Australia hailed its controversial policy of turning back asylum seeker boats as a “success” on Thursday after 600 days with no vessels arriving and almost 700 people being repelled since the policy was launched.
"Tomorrow [Friday] marks 600 days since the last successful people-smuggling venture to our country and the governments absolutely determined to make sure that it stays that way," Australian Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, said in Canberra.
Twenty-five boats, carrying 698 people, had been turned back and "safely returned to their country of departure" since the start of "Operation Sovereign Borders" in September 2013 when the government came to power, Dutton added.
Under Australia's controversial immigration policy, asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat are intercepted and turned back to their country of departure or sent to remote Pacific island camps such as Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Asylum seekers can never resettle in Australia, even if they are found to be refugees in the policy, the conservative government has defended it as stopping deaths at sea.
Right groups’ criticised camp conditions as doctors and whistle-blowers said that the detention of asylum seekers, especially children, left some struggling with mental health problems.
Amnesty International called for an independent investigation into allegations that Australian authorities paid crew on a people-smuggling boat US$30,000 to return 65 asylum seekers to Indonesia.
The policy has fuelled tensions with Jakarta, which warned earlier this month, after six Bangladeshi refugees were turned back to the eastern Indonesian city of Kupang on a fishing boat, that such operations were potentially dangerous.
In February, a group of “potentially illegal immigrants” from Sri Lanka were sent back to the South Asian nation, the operation’s commander Major General Andrew Bottrell said at a press conference.
Bottrell stated that a further 57 people-smuggling activities were disrupted during this period, preventing 1,900 asylum seekers from trying to head to Australia, but did not give further information about where they were from.
"People smuggling networks have been severely degraded”, Bottrell said.
At least 1,200 people died while trying to reach Australia by boat between 2008 and 2013.
Dutton said that he was “very proud” that the number of children held in detention had dropped to just 29 and he was working to bring it down further.
Detention levels decreased when compared to a record number of about 2,000 children in June 2013.
However, allegations of rape and other abuse at the Nauru detention camp were raised at a parliamentary inquiry last year.
Living conditions at the camp were unsafe and put vulnerable women and children at “considerable” risk, a doctor who assessed inmates at the centre told the hearings.