Operation Sovereign Borders

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) is a border protection operation led by the Australian Defence Force, aimed at stopping maritime arrivals of asylum seekers to Australia.[1] The operation is the outcome of a 2013 federal election policy of the Coalition, which commenced on 18 September 2013 after the election of the Abbott government.[2] The operation has implemented a "zero tolerance" posture towards what it has termed "Illegal Maritime Arrivals" − a change in terminology from the previous government's "Irregular Maritime Arrivals"[3] − in Australia, in conjunction with mandatory detention in offshore detention facilities.

The current Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, Rear Admiral Justin Jones, was appointed to the command on 4 February 2022.[4]


Persons arriving by unauthorized boat to Australia by calendar year
Persons arriving by unauthorized boat to Australia by calendar year

During the 2013 federal election, the Abbott-led Coalition campaigned on a policy that, if elected to government, they would "stop the boats" and would launch Operation Sovereign Borders, combining the resources of multiple government bodies under direct control of a three star general. Following the election, Angus Campbell was promoted and appointed to oversee the operations.[5]

Following the 2013 election, the portfolio of the Minister for Immigration was renamed as the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. The appointed ministers, initially Scott Morrison and subsequently Peter Dutton, refused to release information on asylum seeker boat arrivals as they occurred,[6] and a weekly media briefing was announced.[7][8] In January 2014, having not held a media briefing for almost a month, Morrison announced that briefings would be held on what he described as "an as needs basis".[9] On 10 July 2014, Morrison stated that the secrecy policy was put in place by Lieutenant General Campbell, which had been rigorously implemented by ministers, their advisers, and various government departments.[10]

Policy proposals[edit]

Regional Deterrence Framework[edit]

On 23 August 2013, during the election campaign, the Coalition announced a key component of Operation Sovereign Borders called the Regional Deterrence Framework.[11] Budgeted at A$420 million, the RDF aimed to engage with other countries in the region, particularly Indonesia, to prevent asylum seeker vessels leaving for Australia. The framework included a $20 million proposal (titled "The Indonesian community engagement programme") which was to include:[12]

  • communications campaigns to raise awareness within local villages that people smuggling is a criminal activity;
  • a capped boat buy-back scheme that was to provide an incentive for owners of decrepit and dangerously unsafe boats to sell their boats to government officials rather than people smugglers;
  • support for wardens in local communities, whose role was to be to provide intelligence information to the Indonesian National Police on people smuggling operations;
  • the option in exceptional circumstances for bounty payments for the provision of information resulting in significant disruptions or arrests leading to convictions.

The "buy-the-boats" plan was widely ridiculed,[13] with fact-checking group PolitiFact Australia[14] calling the proposal "ridiculous".[15] Lieutenant General Campbell told a Senate Estimates committee that, two months into the OSB program, no boats had been purchased because Indonesia did not support the idea, although he stated that the measure remained available.[16]

Communication campaign[edit]

An example of an advertisement in the campaign.

The government runs a "communication campaign to counter people smuggling" with advertisements in multiple languages,[17] targeting "press, radio, social and search media" across Australia. Between January and May 2015, $750,000 had been spent on the campaign.[18]


Operation Sovereign Borders operates as a Joint Agency Taskforce (JATF), with the support of a range of government agencies, organised as three operational task groups:[19]


Rank Name Post-nominals Service Term began Term ended
Lieutenant General Angus Campbell DSC, AM Army 18 September 2013 16 May 2015
Major General Andrew Bottrell CSC & Bar, DSM Army 16 May 2015 1 February 2017
Air Vice Marshal Stephen Osborne AM, CSC RAAF 1 February 2017 14 December 2018
Major General Craig Furini AM, CSC Army 14 December 2018 28 August 2020
Rear Admiral Lee Goddard CSC RAN 28 August 2020 11 December 2020
Rear Admiral Mark Hill AM, CSC RAN 15 December 2020 4 February 2022
Rear Admiral Justin Jones CSC RAN 4 February 2022 Incumbent


Immigration Detention Population to December 2014

Abbott's government claimed a ninety per cent reduction in maritime arrivals of asylum seekers.[20] There were 207 in November 2013, as opposed to 2,629 in November 2012.[21][22][23]

In response, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Richard Marles claimed there was a 40 per cent reduction in arrivals in the month following the introduction of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea, shortly before the 2013 election.

On 19 June 2014, the Government announced that it had been six months since the last successful boat arrival.[24]

July 2014: Legal challenge[edit]

On 7 July 2014, a vessel containing 153 mostly Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka was intercepted by Australian authorities 27 kilometres (15 nmi) from Christmas Island. The government refused to confirm the existence, location, or status of the boat, until the High Court placed an injunction on any attempted refoulement of the vessel's passengers to Sri Lanka, while the full bench of the Court considered a challenge to the handover on the grounds that the government was breaching non-refoulement obligations under international law.[25] Under Article 33 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory, this principle forbids a nation state from sending a refugee back to anywhere where they may face persecution.[26]

Pre-empting the decision of the court, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Morrison announced that the people on the boat would be transferred to the Curtin Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in Western Australia, where they would be assessed by Indian consular officials under an arrangement made with that country to repatriate any Indian citizens or residents.[27] On 2 August, Morrison announced that the group had refused to meet with Indian officials and were then transferred to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre.[28]

The government's response was to rush through Parliament the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014, which was passed by both Houses in December 2014, placing border policing ahead of asylum seeker rights as expressed in UN Convention.[29]

Unlawful arrivals by boat per month
Month Boats Persons Notes
From 18 September 2013 5 205
October 2013 5 339
November 2013 5 207
December 2013 7 355
January 2014 0 1 [30]
July 2014 1 157 [31]
Source: "Operation Sovereign Borders:
log of boat arrivals and other asylum seeker incidents"
ABC News
. Australia. Retrieved 5 February 2015.

Months with no arrivals are not listed.

Turnback operations[edit]

The number of arrivals given in OSB operational updates is defined as those "transferred to Australian immigration authorities",[32] and does not include arrivals in Australian territorial waters who have been subject to a turnback operation—that is, sent out of Australian waters on their own vessel, or an Australian vessel employed for this purpose.[33] As of 7 February 2014, The Australian newspaper estimated that at least "six boatloads" of asylum seekers had been subject to turnbacks by OSB authorities.[34]

On 15 January 2014, an orange fibreglass "survival capsule", containing about 60 asylum seekers, came ashore at Cikepuh in West Java. A second containing 34 people arrived at Pangandaran on 5 February.[35] The Daily Telegraph reported that the Australian government was believed to have purchased eleven of the capsules from Singapore at a cost of around $500,000.[36]

In May 2014, Australia was alleged to have placed two persons who had arrived earlier in the year onto a boat with other asylum seekers which was turned back to Indonesia.[37]

In January 2015, Minister Dutton announced that 15 vessels, containing 429 asylum seekers in total, had been subject to turnback operations of some kind towards Indonesia or Sri Lanka since the beginning of OSB.[38]

In May 2015, Australian authorities allegedly paid Indonesian boat crew to return 65 asylum seekers to Indonesia. This and other turnbacks like it could be seen as tantamount to people smuggling against origin and transit countries.[39]

In July 2015, Labor Shadow Minister Richard Marles conceded that "Offshore processing and regional resettlement, together with the Coalition's policy of turn-backs, is what actually stopped the boats."[40]

On 6 August 2015, the new immigration minister Peter Dutton announced it had been 12 months since the last successful people smuggling operation, with the last SIEV arriving in Australia's care in July 2014. The ABC News' Fact Check subsequently listed the Coalition's "We Will Stop the Boats" promise as delivered.[41] In August 2015, Dutton stated that, since December 2013, 633 people on 20 vessels have been subject to turnback operations, including a boat from Vietnam in July.[42] In March 2016, Dutton stated that 698 people on 25 vessels had been turned back since the beginning of the OSB program.[43]


In 2014, the status of asylum seekers sent to offshore processing centres in Nauru Regional Processing Centre and Manus Regional Processing Centre was decided: 13 people (9 people from Iran and 4 people from Pakistan) were granted asylum, while 7 people (from Iran, Pakistan, and Cameroon) received negative assessments. The asylum protection in Nauru was valid from 2014 for up to 5 years.[44]

As of 2015, more than 400 people who had their refugee claims rejected had been returned home from the Australian-run detention centre in Papua New Guinea, some of which did so voluntarily.[45]


Indonesian response[edit]

The Indonesian government has voiced concern over the operation due to its implications for Indonesia's national sovereignty.[46][47] A member of the Golkar party, Tantowi Yahya, described the plan as "offensive", and officials from the Indonesian Navy said "forcing the boats back would also unfairly shift the burden of dealing with the asylum-seeker problem back on Indonesia".[48] The policy also came under fire from refugee advocates.[49]

On 26 September 2013, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa took the "unusual step" of releasing details of his talks about the policy with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop,[50] which was later blamed on a clerical error.[51]

Australia has apologised for violating Indonesian waters during their "tow back" operations.[52] These incursions occurred after Chief of the Defence Force David Hurley stripped naval personnel of workplace safety protections that would have required them to exercise "reasonable care" to protect their safety and that of the refugees.[53] On 21 January 2014, Customs (now Australian Border Force) and Defence announced that a joint review would be conducted to investigate the circumstances under which Australian naval vessels entered Indonesian territorial waters.[54] The inquiry, which covered the period between 1 December 2013 and 20 January 2014, found that two Royal Australian Navy frigates had crossed into Indonesian territory four times during the period, while Customs vessels did so on another two occasions.[55] In response, one Australian Navy officer lost his command, while several others were disciplined.[56] Indonesia has responded to the incursions by deploying military assets to intercept people-smuggling boats.[57][58]

Media response[edit]

Several journalists and media outlets have expressed concern and frustration over the tightly controlled release of information about Operation Sovereign Borders, usually restricted to the weekly briefings held on Friday afternoons. In the weekly briefings, both Minister Morrison and Lieutenant General Campbell have refused to discuss "operational" or "on-water" matters in response to questions from journalists. The Minister has rationalised the control of information by stating that the government was not "operating a shipping news service for people smugglers".[59]

Allegations of navy mistreatment[edit]

On 22 January 2014, the ABC broadcast allegations that Royal Australian Navy personnel had mistreated asylum seekers during an OSB operation, including video footage of passengers receiving medical treatment in Indonesia for burns on their hands, which they claimed were sustained when they were forced to touch a hot boat engine.[60] Morrison downplayed refugee claims of being abused by the Navy, and called for the ABC to apologise to the Navy.[61] The ABC's Media Watch program opined that ABC News had "over-reached" when reporting the story, and should have been more thorough in verifying the claims.[62] On 4 February, ABC managing director Mark Scott issued a statement saying "The wording around the ABC's initial reporting needed to be more precise on that point", referring to the video footage verifying the injuries but not how they had occurred.[63] On 7 February, Yousif Ibrahim Fasher repeated the initial allegations, as well as several further claims of mistreatment and possible breaches of maritime law in an interview with a Fairfax correspondent.[64]

Political focus on boat arrivals[edit]

Immigration law specialists, academics and others have criticised the political over-use of border control in general to win votes, and in particular of the exaggerated focus on boat arrivals being a danger to security and bringing illegal immigrants, when in fact the vast majority of illegal immigrants arrived by plane, with valid visas initially.[65][66]

United Kingdom[edit]

The "Stop the boats" slogan and approach for Operation Sovereign Borders has become increasingly more popular in the United Kingdom over recent years due to the surge in illegal migrant numbers crossing via small boats.[67]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Keane, Bernard (25 July 2013). "Military reshuffle: Abbott's 'Operation Sovereign Borders'". Crikey. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  2. ^ Liberal Party of Australia & The Nationals. "The Coalition's Operation Sovereign Borders Policy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 27 October 2013.
  3. ^ Laugusen, Amanda. "Word watch: Boat people". ANU Reporter. Australian National University. 45 (2). Retrieved 15 January 2020.
  4. ^ "New Commander for Operation Sovereign Borders". Media release. Minister for Home Affairs. 4 February 2022. Retrieved 8 February 2022.
  5. ^ Brissenden, M.; Roberts, G. (17 September 2013). "Tony Abbott appoints Angus Campbell to lead Operation Sovereign Borders policy". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  6. ^ "Veil of silence descends on asylum boat arrivals". The Age. 20 September 2013.
  7. ^ Ireland, Judith (4 October 2013). "Coalition's resolve on asylum seekers 'stronger than ever before': Scott Morrison". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 6 October 2013.
  8. ^ "Operation Sovereign Borders – Transcripts of Weekly Press Conferences".
  9. ^ "Scott Morrison says he will stop holding weekly asylum seeker briefings". ABC News. Australia. 14 January 2014.
  10. ^ "No comment on operations: how Morrison's media strategy took shape". The Guardian. Australia. 10 July 2014.
  11. ^ Liberal Party of Australia & The Nationals. "The Coalition's Policy for a Regional Deterrence Framework to Combat People Smuggling" (PDF).
  12. ^ Ryan, Rosanna (23 August 2013). "Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison announce new 'regional deterrence framework' to stop asylum seekers". ABC News. Retrieved 29 November 2013.
  13. ^ "Scott Morrison defiant on 'crazy' boat buyback policy". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2 September 2013. Retrieved 29 November 2013.
  14. ^ "PolitiFact Australia". Retrieved 19 April 2016.
  15. ^ "Indonesia boat buy scheme 'ridiculous'". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2 September 2013. Retrieved 29 November 2013.
  16. ^ Griffiths, Emma (19 November 2013). "Angus Campbell reveals no boats have been purchased under Operation Sovereign Borders". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 29 November 2013.
  17. ^ "Counter People Smuggling Communication". Archived from the original on 15 April 2016. Retrieved 19 April 2016.
  18. ^ "Antisocial network: government targets Australians in asylum seeker ads". Crikey. Retrieved 19 April 2016.
  19. ^ "Operation Sovereign Borders". Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
  20. ^ Ireland, Judith (21 October 2013). "Both sides claim credit for slowing boat arrivals". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  21. ^ Bolt, Andrew (29 November 2013). "Under Abbott, 207 boat people in November. Under Gillard, 2630 boat people last November". Herald Sun.
  22. ^ "Deterrents and punishments do not work to stop boats". Politifact. 9 September 2013. Archived from the original on 3 December 2013. Retrieved 1 December 2013.
  23. ^ "Operation Sovereign Borders: log of boat arrivals and other asylum seeker incidents". ABC News. Australia. 29 November 2013.
  24. ^ "Satisfied Australia marks six months with no boatpeople". SBS News. Australia. 19 June 2014. Retrieved 18 July 2014.
  25. ^ Gordon, Michael (8 July 2014). "High Court considers case of asylum seekers being returned to Sri Lanka". The Age. Retrieved 8 July 2014.
  26. ^ "United Nations High Commission for Refugees". Unhcr. Retrieved 30 July 2016.
  27. ^ "Asylum seekers head to Australia". SBS News. Australia. 25 July 2014. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  28. ^ "Australia sends asylum-seekers to Nauru, as India offer refused". The Times of India. India. 2 August 2014. Retrieved 19 April 2016.
  29. ^ Marmo, Marinella; Giannacopoulos, Maria (11 October 2017). "Cycles of judicial and executive power in irregular migration". Comparative Migration Studies. 5 (16): 16. doi:10.1186/s40878-017-0059-x. PMC 5636859. PMID 29071213.
  30. ^ Swan, Jonathon (31 January 2014). "Asylum seeker transferred to Christmas Island, ending six-week period without any arrivals". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  31. ^ Laughland, Oliver (31 July 2014). "Tamil asylum seekers: 80% reported showing signs of torture and trauma". The Guardian. Australia. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  32. ^ Barlow, Karen (12 October 2013). "Australian Immigration Minister talks tough to asylum seekers". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  33. ^ Glenday, James (4 February 2014). "Asylum seekers: Releasing Operation Sovereign Borders details not in the national interest, Scott Morrison tells Senate committee". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  34. ^ Maley, Paul; Taylor, Paige (7 February 2014). "At least six boatloads of asylum-seekers have been turned back to Indonesia". The Australian. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  35. ^ Toohey, Paul (7 February 2014). "Inside the Sovereign Borders Turn-back Lifeboat". news.com.au. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  36. ^ "Second asylum lifeboat sent back to Indonesia under Operation Sovereign Borders". Daily Telegraph. Australia. 7 February 2014. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  37. ^ Farrell, Paul (6 May 2014). "Report of extra asylum seekers put on turn-back boat a 'serious development'". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  38. ^ "Australia confirms 15 boats carrying 429 asylum seekers have been turned back". The Guardian. Australia. 28 January 2015. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
  39. ^ Missbach, Antje; Palmer, Wayne (3 March 2020). "People smuggling by a different name: Australia's 'turnbacks' of asylum seekers to Indonesia". Australian Journal of International Affairs. 74 (2): 185–206. doi:10.1080/10357718.2020.1721429. ISSN 1035-7718. S2CID 213547942.
  40. ^ Marles, Richard (22 July 2015). "Why Labor will turn back asylum seeker boats". Herald Sun. Retrieved 23 July 2015.
  41. ^ "Promise check: We will stop the boats". ABC News. Australia. 14 May 2015. Retrieved 20 October 2015.
  42. ^ Hasham, Nicole (6 August 2015). "In a rare disclosure, Abbott government admits turning back 633 asylum seekers". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 6 August 2015.
  43. ^ Anderson, Stephanie (17 March 2016). "Fewer than 30 refugees resettled since November as part of 12,000 agreed in Syria, Iraq deal". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 17 March 2016.
  44. ^ "Nauru and PNG begin granting refugee status for asylum seekers – Pacific Beat". Radio Australia.
  45. ^ "Asylum seeker returns not our job: govt". Yahoo!7. 28 January 2015.
  46. ^ Bachelard, Michael (18 September 2013). "Tony Abbott's asylum seeker policies 'offensive', says senior Indonesian politician". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
  47. ^ Wroe, David. "We will reject Abbott's policy on asylum seekers: Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa". Brisbane Times. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  48. ^ Sihite, Ezra. "Golkar Latest Critic of Abbott's Asylum Line". Jakarta Globe. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  49. ^ Silby, Murray. "Advocates hope for asylum policy adjustment". SBS News. Australia. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
  50. ^ Roberts, George (26 September 2013). "Indonesia's foreign minister Marty Natalegawa divulges contents of talks with Julie Bishop". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 28 September 2013.
  51. ^ Norman, Jane (27 September 2013). "Indonesia says email about talks between Marty Natalegawa and Julie Bishop sent to media by mistake". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 9 October 2013.
  52. ^ "Indonesia condemns Australian navy waters violations". BBC News. 17 January 2014. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  53. ^ Wroe, David (15 January 2014). "Navy sailors now on 'war footing' to turn back boats". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  54. ^ Murphy, Katharine (22 January 2014). "Naval incursions: customs and defence issue terms of reference for inquiry". The Guardian. Australia. Retrieved 23 January 2014.
  55. ^ McPhedran, Ian (20 February 2014). "Review finds Australian Navy and Customs vessels breached Indonesian waters six times". Herald Sun. Retrieved 20 February 2014.
  56. ^ Griffiths, Emma (18 April 2014). "Senior Navy officer loses command over incursions into Indonesian waters during Operation Sovereign Borders". ABC News. Australia. Retrieved 27 April 2014.
  57. ^ "Indonesia warship deployment ensures 'border properly protected' – minister". The Guardian. Australia. Australian Associated Press. 23 January 2014. Retrieved 23 January 2014.
  58. ^ Alford, Peter (29 January 2014). "Jakarta's warships to target refugees". The Australian. Retrieved 30 January 2014.
  59. ^ "Stopping the quotes" (transcript). Media Watch. ABC TV. Retrieved 20 November 2013.
  60. ^ Knott, Matthew (5 February 2014). "ABC admits errors in navy burns report on asylum seeker claims". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
  61. ^ Jabour, Bridie; Murphy, Katharine (21 January 2014). "Scott Morrison says burns allegations amount to 'sledging' of Australian navy". The Guardian. Australia. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
  62. ^ "Truth, trust and treachery" (transcript). Media Watch. 3 February 2014. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
  63. ^ Knott, Matthew (4 February 2014). "ABC head Mark Scott admits mistakes over report claiming navy inflicted asylum seeker burns". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
  64. ^ Bachelard, Michael (7 February 2014). "Investigation: 'burned hands' on the high seas". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
  65. ^ Crock, Mary; Ghezelbash, Daniel (15 February 2019). "It's high time we stopped playing politics with migration laws (Opinion)". Australian Broadcasting Corporation news. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  66. ^ Collins, Jock (21 March 2019). "Six facts that tell a different immigration story than we hear from politicians(Opinion)". Australian Broadcasting Corporation news. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  67. ^ Sandford, Daniel (4 January 2023). "What does Rishi Sunak's promise to stop the boats mean?". British Broadcasting Corporation news. Retrieved 4 February 2023.

Further reading[edit]

  • Phillips, Janet; Spinks, Harriet (23 July 2013). "Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976". Parliament of Australia. [The] background note provides a brief overview of the historical and political context surrounding boat arrivals in Australia since 1976.

External links[edit]