Australia has denied fresh claims of asylum-seeker abuse by its navy while confirming for the first time that it is turning boats back to Indonesia. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison broke months of secrecy about the government's navy-led Operation Sovereign Borders people-smuggling crackdown to concede that boats were being turned around.
A Somali asylum-seeker told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he was sprayed in the eyes by navy officers with a substance that made them sting and he fell onto a hot engine pipe, burning his hand. The alleged mistreatment is said to have taken place during an Australian maritime operation to force a boat carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia to return to Indonesian waters.
Earlier this month, a video emerged of other would-be migrants being treated for injuries that they said had been inflicted when they were forced to hold on to a hot boat engine by Australian sailors during a similar operation.
Australian officials have denied the abuse claims.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison said he is sure Australian personnel have acted professionally.
“What I can tell you is that I have total confidence in our Navy our Customs and Border Protection Service to operate in accordance with their training and in accordance with the procedures for dealing with difficult situations. Now we're not running a taxi service out there… We are running a border security operation and if there is non-complying or threatening behavior then I expect that our people will do their job,” said Morrison.
The minister has confirmed for the first time that vessels ferrying asylum seekers into Australian waters have been turned around and sent back to Indonesia.
It is part of the conservative government’s election promise to stop a steady flow of asylum seekers arriving by sea, although ministers have been accused of being too secretive about the policy.
No people-smuggling boats have arrived in Australia since December 19. It is the first time in six years that January has passed without a single boat arrival.
The tow-back policy, however, has angered Indonesia, which considers it a violation of its sovereignty. Australia’s relations with Jakarta have been further strained since a spat broke out over phone-tapping late last year and have been further enflamed by recent revelations that the Australian navy strayed into Indonesian waters during asylum-seeker operations.