Chapter 2 - Operation Relex
‘The safety of ADF personnel and the wellbeing of the
unauthorised boat arrivals and the Indonesian crew members is to be held
paramount’. That is an extant direction that overrides everything. We are
talking about people coming to Australia
illegally. It is not World War III.
‘Was this a new style of operation for the Navy?’ the answer is
yes. We had not done this style of operation before.
With the Government’s adoption
of a more assertive posture towards preventing both asylum seekers and people
smugglers from entering Australian waters, came a new role for the Australian
Since 1988, the ADF has
supported the activities of Coastwatch and the Department of Immigration and
Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs in ‘national surveillance’. This work, according to Maritime
Commander, Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith, has been
carried out under the auspices of Operation Cranberry and, in relation to
matters such as illegal fishing and other Customs support, continues still.
Since 3 September 2001, however, in the area of unauthorised boat arrivals the ADF has
become the ‘lead’ rather than a supporting agency. It has designated its
corresponding operation, Operation Relex.
This chapter provides an
outline of Operation Relex: its aim, operational arrangements, and an overview
of its interception activities from the arrival of Suspected Illegal Entry
Vessel (SIEV) 1 on 7 September 2001 to the arrival
of the last illegal entry vessel, SIEV 12, on 16 December 2001.
Operation Relex’s strategic aim
was an extension of the Government’s new border protection policy: to prevent, in the first instance, the
incursion of unauthorised vessels into Australian waters such that, ultimately,
people smugglers and asylum seekers would be deterred from attempting to use Australia
as a destination.
Rear Admiral Chris Ritchie,
Commander Australian Theatre (COMAST), described the nature and scope of
Operation Relex as follows:
The mission statement, for example, was to conduct surveillance
and response operations in order to deter unauthorised boat arrivals from
entering Australian territorial waters within the designated area of
operations. The area of operations was quite expansive – it encompassed Christmas
Island at the one end and Ashmore at the other.
As an operation aimed at
preventing unauthorised vessels from crossing into Australia’s
so-called ‘contiguous zone’, Relex was fundamentally a forward deterrence
strategy. This marked a shift in border protection strategy and the nature of
previous operations, away from the more reactive posture associated with
Operation Cranberry that sought to detect and intercept unauthorised boats inside Australian waters and escort them
to Australian ports.
The ‘primary mission’ of
deterrence was constrained, in operational terms, by the overriding obligation
to ensure the safety of all persons that became involved in Royal Australian
Navy (RAN) encounters with SIEVs. Both Rear Admirals Ritchie and Smith
emphasised this aspect of Relex operations to the Committee. Rear Admiral Smith indicated that ensuring the personal safety of all involved was
inherent in his operational orders:
My orders and instructions stressed the overarching requirement
for commanding officers of RAN ships to take every reasonable means to achieve
the mission without needlessly risking the safety and wellbeing of their ships’
companies, their vessels and the lives of the unauthorised arrivals on board
Similarly, Rear Admiral Ritchie cited a relevant part of the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) directive
to him on Operation Relex:
In the notion of returning the vessels to Indonesia
or the place whence they came, the uppermost issue was always:
safety of ADF personnel and the wellbeing of the unauthorised boat arrivals and
Indonesian crew members is to be held paramount.
That is an extant direction that overrides everything. 
As an ‘extant direction’, the
directive to ensure safety of life at sea is contained in the Maritime
Commander’s Orders that cover all RAN commanding officers. These orders reflect relevant
provisions in both international agreements and Australian law. Two
international covenants – the 1974
International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention – impose
obligations on ‘mariners to assist other mariners in distress’. The Commonwealth Navigation Act 1912 contains the provisions of both these
The Committee is satisfied
that, in fact, the Royal Australian Navy’s commitment to meeting the
humanitarian needs of those on board the intercepted vessels went well beyond
the fulfilment of safety of life at sea obligations. Rear Admiral Smith advised the Committee that:
Standard practice throughout the operation was to provide a
safe, clean and secure environment, sufficient food, water, personal items,
bedding and shelter and, where possible, alleviate the cramped and overcrowded
conditions that prevailed.
Deployed medical and dental staff provided a range of ongoing
health services during Operation Relex, including emergency assessments,
treatment, health screening and clinics during the boarding, containment and
transportation operations. For example, during transportation of unauthorised
arrivals on board Manoora and Tobruk the ships’ companies went to
great lengths, despite the difficult and trying circumstances, to provide fresh
clothing and laundering services, toiletries, toys, videos and games, and to
prepare halal meals and national dishes. Saltwater showers were rigged along with
squatting stands in toilets to accommodate cultural differences. Whenever the
ship’s program allowed, exercise periods on the upper decks were scheduled.
Where necessary, the RAN was
also equipped to supply things such as nappies, babies’ bottles and formula.
In addition to its provision of
material assistance, the Committee learnt that the RAN was clearly committed to
ensuring that the attitude of its personnel towards the unauthorised arrivals
was professional and humane. Testifying to the attitude of his crew during the
rescue of passengers from the sinking SIEV 4, for example, Commander Norman Banks said that:
I was particularly proud of ... the ship’s company when this
situation developed into a humanitarian assistance task - of how they performed
a miracle and they went about their business in a very humane and compassionate
way and everyone chipped in and lent a helping hand, beyond their
specialisation and their training and their category, and just got on with the
job. It was some time later, when it had all stablised, that we noted that
nobody had whinged about the fact that they had not had a meal - this is the
ship’s company - that they had not had a break. They had just got on with it.
The Committee was both
impressed and heartened by the seriousness with which the officers and sailors
of the Royal Australian Navy treated the humanitarian and personal needs of
those they encountered on the vessels entering Australia illegally, under what
were, for all concerned, very difficult circumstances.
Establishment and Operational
As noted earlier, Relex formed
the operational component or ‘working end’ of the new whole-of-government
response to the issue of unauthorised boat arrivals post-Tampa. As such, the basis for Relex lay in the raft of legislative
and policy changes and measures that the Government enacted in late August and
The shape of the operation
itself was developed within the Australian Defence Force, following a ‘CDF
warning order’ dated 28 August 2001. Thus the original military order to
start planning Relex arose immediately around the time of the Tampa crisis which started on 26 August.
The warning order directed the
ADF to ‘provide a maritime patrol and response option to detect, intercept and
warn vessels carrying unauthorised arrivals for the purpose of deterring SIEVs
from entering Australian territorial waters’.
The CDF’s order went to Rear Admiral Ritchie, who as Commander Australian Theatre had responsibility for the
‘planning and conduct’ of all ADF operations. Under Rear Admiral Ritchie’s
command, Australian Theatre Headquarters developed the ‘broad concept’ for the
operation – ‘the way in which we would do this particular business’ – and the Naval Component Commander,
Rear Admiral Smith, started the detailed planning for the operation in ‘late
Since Relex involved mainly
naval forces, Rear Admiral Smith (who was
also Maritime Commander) was assigned direct command of the operation.
The development of the
operational concept and strategy also required a new set of rules of engagement
(ROE) to be tailored to fit the requirements of the enhanced border protection
policy and anticipated behaviour of those on the SIEVs. These rules concerned
the ‘specific levels of force that you can use’ in this type of operation, that is,
the degree of non-lethal force permitted for different levels of confrontation.
On 1 September 2001, the Minister for Defence, Mr Reith, approved
the ROE for the Operation, and the Prime Minister’s ‘concurrence’ was sought on
2 September. Operation Relex started
at midnight 3
In what follows, the Committee
briefly outlines the structural and operational framework within which
individual interceptions under Operation Relex were effected and managed. That
force deployment and intelligence;
public affairs plan; and
standard operating procedures.
Command structure – the chain
Command and control of
Operation Relex was based on the established chain of command within the ADF.
The Chief of Defence Force, Admiral Barrie, sat at
the top of this structure and delegated command for the operation down through
the ADF hierarchy.
The chain of command for
Operation Relex was explained to the Committee by the Chief of Navy (CN), Vice Admiral Shackleton:
For Operation Relex, Brigadier Silverstone [Commander Northern
Command] was also designated as the Commander of Joint Task Force 639 (CJTF
639). In this role, he had tactical command of units assigned to him and he was
responsible to the Naval Component Commander, Rear Admiral Smith,
who himself had been designated as the lead component commander for this
operation. In turn, he was responsible to COMAST [Commander Australian Theatre]
and thence to CDF. At the time of the SIEV4 incident, Adelaide was
under the tactical command of CJTF 639.
Vice Admiral Shackleton
summarised these arrangements thus:
In summary, the operational chain of command for Adelaide for
Operation Relex was to CJTF 639, to the Naval Component Commander, to COMAST
and to CDF. Or put alternatively, it was Banks to Silverstone to Smith to
Ritchie and then to Barrie.
This system is flexible and it works.
While the chain of the command
is the traditional framework for ADF operations, the arrangements for Operation
Relex also involved two important features.
The first was placing ‘tactical
control of the operation’ in the hands of Commander Northern Command (NORCOM),
Brigadier Silverstone, who as a result became Commander Joint Taskforce 639.
This represented a ‘new operational concept’, according to Brigadier
Silverstone, who also noted that Operation Relex was the first time that the
Maritime Commander had put a major fleet unit such as a frigate under NORCOM’s
Between them, Rear Admiral Smith and Brigadier Silverstone (that is, the Naval Component Commander
and the Joint Taskforce Commander) made the daily operational decisions.
Together they would review the current situation, agree upon ‘where the
priority of effort would be’ and then Brigadier Silverstone would relay orders
to the unit commanders. Brigadier
Silverstone would issue updated orders during the day if new information was
received, such as the sighting of a SIEV, whereupon a unit would be ordered to
intercept or sail to the zone where the vessel was expected.
The second noteworthy element
of Operation Relex was the ongoing flow of directives from the Government on
operational decisions. While the ADF’s basic mission for Relex was set, a
number of decisions were made as the operation unfolded and the Government
decided on the course of action to be taken at certain points.
Some of these were about
relatively minor issues such as the warnings that the Navy should issue to
SIEVs to get them to turn away from entering Australian waters. More important
matters included the Government’s directive on 12 October authorising the Navy
to escort or ‘tow-back’ SIEVs from the Australian contiguous zone to the edge
of Indonesian waters.
This ‘micro-management’ from Canberra reflected,
as Brigadier Silverstone observed, the fact that Operation Relex was ‘occurring
in a very fluid policy environment’,
with ‘a very high degree of interagency coordination’.
Force deployment and
Operation Relex involved a
significant increase in not only the scope but also the scale of Australian
border protection operations and particularly the nature of the assets
deployed. As Rear Admiral Smith stated to
Operation Relex required the establishment of an enhanced and
continuous presence and response capability by the Australian Defence Force
deep offshore to in effect establish a barrier between Christmas
Island and Ashmore Island.
Larger and more capable surface combatant vessels were therefore required in
order to effectively intercept, warn and, if necessary, board in an attempt to
turn away the SIEVs to a position just outside the Australian contiguous zone.
The Director General,
Coastwatch, Rear Admiral Mark Bonser, informed the Committee that prior to
Operation Relex, RAN Fremantle class patrol boats and Royal Australian Airforce
(RAAF) PC-3 Orion aircraft had supported vessels from Coastwatch and the
Customs National Marine Unit in undertaking ‘civil maritime surveillance and
Under Relex, the RAN’s major
fleet units – frigates, amphibious ships and auxiliaries – played a lead role
in interception and boarding operations. The Committee was advised by Defence
that a total of 25 RAN vessels have been involved in Operations Relex and
Cranberry since August 2001, in addition to Customs and Coastwatch craft.
In addition, three Transit
Security Elements (TSEs), each comprising 52 Army soldiers, were deployed to
assist RAN personnel. The role of the TSE was to maintain security on vessels,
once a SIEV was boarded by naval personnel or when asylum seekers and SIEV
crews were transferred to Navy ships.
Each ship involved in the Operation also had at least one medical officer
embarked upon it. Rear Admiral Smith noted that
these extra medical personnel were drawn largely from the naval reserve.
As the lead agency, the ADF
assumed responsibility for patrolling the major area of operations. This area
stretches east-west from Gove to Christmas
Island and south to Port Hedland.
Coastwatch redeployed its patrol craft from Christmas
Island to concentrate on supporting
Defence in the Timor and Arafura Sea approaches to Australian waters.
A ‘layered surveillance’
operation supported the Navy’s interdiction effort. This involved two RAAF P-3
Orions flying out of bases in Darwin
and Learmonth in Western
Australia, Navy helicopters
based on RAN vessels and Coastwatch aircraft. The surveillance effort was
‘layered’ in that the P-3s provided long-range coverage close to Indonesia
while the Navy’s ships were stationed closer to Christmas Island and Ashmore
Reef ‘where’, according to Rear Admiral Smith, ‘we felt them best positioned to
maximise our chances of interception’.
Aerial surveillance extended to
24 nautical miles out from the territorial ‘baseline’ for the Indonesian
archipelago. A 12 nautical mile buffer zone outside the Indonesian boundary was
maintained to limit the risk of RAAF planes straying inadvertently into
‘Sitting behind’ both
operations and surveillance was an extensive inter-agency intelligence
capability. Reflecting the whole-of-government nature of the border protection
strategy, the agencies involved in the gathering, analysis and distribution
DIMIA as the lead coordinating agency;
Australian Federal Police (AFP);
Australian Customs Service and Coastwatch;
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade;
Australian Security and Intelligence
Office of National Assessments (ONA); and
Office of Strategic Crime Assessments (OSCA).
Prior to Operation Relex, a
number of inter-departmental committees and other joint agency bodies had been
established to help coordinate the intelligence effort on unauthorised
arrivals. These included the:
Illegal Immigration Information Oversight
Committee (IOC), chaired by ONA;
Operational Coordination Committee, chaired by
the Joint AFP-DIMIA People Smuggling Strike
The intelligence used in Relex
came from a wide range of both onshore and offshore sources (ie. Australian and
overseas). Called ‘all source’ intelligence, it included both open source
material (ie. publicly available information) and official information sourced
from the agencies listed above. It
also involved ‘collateral information’ collected overseas, particularly in Indonesia,
by Australian agencies, their overseas partners and ‘human sources’.
Operational intelligence, from
surveillance flights or boarding parties, was also fed back into the
intelligence system. Signals intelligence contributed only rarely.
Within the ADF, the many streams
of intelligence were channelled through the Australian Theatre Joint
Intelligence Centre (ASTJIC). ASTJIC’s role is to provide operational level
information to ADF operations. For Relex, it coordinated incoming intelligence
from other government agencies and passed it to Rear Admiral Smith and Brigadier Silverstone, in addition to other regular
‘customers’. A ‘small analytical
team’ of between two and four analysts was established specifically to support
Relex operations. It worked seven
days a week on extended hours, from 0500 hours to 2100 hours and occasionally
later. ASTJIC also had an intelligence watch system running 24 hours a day to
pass on critical intelligence directly to operational commanders when required.
During the course of the operation,
responsibility for analysing intelligence shifted from ASTJIC to NORCOM, which
proved to have greater familiarity with people smuggling and illegal
immigration issues than other areas in Defence.
The intelligence arrangements
between Defence and other agencies for Operation Relex are discussed further in
Chapter 8, which deals with SIEV X.
Public affairs plan
The architecture surrounding
Operation Relex included a public affairs plan, which established both what
images could be collected and who could provide public information on Operation
Relex activities. The plan was unusual in that, according to Mr Brian Humphreys,
Director-General, Defence Communication Strategies, it was inconsistent with
the overarching Defence Organisational Communication Strategy.
The Committee heard evidence
from a number of witnesses indicating that the general Defence instructions in
relation to public affairs were considerably more restrictive under Minister Reith than they had been previously.
In particular, the general instructions required that the facts, policy and
content of draft media releases be cleared at one star level or equivalent in
Defence, with a subsequent clearance
by officers from the Public Affairs and Corporate Communication (PACC) area on
the ‘public affairs considerations’.
Where matters fell into the
category of ‘topical issues’ that might attract media interest, the
instructions required Defence personnel likely to speak on them in public
forums to notify PACC in advance. In turn, PACC was required to report to the
Minister’s office on any contact with Defence by the media on ‘sensitive
The public affairs plan for
Operation Relex was more restrictive again than these general instructions.
Mr Humphreys told the Committee
that he and his staff had drafted a proposed public affairs plan for Relex,
which provided for Ministers and the Prime Minister to make ‘strategic level
announcements’, with the ‘release of
operational detail’ to come ‘from a military or uniformed officer’. The draft plan proposed that there
be daily media briefings on the operation by both government and Defence
This plan, however, was
rejected by the staff of the Minister for Defence, in favour of one proposed by
the Minister’s media adviser, Mr Ross Hampton. The essential feature of that plan
was that all information about Operation Relex, whether strategic or
operational, was to be released by the Minister’s media adviser. Paragraph 14
of the plan states:
Teams will be resourced with digital imagery capability to allow
for send-back. It is imperative that all imagery, both digital video and
digital stills, is transmitted or relayed to the Directorate of Digital Media
at PACC for clearances. No imagery is to be released outside this system. All
comment and media response/inquiries is to be referred to MINDEF [Defence
Minister] Media Advisor, Mr Ross
Questioned about his
understanding of the reasons for that approach to public affairs in the case of
Operation Relex, Mr Humphreys offered two explanations:
first, he thought that ‘the guiding motivation
of Mr Hampton was to ensure that the minister’s office could see the
information before it was released and had an opportunity to decide which
information was released’;
second and relatedly, Mr Hampton wished to be
the ‘only point of information coming out from Defence’ because of his
responsibility for coordinating the release of information from Defence with
that released by ministerial staff from other portfolio areas.
The Committee notes that the strictly
centralised control of information through the Minister’s office during
Operation Relex meant that Defence was unable to put out even factual material
without transgressing the public affairs plan.
Significantly, the instruction that no
information concerning Operation Relex was to be released to the media by
Defence personnel was explicitly reinforced on the day after Minister Reith had been told by Air
Marshal Houston that no children were thrown overboard from SIEV 4. As Mr Humphreys said,
no public correction to information could be made unless the minister agreed to
those misrepresentations being corrected.
The Director of Media Liaison, Mr Tim Bloomfield,
further informed the Committee that, not only was no information to be released
by Defence unless through the Minister’s office, but that no imagery was to be
collected by the Public Affairs area. He said:
We were given direction that we were not to deploy ...
photographers or public affairs officers to Operation Relex to the point where
at the very beginning we had sent a military public affairs officer to
Christmas Island for the Tampa and we
were directed to return her immediately back to Australia - and we did.
The imagery that was collected
was taken by ADF personnel participating in the Operation. Mr Humphreys told
the Committee that Mr Hampton gave directions about what was to be collected by these personnel
in the following terms:
Essentially, we were told to concentrate on the ADF activities
at the time - so the work of ADF personnel in relation to Operation Relex,
first of all, as targets of opportunity for photographers. We were then given
instructions in regard to photographing SUNCs [suspected unauthorised
non-citizens] - or whatever the latest term is. We were certainly aware that
Immigration had concerns about identifying potential asylum seekers, so we got
some guidance on ensuring that there were no personalising or humanising images
taken of SUNCs.
Although Mr Humphreys said
that this direction was given in the context of not identifying the asylum seekers, he confirmed that the words
‘personalise’ and ‘humanise’ were both used.
Pressed on the point, he agreed with the proposition that ‘what we have is the
Minister for Defence saying in the immediate post-Tampa environment, ‘Don’t humanise the refugees’. The basic instruction, Mr Humphreys said,
was that no photographs of asylum seekers were to be taken at all. He noted that Mr Hampton informed
him that he was in daily discussion with ministerial officers from Immigration,
Foreign Affairs, and Attorney-General’s, and with the Prime Minister’s office
concerning public affairs handling of Operation Relex.
The Committee notes that their
refusal to give evidence to the inquiry meant that it was unable question
either Mr Hampton or Mr Reith or the Prime Minister’s Office about the basis
for the instruction that refugees were not to be ‘humanised’.
On the evidence available,
however, it seems to the Committee that the public affairs plan for Operation
Relex imposed upon the Department of Defence by the Minister’s Office had two
clear objectives. The first was to ensure that the Minister retained absolute
control over the facts which could and could not become public during the
Operation. The second was to ensure that no imagery that could conceivably
garner sympathy or cause misgivings about the aggressive new border protection
regime would find its way into the public domain.
Even before the ‘children
overboard’ story broke, then, the facts show there was a determination on the
part of the Minister and his office to manipulate information and imagery in
support of the government’s electoral objectives. Such preparedness to
manipulate the factual record would be abhorrent and inimical to good
governance at any time. That it occurred during the caretaker period of an
election campaign, in which issues relating to ‘border protection’ were
extremely significant, is inexcusable.
Standard operating procedures
Rear Admiral Smith explained
to the Committee that standard operating procedures were developed for the
Operation, but that these evolved both in response to policy changes from
government and in response to the reactions of the passengers and crew of the
The first stage involved the
detection and interception of the illegal entry vessels, through a combination
of air and sea surveillance. The
Navy had no authority to board these vessels in international waters. In the
first instance, then, warning messages were delivered to the masters of the
boats, advising them that ‘they were suspected of having illegal people on
board and that they should not take the people to Australia
because they were not welcome’.
According to testimony received
by the Committee, one of the tactics adopted by the ‘people smugglers’ and
their passengers was to generate ‘safety of life at sea’ or SOLAS situations by
sabotaging their boats or jumping overboard. In such a manner, they hoped to
compel the Navy to rescue them and take them to Australia.
In order to counter such
tactics, the Navy’s standard procedure was to keep their large frigates ‘over
the horizon’ and out of sight, and send forward the ‘fast RHIBs [rigid hulled
inflatable boats] - what we call a long range insertion’. The RHIBs carried the warning
messages, which included notification of the penalties under Australian law for
people smuggling, and which were provided in English and Bahasa.
As Rear Admiral Smith noted,
however, these messages were ignored ‘[a]lmost without exception’, calling forth the next phase of the
interception procedure once the vessel entered Australia’s contiguous zone, 24
nautical miles out from Christmas Island.
In the early stages of
Operation Relex, the Rear Admiral said, as the vessels approached the
contiguous zone, the Navy sought permission to board them ‘from Canberra
through the IDC process’. From that point:
Our policy then was to reinforce the warning and turn the vessel
around and either steam it out of our contiguous zone ourselves under its own
power or - as had happened on a number of occasions - if the engine had been
sabotaged in our process or boarding, we would then tow the vessel outside our
contiguous zone into international waters. At that point, our boarding party
withdrew as we had no jurisdiction in international waters. Our initial policy
was to do that up to three times and, after having done it the third time, to
seek further advice from government with the view to those vessels then being
taken to Ashmore Island or to Christmas Island. But that was a government
decision through the IDC process.
Rear Admiral Smith noted that
the requirement for government approval to board vessels was ‘relaxed as the
operation unfolded’. Nevertheless:
once we had intercepted, everything that occurred after that in
terms of major decisions - such as boarding, removal of people or whatever it
happened to be - actually came from Canberra.
The Committee asked Rear Admiral Smith whether the government’s instructions to the Navy in relation to
the interception of vessels contained provisions for handling any claims made
by those on board to refugee status. He replied:
It had no relevance for us. Our mission was clear - that is, to
intercept and then to carry out whatever direction we were given subsequent to
that. The status of these people was irrelevant to us ... Claims from the UAs
[unauthorised arrivals] were not factors to be taken into account in terms of
how we conducted that mission.
Following the RAN’s experience
with SIEVs 1-4, their instructions were altered. Rear Admiral Smith stated:
From the commencement of Operation Relex on 3 September, the
initial policy that we were given to implement was to intercept, board and hold
the UAs [unauthorised arrivals] for shipment in sea transport - or air
transport, but primarily sea transport - to a country to be designated. With
SIEV 5, we received new instructions which were to, where possible, intercept,
board and return the vessel to Indonesia.
As part of that new policy, the
requirement to issue a warning to vessels in international waters was cancelled.
This allowed ‘surface units to remain out of visual range of the SIEV ... to give
unauthorised arrivals and SIEV crews minimal time to sabotage their vessels’
and thus minimise the chances of a safety of life at sea incident.
With the removal of the requirement
to issue warnings in international waters, ADF personnel needed to board each
vessel only once, when the SIEV had entered the Australian contiguous zone.
The Committee notes, finally,
that it followed from the Government’s directive to Navy about preventing
asylum seekers from entering Australian territory, that they could not be
embarked upon Australian naval vessels unless absolutely necessary. In terms of
standard operating procedures, this requirement meant that the unauthorised
arrivals were to be kept aboard their own vessels as long as they were even
‘marginally seaworthy’. In the
next chapter, the Committee will discuss the extent to which this requirement
may have unnecessarily endangered the lives of the passengers on SIEV 4, and
may have involved naval personnel in a game of brinkmanship over the imminence
of a safety of life at sea situation.
Overview of Operation Relex
In total, twelve Suspected
Illegal Entry Vessels were intercepted by the RAN under the auspices of
Operation Relex. As noted earlier,
SIEV 1 arrived on 7 September 2001 and the
last illegal entry vessel, SIEV 12, arrived on 16 December 2001.
SIEVs 5, 7, 11 and 12 were
escorted back to Indonesia. SIEVs 4, 6 and 10 sank at some point during the interception or tow-back
process. Their passengers were rescued, with the loss of two lives on SIEV 10,
and transported in the first instance to Christmas
Island. The passengers from SIEV 4 were
eventually taken to Manus for processing, and the passengers from SIEVs 6 and 10
to Nauru. The remaining vessels were intercepted, their passengers held in
custody and then transported for processing.
Naval officers emphasised in
their testimony that Operation Relex was a new and difficult type of operation,
which was undertaken with minimum time for preparation and training. Rear Admiral Smith told the Committee that:
When Relex was commenced, the ships that were initially
committed to Operation Relex were in fact in South-East Asia
participating in a number of activities in that area. They were brought back
and thrown straight into the patrol line. We were expecting that there could be
activity that would not be the sorts of things that our boarding parties would
be used to encountering, so we developed quickly a training package. A number
of members of what we call our ‘sea training group’, which is a group that
works for me that does all our operational training, were deployed to the ships
where they were in theatre. They conducted training on the spot to try to
prepare the boarding parties for what could eventuate out of this particular
activity. We have been able to do subsequent rotations of vessels into
Operation Relex in a more considered way and have prepared them before they
have deployed by providing them appropriate training.
A particularly difficult
feature of the Operation for both unauthorised arrivals and naval personnel, it
seemed to the Committee, was the length of time that some of the SIEVs and
their passengers were detained in custody while decisions were being made about
where to take them, or while appropriate transport arrangements were made.
For example, SIEV 3 was
intercepted on 12 September near Ashmore Island with
129 people on board. They included 54 children and a heavily pregnant woman,
who subsequently gave birth while being transported to Nauru by
HMAS Tobruk. These people were held in custody on
their crowded vessel in Ashmore Lagoon for ten days, until 22 September before
being transferred to the Tobruk. Rear Admiral Smith told the Committee that:
That was a constraint under which we operated: that there was a
requirement for them to remain in location there for that period of time. We
were very conscious of our responsibilities to these people in providing them
with humanitarian assistance and we did everything within our power to be able
to make life as comfortable for them as was possible.
This assistance, the Committee
learnt, included logistical feats such as preparing meals on naval vessels for
up to 200 people and then ferrying them across to the detained SIEVs using the
Operation Relex, however, was
not only new in the sense that the actual tasks and logistics involved were
different to those required under Operation Cranberry. It was new also in the
sense that it helped to create a very different environment in which those
tasks had to be performed.
In other words, as Rear Admiral Smith put it, previously the Navy’s role had been to escort unauthorised
arrivals to an Australian port for reception and processing by relevant
agencies. Under these circumstances, the individuals ‘were invariably
cooperative and compliant, with Navy boarding parties able to operate in a
relatively benign environment’.
When under Operation Relex, however, ‘their apparent aim of being taken to
Australia was frustrated by the Navy’s intervention’, then ‘[n]umerous
instances of threatened or actual violent actions against Australian Defence
Force personnel occurred, as well as various acts of threatened or actual self
harm and the inciting of violence’.
The Rear Admiral commented:
Australian Defence Force personnel had not previously
encountered these circumstances during non-warlike operations. They were
extremely hazardous and volatile situations. What was a law enforcement
activity had real potential to rapidly escalate into a violent situation or
just as quickly deteriorate into a major safety or preservation of life
situation or, worse, both.
Rear Admiral Smith drew a
clear link between the changed behaviour exhibited by the unauthorised arrivals
and the change in the Australian government policy. He said:
It is certainly fair to say that the change in the behaviour
pattern of these people is directly linked to the change in the attitude of the
Navy, generated by the policy that was implemented.
Vice Admiral Shackleton, Chief
of Navy, noted that the unauthorised arrivals ‘were learning from each event
that they interacted or experienced with us and ... they were starting to
understand our approach to how we operated’.
This ‘learning’, according to naval witnesses, meant that those aboard later
boats seemed more prepared to counter the Navy’s tactics, and more aggressive
than earlier arrivals.
Officers spoke of a ‘pattern’
of behaviour exhibited by the asylum seekers over the period, which involved
acts and threats of self-harm and aggression, including threats to children,
sabotage of vessels and of equipment, jumping overboard and attempts to create
safety of life at sea situations.
The Chief of Navy summed up the
experience of Operation Relex thus:
This has been very hard work, and the sailors have acquitted
themselves in a way in which I think most Australians would be very proud of.
In my own sense, I cannot be any more proud of them than I am. The point is
that this has been very difficult. The people who are engaged in the SIEV -
that is, the people themselves - are in difficult circumstances. The point is
that they are trying to get to Australia.
It has been the Navy’s task to stop them doing that.
In the next chapter, the
Committee considers in detail events which occurred on one SIEV which was
intercepted during Operation Relex, and which became notorious as the so-called
‘children overboard’ incident.