Thursday, October 12, 2017

Australian Rules Asylum

Australia was one of the first countries to sign the 1951 UN refugee convention – and it welcomed the so-called “boat people” fleeing South Vietnam in 1976. But the course of its immigration policy changed abruptly in 2001.  The then prime minister John Howard saw a political opening and introduced the Border Protection Bill.  Tthe people coming in boats were labelled as “illegal”, rather than as asylum seekers with rights granted by the UN convention, conditioning the public to see them as criminal (and perhaps Islamic terrorists to boot), deserving of detention and punishment. The language was deliberate. If all asylum seekers are illegal, and hence criminals, then draconian policies are easier to justify. If it’s a “war” against people smugglers, then military deployments are acceptable, as is the rhetoric of national security threats.  Signatories to the UN refugee convention are obliged to assess the claims of asylum seekers reaching their shores. Australians obsessed with rules and fairness, and the queue-jumping argument resonates perfectly with a population primed to think in terms of orderly regulations, most of whom have never faced state-sponsored violence or war crimes. By this logic, whether or not you have had your hand chopped off doesn’t matter if you broke the “rules” to get to Australia.

Australia’s immigration policy has become a beacon for Europe’s far right. From France to Holland and Denmark, politicians point to the Australian model as the solution for Europe’s refugee crisis, and they are not talking about the points system that Australia uses to determine the educational and skill levels of potential immigrants. The real attraction is offshoring.

Rather than assess the asylum claims of people arriving by boat or rescuing them at sea, the Australian navy intercepts asylum seekers, towing them back or putting them into small sealed pods and sending them off in the direction of Indonesia. Those who reach Australian territory are sent to detention camps on Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Both camps are paid for by the Australian government and run by private contractors. The inmates can claim asylum there – but not in Australia – while they remain in miserable conditions of confinement designed to deter others from attempting the same journey. If people seeking asylum are never allowed to reach Australian shores, so the logic goes, they will never have a legitimate claim to refugee status in the country or access to its legal protections and welfare benefits. For far-right leaders promising to stop the hordes from storming Europe, the model has undeniable appeal.  Australia’s appeal is that it is an advanced western democracy that has managed to morally and legally outsource the processing and resettlement of refugees to poor island nations in the Pacific, where they are warehoused far from the prying eyes of the media and a population that might show them sympathy.

According to former prime minister, Tony Abbott, his government’s harsh measures – forcibly turning around refugee boats to prevent them landing, and sending asylum seekers to detention camps on remote Pacific islands – had ended the arrival of unwanted migrants in Australia. Whether those turned away died in another country’s waters or back in the countries they initially fled did not figure in his equation. By removing images of boats capsizing off Australia’s shores from local television and ensuring that more migrants seeking asylum did not arrive in the country, his work was done. Nor was he bothered by the fact that the offshore camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea were still operating, at a cost of billions of dollars. Nigel Farage called Abbott “heroic”.

Søren Espersen, the deputy leader of the nativist Danish People’s party, which became the country’s second largest party in 2015, has a very clear vision of how Denmark – and the rest of Europe – could implement the Australian model. “Tell them from the beginning … You have no future in Denmark.” It must be clear that “we don’t want to integrate them”.  To mimic Australia, they propose funding and staffing “Danish-driven refugee camps where they will be provided for, but the idea is that they should return”

Those politicians who demand what Bolkestein calls “nasty measures” and justify such policies by claiming that “The better we treat them, the more they come,”  defend them by resorting tothe spectre of an imminent civilisational threat. Rather than dealing with the migrant problem as a logistics issue they seek to foment fear by alleging European culture is endangered. They manufacture alarm that European civilisation itself might be destroyed by Muslim "invaders". The image of the brown-skinned hordes masses swamping the west has been conveniently taken up by the anti-Muslim right to encourage not merely islamophobia but xenophobia in general. The far right’s goal is to make European social benefits the exclusive property of native-born citizens, a hard-earned jackpot to be protected from the grasping hands of supposedly undeserving new arrivals.

The appeal of the Australian model for the European far right is not about “managing” migrants but the absolute commitment to keeping refugees out at all costs – defending the nation from them. The policy prescription is a simple one: turn boats back, deny entry at borders and build camps abroad. Force would be necessary.  And a lot of money. Between 2013 and 2016, the Australian government spent around A$9.6bn (£5.6bn) on intercepting migrant boats, transporting asylum seekers, and paying foreign governments to detain them overseas, thus absolving Australia of legal responsibility for their living conditions and of any obligation to grant them refugee status in Australia if their asylum claim is found to be genuine. The total cost is approximately A$400,000 (£236,000) per detained asylum seeker per year. 

 If they are intercepted by the Australian Navy and sent to a third country Australia has no further obligation to process them. After people are sent off shore, Australia wipes its hands and claims that because no one is shooting or torturing them, it has committed no sin. But the local islanders are not thrilled about their arrival. In February 2014, Reza Barati, a 23-year-old Iranian detainee, was killed during a riot when on Manus Island and local residents and police stormed the facility. An Australian-style solution to Europe’s crisis can be seen taking shape in the form of EU deals with Turkey to send back migrants arriving in Greece, and a more aggressive form of offshoring could be on the horizon. Italy is trying to make a similar deal with Libya, or, at least one of the factions that are engaged in a civil war in that divided country.  Libyan militias are already using force to stop European NGOs from rescuing stranded migrants at sea, often with Italian help. The EU has declared it a goal to “significantly reduce migratory flows by enabling the Libyan coast guard to ‘rescue’ a higher number of migrants and bring them back to Libya before they reach EU ships or EU territory”, a euphemism for what the policy analyst Mattia Toaldo calls “lightly concealed outsourcing” of Europe’s efforts to force people back to where they came from.

Migrants have become “a commodity to be captured, sold, traded and leveraged … they are hunted down by militias loyal to Libya’s UN-backed government, caged in overcrowded prisons, and sold on open markets”, as the journalist Peter Tinti has documented. Rape and torture are commonplace and sometimes streamed live online to pressure families into paying ransoms. Those who are not auctioned off or abused for ransom are often detained indefinitely in horrendous conditions at the mercy of crime syndicates and militias who sometimes “rent” detainees as indentured servants or sell them to smugglers. As with Australia and its offshore centres, what happens in Libya stays in Libya while Europe washes its hands of responsibility.

Whereas Australia turned back boats at sea, the EU is paying African nations to intercept migrants on land and send them home or detain them indefinitely in dangerous places. It has paid Niger huge sums and pledged more than $600m – including military training and equipment – to shut down smuggling routes. The copy-cat model is a dead end that will only end up funneling money to unsavoury and often criminal groups in Africa – and it is unlikely to keep migrants away the next time a major military or environmental crisis arises.

Far-right leaders in Europe rarely point to Canada as n alternative for their desired immigration policies. Canada has a highly regulated immigration system focused on skills and education and a limited number of refugee resettlement cases per year. But its policies, unlike Australia’s, have not been driven by a post-9/11 public panic about Islam, and its leading politicians have rarely stoked such sentiments for political advantage. It may have faults and flaws but it is not based on fear and hate.

Adapted and abridged from

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