It has been one year since the Australian government introduced the nation’s toughest border protection measures to stop a steady flow of asylum seekers arriving by sea. Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led border security initiative, has been criticized by rights groups, who claim Australia is breaching its international refugee obligations.
When Australia’s conservative coalition won last year’s Australian federal election, incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised that his government would stop asylum seekers reaching the country by boat.
Operation Sovereign Borders began in October 2013. The military was ordered to turn or tow migrant vessels away from Australia’s northern waters. The government called it an invaluable effort “to combat people smuggling and protect Australia’s borders.”
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said last month that the military had turned back a dozen boats. Morrison said he was "utterly convinced" that every asylum seeker was returned safely back to Indonesia, a popular transit point for migrants trying to reach Australia by sea.
Those that do make it to Australian territory are detained at offshore processing centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on the tiny Pacific republic of Nauru. Officials say the strict policy is not only deterring asylum seekers, but is stopping them from risking their lives trying to reach Australia cross unpredictable seas.
However, rights groups say Operation Sovereign Borders is a “cruel” policy, and should be reviewed.
Hundreds of protestors have taken part in rallies against the policy across Australia.
Chris Breen, from the Refugee Action Collective in Melbourne, said the demonstrations marked what he characterized as the grim first anniversary of Operation Sovereign Borders.
“The last 12 months have been a horror 12 months for asylum seekers, for refugee rights. We saw two men killed on Manus Island in the space of six months. We saw 157 people - Tamil asylum seekers - essentially kidnapped and held prisoner on the high seas for a month. You know, Australia is in serious breach of its international obligations,” said Breen.
Last month, Canberra signed a deal to send refugees from its offshore camp on Nauru to Cambodia.
Australia grants about 13,000 refugee visas each year under various international agreements.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been resettled in Australia since the 1950s.