CANBERRA, Australia – No asylum seeker has reached Australia by boat in more than three weeks, but the army general charged with ending the sea traffic of would-be refugees from Southeast Asia said Wednesday he was not yet prepared to declare victory.
The government won elections in September last year with a promise to stop people smugglers from sending asylum seekers to Australian shores in rickety boats, mostly from Indonesian ports.
Indonesians have complained that the government's promise to turn back boats carrying asylum seekers from countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka is a breach of its national sovereignty.
Lt. Gen. Angus Campbell, who as commander of Operation Sovereign Borders oversees Australia's efforts to stop the boats, said he would wait until the end of the current monsoon season in northern Australia in late March before judging the campaign.
Asylum seeker traffic typically slows during the monsoon season because of the rough seas it brings.
"I'm just going to wait until March," Campbell told reporters. "I'm patient, determined. We're going to do everything we possibly can to deter and ultimately stop maritime people smuggling."
Human rights groups and political opponents have criticized the government over the secrecy of its border security operations and its policy of sending boat arrivals to Pacific Island detention centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
The government last week refused to comment on a newspaper report that Australia was buying lifeboats to carry asylum seekers back to Indonesian islands.
Fairfax Media newspaper reported Australia was buying 16 engine-powered and enclosed lifeboats — similar to those carried by cruise ships and oil tankers — for border protection boats to carry as an alternative to rescuing asylum seekers found in unseaworthy vessels,
Crews on boats smuggling people often resort to sabotaging engines or sinking their vessels to avoid their ships being turned back to Indonesia by Australian border protection crews.
Campbell on Wednesday confirmed that lifeboats had been bought, but declined to say what they would be used for.
"We've acquired them to be part of the range of measures at play" to stop the boats, he said.