The military man at the head of the government’s stop-the-boats operation says the world does see Australia as generous to refugees.

The military commander of Australia’s people-smuggling crackdown, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, says he believes Australia is seen as reasonable and generous in its treatment of refugees.

Lt-Gen Campbell, the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, says Australia has accepted more than 800,000 refugees since World War II and continues to resettle displaced people.

“We are seen, I think, quite reasonably, as being a generous country in this regard and a consistently generous country,” he said in a speech in Sydney on Tuesday.

Lt-Gen Campbell said Australia was among the top three nations resettling refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

His defence of Australia’s record follows muted criticism from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, who earlier in June described Australia’s treatment of boat arrivals as “very strange”.

Mr Guterres commended Australia’s successful resettlement program but said “the problem is when we discuss boats and there, of course, we enter into a very, very, very dramatic thing,” Fairfax Media reported.

Lt-Gen Campbell, in an address to the Royal United Services Institute of NSW, said Operation Sovereign Borders had saved lives.

He reiterated Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s recent announcement that there had been no boat arrivals in Australia in six months.

“There have been no deaths at sea in that time – a period which otherwise potentially have seen up to 180 people who might otherwise drown if we were running from statistics of 2012-2013,” he said.

Lt-Gen Campbell said people smugglers were organised criminals who were alert to any change in Australia’s border protection policy.

“Any relaxation of our arrangements potentially opens up opportunity,” he said.

He also said 203 arrests had been made under Operation Sovereign Borders since it started nine months ago.

Lt-Gen Campbell has been reported as being the lead candidate to be Australia’s next chief of army.

Asked on Tuesday if it was appropriate for the military to have a role in policing refugee boat arrivals, he said that was not a matter for him.

“I think the question of appropriateness is something both for the government of the day, the parliament and the people, it’s not for me to comment,” he said.