Lifeboats and law of the sea

The Australian government is up to some pretty dodgy stuff when it comes to handling of asylum seeker boats coming from Indonesia and other countries. I’m not going to go into that mess as there are plenty of other places to find out about that in much more detail than I can offer.

I do however have a couple of questions that I can’t find answers for. One I’ve had ever since the Operation Sovereign Borders thing was announced, and one from recent announcements.

1. International waters

The Australian navy has been directed to perform a process where they intercept vessels coming from Indonesia (and other countries) that contain people coming to Australia in an attempt to claim asylum. My understanding is that these interceptions may happen quite frequently in international waters.

The government has stated for example that “these are Indonesian flagged boats, with Indonesian crews, coming from Indonesia” and as such they are justified in turning these boats back to Indonesia and denying them entry into Australian waters. On that basis alone they are possibly correct, but it’s a pretty strict interpretation of the law and doesn’t allow for any humanitarian decisions to be entered into.

My question though is are they legally allowed to do this? Although the ships “intent” may be to enter Australian waters, are we legally allowed to interfere with the free passage of that ship, that is flagged under another country, while it is in international waters?

2. Lifeboats

An new development is the purchase of lifeboats that will be used to place crew and asylum seekers on in the event their own ship is damaged or unable to return on it’s own. It has already been reported that this has been enacted at least once with the Navy “tricking” the people into the lifeboat and then directing them back to Indonesia.

In this case, my question is: Are lifeboats considered to be registered or flagged vessels? If so, are they flagged the same as the ship that was carrying them?

If they are not flagged, then the act of placing people on an unregistered vessel and sending it into the territory of another sovereign nation is surely frowned upon by international and maritime law.

If it is considered to be registered as an Australian vessel, then would that not mean that an Australian ship is illegally entering Indonesian waters without permission?  Not only that, but it is doing so under the direction, and facilitated by, the government of another country.

There are a lot of things about the asylum seeker debate that are lost in the fog of emotion, both for and against, but even putting that to one side for the moment, where does maritime and international law stand regarding the above?

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