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  5. ^ Ireland, Judith (4 October 2013). "Coalition's resolve on asylum seekers 'stronger than ever before': Scott Morrison". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 6 October 2013.
  6. ^ "Operation Sovereign Borders – Transcripts of Weekly Press Conferences".
  7. ^ "Scott Morrison says he will stop holding weekly asylum seeker briefings". ABC News. Australia. 14 January 2014.
  8. ^ "No comment on operations: how Morrison's media strategy took shape". The Guardian. Australia. 10 July 2014.
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  10. ^ Ryan, Rosanna (23 August 2013). "Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison announce new 'regional deterrence framework' to stop asylum seekers". ABC News. Retrieved 29 November 2013.
  11. ^ "Scott Morrison defiant on 'crazy' boat buyback policy". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2 September 2013. Retrieved 29 November 2013.
  12. ^ "PolitiFact Australia". Retrieved 19 April 2016.
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  14. ^ Griffiths, Emma (19 November 2013). "Angus Campbell reveals no boats have been purchased under Operation Sovereign Borders". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 29 November 2013.
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  16. ^ "Counter People Smuggling Communication". Retrieved 19 April 2016.
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External links