Boat ‘turnbacks’ in Australia: a quick guide to the statistics since 2001

Updated 20 July 2018

PDF version [275KB]

Harriet Spinks
Social Policy Section

This guide provides statistics on the number of boats that have been ‘turned back’ since the practice of removing unauthorised maritime arrivals in Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEVs) from Australian waters was introduced by the Howard Government (from 2001–2003) and reintroduced by the Abbott Government (in December 2013). It updates boat ‘turnback’ data provided in a previous publication from November 2017, to provide information on boat turnbacks through to 30 June 2018.

In the months prior to the reintroduction of the Abbott Government’s boat ‘turnback’ policy, unauthorised maritime arrivals (who arrived on board boats between 19 July 2013 and December 2013) were transferred to regional processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG). As at 27 February 2017, 3127 people had been transferred since 19 July 2013 (source: Senate Estimates answers to questions on notice, 27 February 2017, specifically AE17/170, AE17/171 and AE17/172). No further transfers to regional processing countries have been made since this date. For more background on this cohort see the Parliamentary Library publication, Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG: a quick guide to statistics and resources (2016); and The ‘Pacific Solution’ revisited: a statistical guide to the asylum seeker caseloads on Nauru and Manus Island (2012) for details on the asylum cohorts processed offshore during the Howard Government.

It is important to note that, while every effort has been made to ensure consistency, the statistics provided in this guide have been compiled by Parliamentary Library staff over a period of many years from a variety of sources.

For example, we are confident that the boat ‘turnback’ details included in this guide between December 2013 and July 2014 are accurate as the information was compiled from an official document tabled after Senate Estimates hearings in October 2014.

However, later details and exact dates of individual ‘turnbacks’ are incomplete. The Australian Government has released the total number of ‘turnbacks’ on a few occasions, but dates of the individual incidents are not usually included. Other information is supplied in monthly Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) operational updates and media releases, but exact dates are also not usually provided in these briefs. The dates included in this guide have largely been provided in Senate Estimates hearings.

Statistics in this guide include:

Table 1: Boat ‘turnbacks’ 2001–2003

Table 2: Boat ‘turnbacks’ since 2013

Table 1: Boat ‘turnbacks’ 2001–2003

Date Boats Crew Number of people
19 October 2001 1 N/A 238
29 October 2001 1 N/A 215
13 December 2001 1 N/A 14
20 December 2001 1 N/A 133
8 November 2003 1 N/A 14
Total 5 N/A 614

Notes:

The practice of removing unauthorised maritime arrivals in Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEVs) from Australian waters was introduced by the Howard Government in 2001 and reintroduced by the Abbott Government in 2013. Detailed information on the date of every incident since 2001 is not available, but statistics on the total number of boat ‘turnbacks’ over certain periods has been made public on occasion. During the Howard Government five boats were turned around. For more detail on boat ‘turnback’ policies since 2001 see J Phillips, A comparison of Coalition and Labor Government asylum policies in Australia since 2001, Research paper series, 2016–17, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2 February 2017. 

Sources:

M Hutton, ‘Boats carrying asylum seekers returned to Indonesia under Operation Relex and Operation Sovereign Borders’, sievx.com website, last updated 19 March 2014; Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, Turning back boats, Fact sheet, University of New South Wales, 26 February 2015; and Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, Answers to Questions on Notice, Defence Portfolio, Budget Estimates 2006–07, Department of Defence answers, Question W19, pp. 34–5, June 2006. 

Table 2: Boat ‘turnbacks’ since 2013

Note: exact dates are provided where possible

Approximate date of arrival Boats Total number of people on board
(includes crew)
Date of return Type of return
December 2013–July 2014        
19 December 2013 1 49 December 2013 Turnback
24 December 2013 1 50 December 2013 Turnback
28 December 2013 1 40 December 2013 Turnback
6 January 2014 1 47 January 2014 Assisted return
8 January 2014 1 27 January 2014 Turnback
15 January 2014 1 58 January 2014 Turnback
5 February 2014 1 38 February 2014 Turnback
24 February 2014 1 28 February 2014 Turnback
4 May 2014 1 20 May 2014 Turnback
4 May 2014 1 3 May 2014 Turnback
20 May 2014 1 3 May 2014 Turnback
6 July 2014 **1 41 July 2014 Takeback
August 2014—February 2015        
September 2014 1 10 September 2014 Assisted return
27 November 2014 **1 37 November 2014 Takeback
January 2015 1 3 January 2015 Assisted return
9 February 2015 **1 4 February 2015 Takeback
March 2015—March 2017        
22 March 2015 1 17 March 2015 Turnback
18 April 2015 ***1 46 April 2015 Takeback
May 2015 1 71 May 2015 Assisted return
July 2015 ***1 46 July 2015 Takeback
August 2015 1 27 August 2015 Turnback
November 2015 1 3 November 2015 Assisted return return
November 2015 1 17 November 2015 Turnback
February 2016 1 5 February 2016 Takeback
March 2016 **1 8 March 2016 Assisted return
May 2016 **1 12 May 2016 Takeback
May 2016 1 3 May 2016 Assisted return
June 2016 ***1 21 June 2016 Takeback
16 August 2016 **1 6 August 2016 Takeback
March 2017 **1 25 March 2017 Takeback
June 2017 1 6 June 2017 Takeback
December 2017 1 29 14 December 2017 Not provided
June 2018 1 10 June 2018 Turnback
Total 33 810    

Notes:

Terminology:

  • boat ‘turnbacks’, ‘take-backs’, ‘turnarounds’ or ‘pushbacks’ are often used interchangeably. Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB), established by the Abbott Government in 2013, defines ‘turnbacks’ as ‘the safe removal of vessels from Australian waters, with passengers and crew returned to their countries of departure’; and ‘take-backs’ as a transfer (often at sea) of passengers from one sovereign authority to another ‘where Australia works with a country of departure in order to see the safe return of passengers and crew’. Sources:  Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Official committee Hansard, 25 May 2015, pp. 107–10; and Official committee Hansard, 23 February 2015, p. 137.  
  • assisted return’ refers to ‘a vessel that is in distress; it is a SOLAS, safety-of-life-at-sea situation’. Source:  Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Official committee Hansard, 22 May 2017, p. 126.

**’Take-backs’ (transfers at sea) to Sri Lankan authorities; and ***’take-backs’ of Vietnamese nationals to Vietnamese authorities. Sources: Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Answers to Questions on Notice, Immigration Portfolio, Additional Estimates 2014–15, Question AE15/175 and Question AE15/055, 23 February 2015; Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Official committee Hansard, 25 May 2015, op. cit.; and P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), OSB marks milestone—year with no boats, media release, 6 August 2015.

The Abbott Government announced its decision not to release details of ‘on-water’ matters conducted by Operation Sovereign Borders in November 2013—see S Morrison (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), Operation Sovereign Borders update,  transcript of press conference, 8 November 2013. Although detailed information on each boat ‘turnback’ is not always available, there have been several ministerial or departmental statements providing total number of ‘turnbacks’ or ‘take-backs’. For example:

  • 12 ventures, with 383 people on board have been turned back at sea’—S Morrison (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), A year of stronger borders, media release, 18 September 2014.
  • ‘Up until today 15 ventures with 429 potential illegal immigrants aboard have been intercepted and returned’—P Dutton, (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), Operation Sovereign Borders delivers six months without a successful people smuggling venture, media release, 28 January 2015.
  • ’Since Operation Sovereign Borders commenced on 18 September 2013 through to now 18 people smuggling ventures have been safely and successfully returned'— Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Official committee Hansard, 25 May 2015, p. 107.
  • ‘Since December 2013, OSB has safely returned 633 potential illegal arrivals aboard 20 ventures to their countries of departure’—P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), OSB marks milestone—year with no boats, media release, 6 August 2015.
  • ‘Since December 2013, 25 boats carrying 698 people have tried to reach Australia’—P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), Boats stopped—threats constant, media release, 18 March 2016.
  • ‘Since OSB began, 26 boats carrying 710 people have been turned back and safely returned to their country of departure’—P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), The border and beyond Australia's 21st century border security system, speech at 13th National Security Annual Summit, Canberra, 11 May 2016.
  • M Turnbull (Prime Minister), doorstop interview transcript, Bungalow QLD, 23 June 2016—noted 734 passengers in 28 boats had been turned back since 2013.
  • One further boat identified by P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), People smuggling boat returned to Sri Lanka, media release, 17 August 2016. On 17 October 2016, these figures were confirmed  in Senate Estimates (a total of 740 people from 29 vessels had been returned to their country of departure since December 2013).
  • ‘In the past 1000 days, Operation Sovereign Borders has intercepted and returned 30 people smuggling boats and more than 765 people’—P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), 1000 days of strong and secure borders, media release, 23 April 2017.

Sources:

2013–June 2017: Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Answers to Questions on Notice, Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio, Supplementary Budget Estimates 2017–18, Question SE17/204.

December 2013—July 2014: Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Immigration Portfolio, Supplementary Budget Estimates 2014–15, 20 October 2014, Suspected illegal entry ventures removed from Australian waters, Tabled document 6.

July 2014—February 2015: Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Official committee Hansard, 25 May 2015, op. cit.; Official committee Hansard, 23 February 2015, op. cit.; Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Answers to Questions on Notice, Immigration Portfolio, Additional Estimates 2014–15, Question AE15/175 and Question AE15/055, 23 February 2015; ministerial/departmental press releases; and media reports. 

March 2015—June 2018: M Turnbull (Prime Minister), doorstop interview transcript, Bungalow QLD, 23 June 2016 (confirmed that 21 people had been taken back to Vietnam in June 2016); P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), press conference transcript, Brisbane, 9 May 2016 (confirmed 12 people who had arrived near the Cocos Islands had been taken back to Sri Lanka on 6 May 2016); P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), People smuggling boat returned to Sri Lanka, media release, 17 August 2016;  and media reports. October 2016 update provided in Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Official committee Hansard, Immigration and Border Protection portfolio, Supplementary Budget Estimates 2016–17, 17 October 2016, p. 45 (it was confirmed that  the total of 29 boats included the interception of 4 vessels with 42 persons on board since the previous Senate Estimates hearings in May 2016). In an OSB March 2017 operational update it was confirmed that one vessel with 25 people on board had been intercepted and the passengers returned to Sri Lankan authorities. In Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, Answers to Questions on Notice, Home Affairs Portfolio, Additional Budget Estimates 2017–18 Question AE18/105, the Department of Home Affairs advised that since October 2017 (when information on turnbacks was last provided to the Committee) one vessel carrying 29 people had been intercepted, and returned to Sri Lanka on 14 December 2017.  The OSB June 2018 operational update stated that ‘the Australian Government turned back one attempted illegal maritime venture to their country of origin’. The number of people on board the vessel was not stated in the OSB update, but media reports in July refer to the boat as having had 10 people (seven passengers and three crew) on board (see R Viellaris, ‘Asylum voyage cut off’, Sunday Herald Sun, 15 July 2018). Minister Dutton confirmed in a press conference on 16 July 2018 that ‘We've turned back 33 boats containing over 800 people over the course of Operation Sovereign Borders’.

All links accessed on 17 July 2018.

 

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.


© Commonwealth of Australia

Creative commons logo

Creative Commons

With the exception of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, and to the extent that copyright subsists in a third party, this publication, its logo and front page design are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.

In essence, you are free to copy and communicate this work in its current form for all non-commercial purposes, as long as you attribute the work to the author and abide by the other licence terms. The work cannot be adapted or modified in any way. Content from this publication should be attributed in the following way: Author(s), Title of publication, Series Name and No, Publisher, Date.

To the extent that copyright subsists in third party quotes it remains with the original owner and permission may be required to reuse the material.

Inquiries regarding the licence and any use of the publication are welcome to webmanager@aph.gov.au.

Disclaimer: Bills Digests are prepared to support the work of the Australian Parliament. They are produced under time and resource constraints and aim to be available in time for debate in the Chambers. The views expressed in Bills Digests do not reflect an official position of the Australian Parliamentary Library, nor do they constitute professional legal opinion. Bills Digests reflect the relevant legislation as introduced and do not canvass subsequent amendments or developments. Other sources should be consulted to determine the official status of the Bill.

Any concerns or complaints should be directed to the Parliamentary Librarian. Parliamentary Library staff are available to discuss the contents of publications with Senators and Members and their staff. To access this service, clients may contact the author or the Library‘s Central Enquiry Point for referral.

Top