Behind Howard's last boat tow-back

Paul Osborne, AAP Senior Political Writer
March 28, 2013 2:25PM

AS the federal opposition touts its tow-back policy for asylum seeker boats, it's worth remembering what happened to the last of the seven vessels turned back by the Howard government.

The fishing boat, Minasa Bone, was repelled in early November 2003.

Known to authorities as Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel (SIEV) 14, it had arrived at Melville Island in the Northern Territory around 2pm Canberra time with 14 Turkish passengers on board.

Six men got off, but a local resident ordered them back and together with another resident towed the boat off the island and rang customs.

The Howard government's high-powered People Smuggling Task Force met to plan what to do with the boat, and a naval commander took operational command.

The patrol boat HMAS Geelong arrived that night and towed it into international waters.

The Minasa Bone was assessed to be seaworthy although its engines and steered had been damaged, most likely through sabotage.

Navy sailors repaired the engine and steering, and police and immigration officials conducted interviews with the men, some of whom were found to be suffering severe sea-sickness.

On November 6, the Indonesian government was advised Australia would be turning the boat back to where it came from.

At 1am on November 7 the tow-back began, and authorities were told the boat would arrive at the Indonesian port of Saumlaki on the island of Yamdena.

Indonesian authorities decided that rather than deploy immigration officials, the best person to greet the boat would be the area's sole police officer.

At 7.30am on November 8 the HMAS Geelong released the vessel without incident, and later that day the passengers were taken in by Indonesian police.

Then foreign minister Alexander Downer and immigration minister Amanda Vanstone released a media statement saying the men had not sought asylum. However, it soon became clear they had.

A Senate estimates hearing was told on November 25 the defence force and Australian Federal Police had advised the government that passengers had made statements "of a kind that potentially raised refugee issues".

In their interviews, one of the men had said: "We are from Turkey. Don't want to go back. No good."

Another passenger had pointed to the word "refugee" in a English-Turkish dictionary.

The ministers defended the wording of the media statement saying that was the advice they had received at the time.

The 14 men went into the care of the International Organisation for Migration, and six asked to return to Turkey.

The four Indonesian boat crew left the area soon after arrival, without charge, according to the AFP.

The boat also disappeared.

At the time, the tow-back policy was governed by an informal, unwritten agreement between the Australian and Indonesian governments, the IOM, and the UNHCR, which had been put in place in mid-2000.

Senator Vanstone later revealed that the man who had initially tipped off Customs - Gibson Farmer - had sent her a carved wooden boat with tiny dolls in it.


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