Humanitarian concerns for refugees at sea

Via a series of cutting press statements over the past week, policy officials from the UNHCR and Australia’s Ministry of Immigration have inflamed an already controversial issue over permissible approaches toward asylum seekers at sea.

On Wednesday, the Australian Immigration Minister responded to recent criticism from a UNHCR regional representative regarding its “turn back policy” toward asylum seekers intercepted at sea. Australia is one of several countries employing a turn back policy, whereby the country uses its coast guard or other patrol to intercept boats carrying asylum seekers and subsequently return them to foreign soil for offshore processing. In addition to Australia, the United States and Italy are also known to practice a turn back policy in the waters of the Caribbean and Mediterranean, respectively.

Proponents defend the policy as necessary to ensure the safety of such asylum seekers, who are often sailing on rough waters in unreliable or overcrowded boats. Disasters like last year’s Lampedusa incident, where over 300 Eritrean asylum seekers drowned off the coast of Italy, add much credence to the argument. So do the over 1200 deaths at sea off the coast of Australia, a figure cited by Australia’s Immigration Minister in his response last week.

Others see an ulterior motive behind these turn back policies. Critics see these operations as attempts to circumvent the principle of non-refoulement as enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Non-refoulement is a longstanding principle and arguably a norm of international law that prohibits a country from expelling or returning refugees to a country or territory where they stand a threat of persecution. In practice, this requires the country to conduct a formal adjudication of the status of any asylum seeker who lands upon that country’s shores (some also argue that this protection extends to territorial waters). This process can be costly, contentious, and, where a legitimate persecution crisis exists, can lead to an influx of new asylees. For better or for worse, countries may consider all three as sufficient justifications for a turn back policy, even aside from the more often stated humanitarian justification.

This debate looks unlikely to be settled any time soon. RIJ takes no formal stance on the matter as a result of both our commitment to remaining politically neutral and the nature of the projects we fund, which help refugees rebuild their lives in new environs. All the same, we try to remain aware of developing issues and prepare for what effect it might have on our work.

You can read more about the row between Australia’s Ministry of Immigration and the UNHCR regional office in South East Asia here:,

and more about the Lampedusa incident here:


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