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Could Australia’s “Stop The Boats” policy work in Europe?

If you are an asylum seeker on your way to Australia via boat, you can only be sure of one thing: that you will never be resettled in Australia. You may arrive in Australian waters to have your boat turned away or towed back to wherever you departed from, or you may be taken to a detention centre in an entirely different country, such as Nauru or Papua New Guinea, where Australia has struck a deal to have you processed offshore, ensuring you never live on Australian soil.

Australia’s Stop the Boats operation does exactly as its common name suggests. Known as one of the harshest border policies in the world, is it really the right model for the world’s home of human rights?

Five years ago, Australia faced a similar migration crisis to the one facing Europe now. Boatloads of people seeking asylum arrived regularly from Indonesia, where migrants from as far away as Afghanistan gathered in preparation for what they hoped would be the last part of their often months-long journey: a boat trip to Australia.

Although the numbers of migrants attempting to enter Australia never reached the number currently fleeing across the Mediterranean, migrant deaths were still frequent. As bodies washed up on Christmas Island in 2010, all parties agreed that something needed to be done.

Immigration policy has galvanised elections in Australia for years. In 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard commissioned a panel which recommended a series of policy reviews, including a structured pathway for migrants to reach Australia safely, via a stop off in Malaysia. In order to make this process smoother, the panel also recommended reopening detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru, and turning back boats in very specific circumstances.

However, it was mostly the asylum-deterring recommendations that were put into practice. And when Tony Abbott’s opposition party ran for election in 2013, they promised to further strengthen these deterrents. They were elected largely on the basis of the ‘Stop the Boats’ campaign.

After Abbott’s party’s election in September 2013, Australia introduced Operation Sovereign Borders. Human rights campaigners have rallied against the operation and its treatment of asylum seekers ever since. Facing allegations of child abuse in detention centres, and with Amnesty International calling the site in Nauru "a human rights catastrophe with no end in sight", the operation continues amongst widespread international criticism. 

Escaping persecution to end up in detention

The practice of mandatory detention means that people entering Australian waters who claim asylum will be automatically detained while security and health checks are taken. They will only be released when they are granted a visa, or return to their home country. This could happen through force (denial of a visa), but some choose to go home of their own free will. It’s easy to understand why returning to your persecutors is an attractive choice when you see the appalling living conditions in mandatory detention, and how long one might spend there: The Australian Human Rights Commissions reports that the average time a person will spend in mandatory detention is 350 days, but as of June last year, 168 people had been held for more than two years.

But these are only the figures for the nearly 4000 people held in detention in Australia. The majority of people claiming asylum are rather processed offshore, where the figures become the responsibility of the third country. This way, the Australian government can keep the latest numbers hush hush because these people no longer arrive on their soil, so the Australian public never has to know just how many desperate people are being turned back, or detained, perhaps indefinitely, elsewhere. 

Under Operation Sovereign Borders, asylum seekers arriving by boat are held in processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. A deal signed last September means that those granted refugee status (and therefore released from detention) in Nauru are eventually given permanent resettlement in Cambodia – but that’s not necessarily much better. Many human rights organisations (including the Australian Human Rights Commission) condemn this practice – of shirking international responsibility for people who are legally entitled to claim asylum, and sending them to other countries where the human rights record and living conditions are not of the same standard.

The Commission’s official statement is that: “Seeking asylum in Australia is not illegal. In fact, it is a basic human right. All people are entitled to protection of their human rights, including the right to seek asylum, regardless of how or where they arrive in Australia.”

And yet it continues. And it’s not only adults exposed – children arriving by boat are detained as well. In February the same Commissions’ Forgotten Children report was released, detailing child abuse in mandatory detention.

“It is the fact of detention, particularly the deprivation of liberty and the high numbers of mentally unwell adults, that is causing emotional and developmental disorders amongst children,” the report said. “Children are exposed to danger by their close confinement with adults who suffer high levels of mental illness. Thirty per cent of adults detained with children have moderate to severe mental illnesses.”

The report uncovered alarming figures: in a 15-month period, 300 children threatened or exhibited self-harm, 30 reported sexual assault, almost 30 went on hunger strike and more than 200 were somehow involved in instances of assault.

The majority of children kept in detention are in Australia, rather than offshore – the report indicated that many of these cases had even occurred on Australian soil.

Option for Europe?

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently told press that she had received “numerous requests” from European officials seeking advice on border protection policy during her visit to the continent in April – the month in which a record number of migrants died attempting to reach Europe by sea.

But While Tony Abbott outwardly recommended that Europe adopts its own Stop the Boats policy, Julie Bishop stopped just short of that, saying the geographic implications meant Australia’s strategies would not necessarily fit Europe, nor the larger number of people arriving by boat.

If Europe was to redirect migrants elsewhere, where could that be? Australia has generally targeted much poorer nations nearby who enjoy payoffs from the trade. Furthermore, could EU leaders really justify the huge investment in detention facilities offshore rather than focusing on domestic investment, settling willing and able migrant workers who could ease the economic pressure of an ageing workforce?

But those are merely practical concerns. The biggest question rests in morality: could Europe really cope with the shame?

In 2001, Australia refused entry to the Norwegian ship MV Tampa, carrying 438 asylum seekers, which resulted in a diplomatic dispute with Norway. The asylum seekers were mainly Hazara, fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, who had been rescued by the Tampa crew after their boat got into distress.

The Norwegian government condemned Australia’s refusal in the strongest terms, reporting them to the United Nations, as well as UNHCR and the International Maritime Organisation for failing to comply with their international legal obligations. After days at sea with many suffering dehydration, some dysentery, the majority of the migrants were eventually settled in Nauru and New Zealand after Australia immediately introduced harsher border protection laws in an obvious effort to keep these people out. Nauru or New Zealand – I know what I’d choose. This was the beginning of the ‘Pacific Solution': redirecting asylum seekers to other nearby nations.

Norway is not currently a member of the EU, but it does belong to Europe. The Norwegian reaction to this desperate situation was a clear indication that what Australia did (or didn’t do) was not good enough. Could they tolerate a similar response from their European neighbours? With a reputation for spreading democracy and human rights to the rest of the world, could Europe really do that to itself?

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It is not publicly known precisely what the island nations receive in exchange for accepting Australia’s unwanted asylum seekers. But it is increasingly clear just how far the leaders of these nations will go to keep the deals running smoothly.

In May the Nauruan government confirmed that it had blocked Facebook, a main source of information for locals about the asylum seekers detained on their island. In lieu of local press reports, which already tended to ignore the issue, asylum seekers had been using social media to report on their own living conditions. Now how would anyone hear them scream?