Report: Turning back boats as deterrence is illegal and does not work

  • migration of people
  • Australia
  • asylum seekers
  • Europe


Report: Turning back boats as deterrence is illegal and does not work

Turning the boats back, one of the major deterrance policies opted by Australia and Europe to discourage asylum seekers from taking high-risk sea routes, is both illegal and unhelpful, a report released on Wednesday said.

The policy brief by the Sydney-based Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law said such "legally dubious" policies neither comply with international search-and-rescue, refugee and human rights laws, nor are they viable as a long-term strategy.

"Deterrence policies do not really 'save lives'. They hamper desperate people fleeing war and persecution from finding safety," said law professor Violeta Moreno-Lax, the author of the brief.

She said they also do not solve the so-called "migration problem," but instead compound it.

"The resulting EU and Australian policies neglect human rights and jeopardise the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits states from sending people to any country where they face a risk of persecution, ill-treatment or other serious harm," the report said.

"Deterrence responses ignore the "push factors" that underpin their flight; intercepted vessels typically carry people from war-ravaged, refugee-producing countries."

The report said a comprehensive, humanitarian 'protection-centred vision' must replace the present militarized approach.

The absence of any real political or media debate on the matter is particularly disturbing, given the questionable legal basis for turnbacks, Moreno-Lax said in a statement.

"If the political will to save lives really existed, then governments in both hemispheres would replace the current securitised approach with a comprehensive, protection-centred vision," she said.

The military-led border security approach has dominated Australia's and Europe's policies towards asylum seekers at sea in recent years.

Australia launched Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013, intercepting boats and incorporating offshore processing centres, to deter asylum seekers by denying them access to enter the country by sea.

30 boats have been intercepted, immigration minister said last month.

Boat turnbacks are integral to the government's deterrence policy, with claims that there has been no deaths at sea since it started.

Between 2001 and 2013, almost 2,000 people died trying to enter Australia by boats, according to the Australian border deaths database.

The policy rests on a thin domestic legal veneer, Moreno-Lax charged, exploiting gaps in the legal texts and misinterprets key concepts, dubiously expanding government powers of control to the detriment of the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum.

In Europe, the EU member states have deployed "a securitarian, rather than humanitarian, response" since the "refugee crisis" began in 2015, she said, even though maritime crossings are "clearly linked to refugee movements from some of the world’s key hotspots."

The report said the operations by European agencies focus on border security and migration control and do not include a proactive search-and-rescue component, despite the rhetoric of "saving lives."

These operations have not been able to stop the boats, but rather to push maritime flows to the Turkish-Greek route, it said, while the total arrivals continue at steady levels, mostly now via Italy.

"More people have died in longer, more dangerous routes," Moreno-Lax said, adding it showed the futility of pursuing 'zero boats' target.

She said such deterrence policies are also costly on several counts.

"They exact a high cost from the public purse; their high secrecy levels come at the expense of democratic accountability; and there is a terrible human toll for very marginal gains in government control," Moreno-Lax said.

"Every year sets a new record of fatalities, despite increased surveillance and deterrence resources, reaching the unbearable figure of 46,000 deaths at sea since 2000."



  • Refiling, correcting day in lead graf

Note to editors

  • Adds quotes and details on Australia and Europe from Line 28 onwards.

Internet links


  • [Kaldor Centre](Level 1, Law Building, Union Rd, Kensington NSW 2033, UNSW Sydney NSW 2052, Australia)

The following information is not intended for publication

External contacts

  • Lauren Martin
  • Communications Officer, Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW
  • T: +61 2 9385-9639
  • M: +61 407 393 070
  • E:

Editorial contacts

  • Reporting by: Subel Bhandari in Sydney
  • Editing by: Thomas Cronenberg, +61 2 9322 8064, <>

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