SYDNEY: Australia on Friday denied fresh claims of asylum-seeker abuse by its navy as “completely unsubstantiated” while confirming for the first time that it was turning boats back to Indonesia.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison broke with months of secrecy over the government’s military-led Operation Sovereign Borders people-smuggling crackdown to concede that boats were being turned around.
“It is the policy and practice of this government to intercept any vessel that is seeking to illegally enter our waters and where safe to do so, remove it beyond Australia’s waters and contiguous zone,” Morrison told a Senate inquiry.
He has previously refused to confirm or deny turn-backs for operational security reasons.
The minister would not confirm how many boats had been turned back but said “none shall pass is our objective.”
The head of the military operation, Lt. Gen. Angus Campbell, said a total of 22 boats carrying 1,106 asylum-seekers had arrived since September 18 last year.
But none have made it to Australia since December 19—the first time in six years that January has passed without a single boat arrival.
Morrison would not comment on whether confirmation of the policy, which has angered Jakarta, would increase tensions with Australia’s strategic neighbor.
“Australia respects Indonesia’s sovereignty and we respect the environment in which the government of Indonesia operates domestically, as they do the Australian government our own domestic environment,” he said.
The remarks came as fresh claims of mistreatment emerged from asylum-seekers turned back to Indonesia by Australia’s navy.
Somali asylum-seeker Boby Nooris told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he was sprayed in the eyes by officers, feeling “pain like chillies” which temporarily blinded him and caused him to stumble into an engine pipe, burning his hand.
Morrison said navy personnel carried “personal defensive devices” but said they were used “in accordance with their training and in accordance with strict guidelines.”
“Any suggestion of mistreatment or misuse of force or misuse of any of these devices that are available to them is completely unsubstantiated, completely without basis and is rejected by the government,” he said.
“We are not running a welcoming service out there. We are not running some sort of welcoming committee,” added Morrison.
“What we are doing is implementing a policy which is strong, which can be tough.”
Hundreds of asylum-seekers have died making the dangerous sea voyage from Indonesia to Australia in recent years, prompting the so-called Sovereign Borders crackdown.