About This Book
Reluctant Rescuers is not a book about Australian refugee policy as such. It has a specific focus on the issue of the obligation of Australia’s intelligence-based border protection system to protect all human life at sea, including the lives of stateless asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by small boat.
There is now considerable public evidence, as set out in the book, that this obligation is not always being honoured by the official Australian border protection system: though the courage and dedication of the men and women working at the front line of maritime border security is not in doubt.
Hence the apparently paradoxical title, Reluctant Rescuers.
The intelligence-based border protection system routinely collects large amounts of human-sourced and signals-sourced data on boats that may be on their way towards Australian territorial waters. But it sometimes declines to acknowledge and act on that intelligence when it indicates the possibility of a ‘suspected irregular entry vessel’—a SIEV—in peril at sea.
Public officials and politicians regularly foster a false public impression that SIEV boats are getting lost or sunk, and large numbers of people are drowning, on a regular basis – and that people smugglers are almost entirely to blame when this happens. Both myths are corrosive of truth and decency in Australia’s border protection doctrine and operational culture, and in Australian public life generally.
There have been five major separate boat sinkings or disappearances, including and since SIEV X in 2001. In the four more recent events, over 400 asylum seekers bound for Australia have perished at sea. Reluctant Rescuers asks what can be learned from exploring the public record on these four tragedies in 2009–2011.
Its main conclusion: that the Australian border security system as a complex intelligence-based system has lost its moral compass. Safety of life at sea must now be reinstated as a declared core responsibility of Australia’s Border Protection Command.
Reluctant Rescuers could be an important book at this finely poised moment in Australian national politics, and in the chronic debate on treatment of boat people asylum seekers.
It is understandable, though disappointing, that present difficult economic conditions in the Australian publishing industry meant that the theme did not attract either a commercial or academic publisher. However, Tony Kevin’s relations with Scribe Publications – who continue to sell his three previously published books from their backlist – remain cordial.
He decided to self–publish this book, at some effort and financial risk to himself, because he felt it a matter of conscience and public policy importance to get this analysis and ideas out into the public arena, in particular to people in a position positively to influence Australia’s border protection policy.
Australians are a pragmatic people. We tend to focus on outcomes rather than doctrines, and Border Protection Command’s outcomes have most of the time been quite good in terms of protecting human life at sea. But it is now clear that the systemic values and doctrines are quite pernicious.
Reluctant Rescuers does not set out to criticise or embarrass any particular individuals or political parties. It is not an advocacy book about policy for the treatment of boat people asylum seekers once they are taken into Australian custody, though it discusses that debate briefly insofar as it provides necessary policy context for the book’s subject, which is:
Australia’s responsibilities for the safety of life at sea of asylum seekers, whom our intelligence-based border protection system knows or suspects to be on their way by boat towards the Australian mainland or its immigration-excised island territories.
Reluctant Rescuers contends that intelligence-based knowledge in the Australian government national security system of such potential irregular immigrants coming in small boats imposes on the system an ethical obligation to act to protect any human lives known or suspected to be in peril; and to be honestly and publicly accountable when things go wrong.
Thanks to the efficiency and decency of our men and women serving on the border protection front line, fortunately things rarely go wrong: 97 per cent of asylum seekers setting out in small boats have arrived safely since 1998. But the two public inquiries into the December 2010 Christmas Island shipwreck of SIEV 221, the official advice to Senate committees on two boats that disappeared (presumed sunk at sea) in 2009 and 2010, and the official comment on the overloaded boat Barokah that sank off the south coast of Eastern Java in December 2011, all indicate a now entrenched set of official border security doctrines and protocols, which are unworthy of a country that claims to respect and care for human life.
Tony Kevin’s meticulous research into these four cases, as set out in Reluctant Rescuers, suggests also that the complex layering and bureaucratic compartmentalisation of intelligence-sourced data in the present national security-classified border detection system allows important truths to be quite legally concealed or obscured by witnesses testifying in parliamentary and coronial inquiries. Not much has changed here since the Senate inquiry in 2002 into the sinking of SIEV X.
Reluctant Rescuers also challenges the official perception of boat people asylum seekers as a major national security threat. After all, Australia is not at war with asylum seekers. They are not armed invaders or criminals.
Reluctant Rescuers warns that Australian maritime border protection policy is sliding by degrees towards a callous indifference to the obligation to strive to protect all human life at sea in situations where Australia has a national responsibility.
How Australia chooses to respond to the formidable secret technical and intelligence-sourced data routinely available to its border protection system on asylum-seeker voyages towards our country raises ethically important issues. How could the Australian border protection decision system ever conceivably contemplate leaving asylum seekers at risk of dying in sinking boats on their final leg of their long journeys to Australia? Yet senior figures in the system have unequivocally stated that the system does not aim as a core objective to protect all human life in peril at sea.
This book explores a creeping moral corruption, spreading through not only the border protection system itself but also affecting external accountability safeguards (parliamentary committees, coronial inquiries) that are supposed to keep citizen human-rights watch on safety-of-life-at-sea outcomes.
The book also supports the concern of responsible Navy commanders that dangerous towback policies should not be again imposed on the Navy by reckless politicians.
Finally, the Conclusion chapter makes concrete proposals for improved practice and accountability in these matters.
Tony Kevin hopes that Reluctant Rescuers will stimulate reasoned and thoughtful responses, both in defence and national security circles and in the refugee human rights movement.