Australia’s ‘stop the boats’ rhetoric goes global to devastating effect


The author, Fiona So, was the Human Rights Defender intern, semester one, 2015. Read more about the internship here.


As the humanitarian crisis of thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded in the Andaman Sea unfolded on the global stage, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott threw his support behind the decisions of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to prevent the boats from landing on their shores. (Indonesia and Malaysia have since relented and agreed to provide temporary shelter for the migrants.) "I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary," he said. "And if other countries choose to do that, frankly that is… absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten." In stark contrast, the International Organisation for Migration criticised the Southeast Asian governments for prolonging a deadly game of ‘maritime ping pong’.

Mr Abbott’s unbending defence of the tow-back policy, despite its staggering human cost and questionable legality under international maritime law, was altogether predictable. The crisis provides yet another opportunity to publicly vindicate Australia’s own militarised naval approach to boat people. Just last month, Mr Abbott urged European leaders to adopt Australia’s tough ‘border control’ policies to stem the flow of asylum seekers and migrants making dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean.

Ironically, the language around turning back boats is almost always couched in humanitarian terms. To stop deaths at sea, the argument goes, the boats must be stopped. However, the operation of this principle in the latest Southeast Asian crisis (and the way in which it is being used to justify harmful offshore detention practices) has led to a bizarre situation where governments claim to be saving lives at sea by putting lives at risk. Australia’s ‘stop the boats’ rhetoric jeopardises the national, regional and international conversations on asylum seekers we should be having in several unhelpful ways.

Firstly, it shuts down constructive dialogue on policy alternatives that give proper recognition to the fact that the number of displaced persons globally is at a historic high. A narrow focus on ‘border protection’ fails to address Australia’s humanitarian obligations under international law, the moral imperative for developed nations to shoulder their fair share of the world’s refugees, and the conflicts actually causing the outflow of asylum seekers in the first place.

Secondly, militarised solutions to boat people conflate the issues of asylum seeking, people smuggling, and human trafficking. The first is perfectly legal and a necessary right; the second is often a criminal commercial transaction between two willing parties; the third involves fraud or the coercion of trafficked persons as objects of criminal exploitation. While elements of one issue often bleed into the other (for example, an asylum seeker may believe they are being smuggled, but are unaware that they are really being trafficked), simplistic overtures to ‘stop the boats’ smother rational debate on how best to deal with issues which have distinct root causes and incentives.

Finally, there is precious little to justify the exorbitant costs necessary to sustain a militarised tow-back policy. Realistic policy alternatives, such as exploring more cost-effective ways to process asylum seekers or targeting foreign aid to source countries, have been sacrificed in the rush to demonise boat people for politically expedient purposes. This is all the more regrettable considering the potential for asylum seekers and migrants to contribute financially and culturally to their host countries given the right policy climate.


‘Stop the boats’ is an unfortunate and counterproductive catch-cry; a mere fig leaf of a solution to a pressing global problem. Australia and its leaders should have moved on from it a long time ago.