SYDNEY - Serving and former Australian navy personnel have described the trauma of stopping asylum-seeker boats and pulling dead bodies from the water as the government ramps up its deterrence policy on migrants arriving by sea.
The sailors, some of whom have been discharged suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), told ABC television on Tuesday their health conditions were not treated seriously by commanders.
The men and women said the distress they suffered during the naval operations, which took place when the Labor party was in power from late 2006 to September 2013, was exacerbated by secrecy surrounding the country's border protection policies.
A serving navy officer, who was given the name "Michael" to protect his identity, told ABC how his ship was delayed by 15 hours from boarding an asylum-seeker boat, only to find out that it had sunk 13 hours earlier.
"All we found was probably a line about 70 miles long of bodies," he told the national broadcaster. "We fished them out for as long as we could, 'til we were full. And that wasn't uncommon."
Their insights came as Immigration Minister Scott Morrison sought to gain support Wednesday from the Senate for a bill widening the government's maritime powers.
The bill reflects the hardening attitudes Australian governments have taken against asylum-seekers attempting to enter the country by boat.
Only one boat has reached the Australian mainland since December, compared to almost daily arrivals previously under the Labor administration, when hundreds of people died en route.
Troy Norris, a sailor recently discharged for PTSD, spent 13 years intercepting and boarding asylum-seeker boats and said his commanding officer "showed no compassion at all for my situation" when reading his termination letter.
"And that's the kind a treatment I received. Getting rushed through because we were a liability."
In a statement Wednesday, Australia's chief of navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett acknowledged the "arduous" nature of border protection work and said a tailored mental health support programme had been set up for those involved.
"This programme includes regular screening and follow-up mental health support where required," Barrett said.
"I believe it is a first-class system that is part of a broader approach to mental health across the Australian Defence Force."
As part of the current conservative government's tough policies, several asylum-seeker boats approaching Australian waters have been turned back in a move it said would stop people from dying at sea while undertaking the treacherous journey.
The most recent case involved a people-smuggling boat carrying 38 Sri Lankans that was stopped north-west of the Cocos Islands two weeks ago as it made its way to Australia.