Turning back boats may breach law: UN

The United Nation’s refugee agency says the Abbott government’s policy of towing or turning back boats may breach Australia’s obligations under international law.

Spokesman for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Babar Baloch says the organisation is seeking an explanation from the Australian government over reports a number of asylum-seeker boats have been returned to Indonesian waters.

Mr Baloch said the UNHCR found a policy of “pushing” back asylum-seeker boats “very concerning”.

“Any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially could place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and international law,” he told the ABC on Saturday.

“If people who are in need for international protection seek a country’s safety, then they must be allowed to go through a process which helps to determine if these people are in need.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison have refused to comment on reports that the Australian navy and customs have either towed back or turned back as many as five boats in the past month.

Mr Abbott has made no apologies for the government’s secrecy over its border protection operations, likening the fight against people smugglers to a war.

Mr Morrison noted the UNHCR had been a long-term critic of the coalition’s border protection policies, and that the government’s actions did not breach Australia’s international obligations.

“Border protection is an issue of national sovereignty,” he said in a statement on Saturday.

“The government is taking the steps necessary to protect our borders consistent with our domestic laws and international obligations.”

Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said turning back and towing back boats was “dangerous” and “illegal”.

The government was “thumbing its nose” at international law, she said.

“The rest of the world is watching in horror, and there will be consequences for Australia, whether it’s in the courts or whether it’s through international diplomacy,” she told reporters in Adelaide.

A spokeswoman for Mr Morrison later said the UNHCR had sent a letter requesting a briefing from the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders, which would be reviewed by the minister when he returns from leave on Monday.

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