Operation Sovereign Borders Only to Save Lives

November 22, 2016 4:16 PM

The Australian Border Protection Unit, Operation Sovereign Borders has reaffirmed its commitment to save human lives while attempting to restrict maritime arrivals of asylum seekers reaching Australian shores.

Operation Sovereign Borders is a military-led border security operation aimed at combating maritime people smuggling and protecting Australia’s borders.

The OSB was established on the 18th of September 2013 and has successfully reduced the number of illegal maritime ventures to Australia and prevented loss of life at sea.

The OSB Joint Agency Task Force is a whole-of-government initiative, supported by a wide range of federal government agencies and consists of three operational task groups.

The task groups are:

1. Disruption and Deterrence Task Group-led by the Australian Federal Police
2. Detection, Interception and Transfer Task Group-led by the Australian Border Force, which includes Maritime Border Command
3. Detention and Removals Task Group-led by the Australian Border Force

Major General Andrew Bottrell is the Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders. He was appointed on the 16th of May 2015.

Major General Andrew Bottrell along with the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force Roman Quaedvlieg engaged in a one day official visit to Sri Lanka today. During the visit, the Australian delegation engaged in high-level talks with government stakeholders pertaining to the anti-human smuggling operations.

Speaking exclusively to NewsRadio, Major General Andrew Bottrell said, Australia and Sri Lanka have a robust relationship especially in areas of counter-terrorism and people smuggling. The Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders said he is confident that relations between the two countries will grow even stronger in future.

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The Australian delegation arrived in Sri Lanka following a visit to India to discuss matters concerning people smuggling and in order to enhance corporation.

Major General Andrew Bottrell said, “I am focused on people smuggling, those two countries, India and Sri Lanka are two very important countries for me. One, India is more about a developing relationship. Sri Lanka is about building on what is already a very strong relationship.”


Stronger Relations with the Unity Government

The Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders stressed that with the support of Sri Lankan authorities, he is confident about the future adding saving lives of person making the perilous boat journey is of utmost importance for them.

He said, “I first visited with Minister (Peter) Dutton in March or April of last year. And I have to say we were welcomed with open arms by the new bureaucracy. As far as it has been described to me, we haven’t missed a beat in terms of those relationships. It has continues to be very strong. And I think it will only continue to be stronger. So I look to the future with lot of confidence.”

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Commenting on the visit to the South Asian region, Major General Bottrell said it was very productive, especially the visit to Sri Lanka.

He said, “One to build on relations in India. But for Sri Lanka it is really about acknowledging the relation we already have and continuing to build on what is already very strong relationship. So it has been very productive in both areas.

India was very open and corporative and today, with Sri Lanka has reinforced our arrangements and our corporation’s remains very high.”


The Birth of Operation Sovereign Borders

The Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders noted, Australia took a collective decision to protect its borders in 2013 adding it was necessary to tackle the scourge of people smuggle.

However he said, the perseverance was not politically motivated, “Look I think because the government that came in that time in 2013, campaigned very heavily on regaining control of our borders, and tackling a, what was a scourge of people smuggling”.

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They looked at the issue very carefully, and decided that the best way to coordinate the whole government activity is to set up a Joint Agency Task Force, so it could, through the head of that agency, can coordinate all of those activities to make sure that we can have the best solution, because there is not one thing that would tackle people smuggling, it required approach from multiple angles and an over 16 departments and agencies in Australia contribute to the outcomes under this policy.”


Tony Abbott vs. Malcolm Turnbull

Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Major General Andrew Bottrell was very diplomatic in answering concerns about immigration policies under two different leaders of Liberal Party leaders. The Commander stressed that it was a smooth transition.

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He said, “I have to say, that there has been not a big mist from when Mr. (Tony) Abbott was the Prime Minister compared to Mr. (Malcolm) Turnbull took over. The policy has not changed at all.

And if anything has happened, we have further reinforced our maritime border; we got more aircraft and more ships out there to make sure that people smugglers can’t get their boats through. And the reason why we’ve done that is ultimately to stop people dying at the hands of people smugglers. Because the Australian public would not stand for that any longer.”


Where are the Boats?

International media outlets continue to highlight the enormous loss of lives following the crisis in the Middle East and other conflict zones. Despite the great dangers, many thousands desire to leave their countries by boat, fleeing; conflicts, violence, risk of arrests, torture and poverty looking for better living standards.

The world continues to watch in horror as human traffickers capitalize on the plight of the vulnerable in different parts of the world. From Rohingya in Myanmar in the Indian Ocean to Syrians, Afghans and Nigerians through the Mediterranean Sea, the vulnerable continue to make hazardous sea journeys seeking greener pastures.

The Middle Eastern warfare has created the biggest man made humanitarian crisis in living memory. The United Nations Refugee Agency has confirmed 344,603 persons have arrived in Europe making the sea journey in September 2016. In 2015, over one million refugees and migrants reached Europe by sea, with almost 4,000 feared drowned.

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In 2015, the UN refugee Agency estimated 25,000 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis taking to sea voyages heading for another destination.

The impact of boat migrants in the Indian Ocean region has been relatively smaller, but countries like Sri Lanka, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia have taken an active role to minimize casualties. People smugglers have also taken a keen interest in shipping would-be refugees to Australian shores.

The numbers though have reduced over time, according to data obtained through various refugee organizations, boats continue to leave the South and East Asian shores towards Australian territory. On the back of heightened numbers of boats arrivals, through the support of the Operation Sovereign Borders, the Australian government decided to turn back migrant boats before they reached its shores.

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From December 2013, the Australia government has been successful in turning back several boats carrying migrants. Major General Andrew Bottrell said, the move has helped to deter many people smugglers and people from attempting the journey.

The Operation Sovereign Borders’ Commander added, “Over time those boats have obviously reduced. But under operation sovereign borders, when it was established in September 2013, we’ve had, through that period, when we commenced the turn backs in December 2013; we’ve returned 29 boats with 840 people. So, those boats haven’t stopped totally. They still continue to come and they continue to see whether they can get through our border security arrangements. And every one of them has failed. The last one that successfully arrived was on 10 July 2014.”

Major General Bottrell said he is determined to keep his record clean, “There has not been a successful arrival now in over 850 days. And I am very confident that we will keep that way because we have reinforced our law enforcement and their intelligence corporation with countries like Sri Lanka and with other countries. And we’ve deployed more ships and aircraft to detect those boats that do get away.

And then we still have our regional processing arrangements with Papua New Guinea and with the island nation of Nauru. So that if anyone does managed to get through, they will not in Australia. The government has been crystal clear that settlement in Australia will never be an option for anyone who tries to come illegally to Australia.”


The Atrocious Offshore Camps

The Government of Australia has come under severe criticism for maintaining and facilitating offshore processing and refugee centers. The government stands firm on its decision claiming it is an attempt to discourage migrants leaving their shores to Australia.

The Rights activists have also accused the government of Australia of failing in its obligation to safeguard refugees.

Major General Bottrell acknowledged that the issue has been sensitive to deal with and said, “Because when I look at this policy, since I took over from March last year, not a single person has been transferred to a regional processing because we have not allowed a boat to come through. For us to then have to transfer anyone to theses regional processing centers. But we maintain these processing centers as a backup, as part of that broader system. The people who are in there now have all arrived prior to us commencing turn back. So the majority arrived during that period 2008 to 2013 and has been then transferred to either to the regional processing centers or some of them are processed in Australia that arrived earlier.”

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The Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders called on the world to be sensitive at the issue especially concerning the amount of lives have been saved through the operation.

He said, “I look at the issue in its totality. We know that 1203 souls were lost by trying to get to Australia by boat. What we’ve done by being able to stop these boats and turned them around is it’s reduced the demand for people smuggling.

So people smugglers can no longer sell what they were trying to sell, they can no longer deliver, settle in Australia. They can’t even deliver access to Australia because we are intercepting and retuning those boats. So people smugglers are lying to people, to convince them to get on the boats. We are saving lives by stopping them. Stopping their ability to do that.”

Major General Bottrell said the government will continue to work with pacific island nations to safeguard the interest of the Australian public, “In terms of the regional processing centers, we have worked with nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to make sure that those people’s claims for protection are processed. And Australia has worked as we agreed in the beginning to try to assist those countries to find third country settlement solutions.”

The Commander noted that the announcement earlier this month pertaining to refugee transfers will not be available for new arrivals. He said, “Prime Minister Turnbull announced on the 13th of November that we have established an arrangement with the United States. To agree to settle for a large number of those people who are determined to be refugees in the United States. But the important point is that settlement deal is not available to anyone who arrived illegally after the 13th of November. It was only available as a one off deal to those people who were in regional processing centers.”


Missed Opportunity and Welcoming Australia

Major General Andrew Bottrell was eager to stress on the importance of their humanitarian work and to clarify any misunderstandings. He said Australia will not tolerate persons attempting to enter through illegal means under any circumstances, but said Australians will welcome new settlements.

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“My message is to (illegal migrants) very clear. The settlement deal that was announced on the 13th of November is not available for anyone who arrives after that date. It is one off deal that was only available to those who were in Manaus Island and Nauru. Anyone who tries to engage a people smuggler will not make it to Australia. We have more planes and boats to make sure that either to intercepted and turned back.”

The Commander of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders Andrew Bottrell added ties between the countries remain strong adding the government will not undermine attempts of Sri Lankans reaching Australia through legal means.

He called on prospective visitors to grab the opportunity provided by the Australian government to settle, work, study and visit down under. “And final point is that there is a legal means to be able to get to Australia. And if anyone wants to know what they are, then they should get in touch with the high commission here in Colombo. There is a very large skill migration programme. There is also a large family re-union programme that they could access. And there are also number of visas hat they could access to, to be able to visit Australia as well. So many legal means.”

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The Australian government requested the public not to heed the calls of people smugglers and undermine their ability to enter the Australian border legally. Major General Andrew Bottrell said, “People should realize if they try to come to Australia illegally, it will undermine their ability to ever apply to come to Australia legally. So they should come the legal route and not the illegal means and they should not certainly not risk their lives by engaging people smugglers.”

Meanwhile, following the appointment of the National Unity Government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with several other state bodies have been working to provide an opportunity for the vulnerable to resettle in the country. The much improved environment in the country has also reduced numbers attempting to leave Sri Lankan shores.

The NewsRadio team also acknowledges efforts by the Government of Australia to reach out to all Sri Lankans to educate them on issues and of available opportunities. We would also like to thank Major General Anderew Bottrell for setting aside his valuable time during his condensed tour of Sri Lanka, and detailing the work carried out by Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders through this NewsRadio exclusive interview.

For more information visit the below mentioned web links.

The Australian Embassy – Colombo

The Sri Lanka High Commission – Canberra, Australia

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection Australia

Operation Sovereign Borders- Australia

Hazari Mohamed
Hazari@TNLRadio.com