Scott Morrison says 12 asylum-seeker boats stopped under turnback policy
Immigration minister breaks his silence weeks after the government rejected a freedom of information request for the same details
Immigration minister Scott Morrison has released new information about the government’s controversial asylum seeker turnback operations, just weeks after customs and defence said releasing similar information was a matter of national security.
In a reversal of the government’s secrecy over the issue, the immigration minister told the Daily Telegraph on Thursday that 12 vessels have been turned back after trying to Australia [sic] to enter Australian waters between 19 December and May this year.
Another 45 were stopped before they even left port for Australia across Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, he said, resulting in the arrests of 214 suspected people smugglers.
Only one had been successful in getting into Australian waters while half of the incidents had involved Australian vessels making incursions into Indonesian waters. Four of the turnbacks involved the use of orange lifeboats to take people back to Indonesia.
“The operations successes speak for themselves,” Morrison told ABC radio.
The policy of safely turning back boats was a “critical blow to people smugglers”, he said, before adding that no lives had been lost as a result of the turnbacks.
He also praised the role of authorities across the Asia-Pacific region in helping to enforce the policy.
“There have been disruptions across a range of different countries who we work with as close partners. Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia ... have been fantastic mal partners in Operation Sovereign Borders. Over 1,600 peoople, 45 ventures frustrated before they even left their shores. That is what a regional partnership looks like.”
He added: “We were elected on the basis of stopping boats. I have got the results I said we would get. Today people should feel pleased with that decision when it comes to border protection and many other issues.”
However, Morrison’s decision to break his silence comes just weeks after customs and the defence department tried to prevent the release of turnback information under freedom of information laws.
Guardian Australia had requested ship logs from vessels involved in the operations from customs and the defence department earlier this year that were refused in full.
The decision was appealed to the office of the Australian information commissioner. In their submissions, filed just weeks ago, defence and customs both argued the information could not be released because it could damage the commonwealth’s national security.
The defence department submissions said: “There can be no doubt that the operations of the vessels in question form part of maintaining the security of the Commonwealth. Focusing on Operation Sovereign Borders activities, the integrity of Australia’s physical borders is an obvious part of national security. Australia’s national interests are threatened by any unauthorised arrival of people.”
Revealing details disclosed in the logs would likely cause damage to national security and force changes to maritime operations, the submissions said.
“If the details were released, border protection authorities would be forced to revise current operational methodology to minimise the harm caused by those disclosures. This is by definition a damage to security operations.”
It is rare for agencies to invoke national security as a defence. The exemption is taken so seriously that the inspector general of intelligence and security needs to be consulted before the OAIC can make a decision.
While the matter is still before the OAIC, it is unlikely to be dealt with before the office is disbanded.
Guardian Australia understands that new freedom of information legislation to repeal the OAIC will be brought before parliament next week.
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