Europe rejects the 'Australian Solution'


Migrants seeking refuge in Lampedusa

Following the drowning of around 800 people on 19 April, politicians in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Denmark have suggested that the European Union adopt our hardline asylum policy – the ‘Australian Solution’.

Europe is desperately searching for a solution to address the massive scale of irregular migration that has emerged as the fallout from war induced lawlessness in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has advised the EU that ‘only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats’.

Migration by boat from countries in the Middle East and North Africa is nothing new. Between 1998 and 2013, on average 44,000 people were smuggled into Europe across the Mediterranean. This figure leapt to almost 220,000 in 2014 and stands at around 40,000 thus far in 2015.

With the increase in numbers, comes an increase in deaths. More than 3000 people died crossing the Mediterranean in 2014, making up 65 per cent of migrant deaths at sea globally. The crisis is of such severity that a resolution is being drafted before the United Nations Security Council to address migration on the Mediterranean.

The ‘Australian Solution’ is being touted in Europe as an effective way to stop irregular migration across the Mediterranean. Australia’s asylum policy, Operation Sovereign Borders is implemented in three ways: boat turn-backs; offshore processing; and offshore resettlement.

On the back of these three pillars Australia has stopped the boats arriving and stopped deaths at sea. In 2013, 20,719 asylum seekers arrived by boat, while in 2014 that number dropped to 164. Between 2008 and 2013, approximately 862 people died trying to reach Australia’s mainland to seek asylum between 2008 and 2013. None died at sea in 2014.

Australia has received a barrage of criticism from human rights bodies for its asylum policy. In his maiden speech, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein said Australia's ‘policy of off-shore processing for asylum seekers arriving by sea, and interception and turning back of vessels, is leading to a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries.’  Other United Nations bodies, including UNHCR, UNICEF and Committee Against Torture have raised similar concerns.

Prime Minister Abbott was quick to recommend the Australian Solution to the EU, saying Australia and the EU were in ‘contact at official level’ on asylum policy. Mr Abbott went on to say that the policy is ‘an object lesson in how to do the right thing by everyone’.

Yet, the EU has turned its back on the Australian Solution. Last week, the Union denied it was in talks with Australia, saying ‘the Australian model can never be a model for us.’

There are two primary reasons for this rejection. Firstly, from a legal standpoint, European human rights law provides an extra layer of protection that does not exist in Australia. The European Court of Human Rights has consistently upheld the protection from returning a person to a place where they face a real risk of harm. Previously, Italy was found in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights for pushing back migrants to Libya under a deal with that Muammar Gaddafi.

The second reason is humanitarian. In Europe, three overlapping aims dominate discourse on how to deal with boats on the Mediterranean: saving lives at sea; protecting Europe’s borders; and combating people smuggling. While the current crisis has given rise to pressure to adopt a more securitised approach to irregular migration, including through the Australian model, the Union has thus far refused to back away from its international legal and humanitarian obligations.

Europe is at a crossroads on irregular migration, but the EU’s rejection of the ‘Australian Solution’ shows that even in a crisis, the human rights of asylum seekers matter.

Nik Tan

 Nikolas Feith Tan is a PhD fellow with the Danish Institute for Human Rights and Aarhus University, and an editor of Asylum Insight. He tweets @NDFTan.



Topic tags: Nikolas Feith Tan, asylum seekers, refugees, migration, Lampedusa, Europe, EU



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Existing comments

Is it truly "the EU’s rejection of the ‘Australian Solution’"? The largely metropolitan and internationalist leaders and Commission have rejected it. I wonder what a referendum would show to be the views of the *people* of the EU? Pew research suggests could be interesting PS I know, I know - it'd be a pointless waste of money. As the Irish found: "We are the EU: referendum is useless"

Neverwas | 15 May 2015  

Yes, only our cringeworthy Prime Minister would be foolish enough to be proud of Australia's "Pacific Solution". Many of us Australians are deeply ashamed of our government's stance and even worse, that Malaysia and Indonesia are now adopting the same policy. How anyone can ignore the cries of hungry and thirsty people in an overcrowded boat is beyond my comprehension. Preventable and tragic..

AshamedtobeAustralian | 15 May 2015  

"Tony Abbott has advised the EU that ‘only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats’."...... A far better way, though perhaps more difficult to negotiate, is to stop the NEED for the boats. The idea that 'Sovereign Nations' can do with impunity whatever they like with their citizens needs to be phased out as quickly as possible. The world is moving towards recognition that we are all inter-dependent, and that we need enforceable international laws that prevail over abusive treatment of any nations citizens. Possibly the greatest obstacle to this is the attitudes of religions and/or cultures that assume or demand supremacy for their 'ways' over other considerations.

Robert Liddy | 15 May 2015  

I would not underestimate the influence of our dear Pope Francis on the humane EU policy settings. God bless him. Australia should have gone with some variant of the Malaysia solution to hold people in safety until they could be rapidly processed and moved to safe homes in Australia and elsewhere; but this was killed off a cynical and populist Abbott (for votes) ,and the Green left. With Libya in turmoil Europe does not yet have such an option.

Eugene | 15 May 2015  

Do we in fact know if the deaths at sea have been stopped since the current government stopped the boats? Do we actually know what has happened to those whose boats have been turned back or to those placed in the orange lifeboats? As Australians we are not given any information. Do we care as long as the Government can say they are stopped?

Pat | 16 May 2015  

I totaslly agree with Nikolas. Australia's policy is inhumane and, in the long run,stupid.What enrages me is that the ALP has been so weak on this matter for so long.

Robert Glass | 17 May 2015  

It is terrible to always feel ashamed of our response, here in Australia towards the desperate plight of asylum seekers. We cannot keep on hearing about other human beings needing food and water and being constantly turned away. Can we not at least guarantee some a short time here to rest and be attended to We have so much here in comparison to these ppoor people. Can a special fund, just for temporary help and reassurance be given? We can all afford SOMETHING. We must not allow heartless politicians to constantly speak for us.

Mary Maraz

Mary Maraz | 17 May 2015  

"The only way to stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats". Stopping the boats may be the only way to stop the deaths at sea. The deaths are still happening on land, but, apparently, if it's not our land, we have no responsibility. "What, am I my brother's keeper"? Of course, that was Cain, not our PM.

Joan Seymour | 17 May 2015  

In rejecting the “Australian solution” the EC has failed to come up with one that will stem the death toll and the tide of human misery streaming across the Mediterranean to Europe. One can have far more sympathy for the desperate people fleeing the chaos of North Africa and Syria than the dubious asylum-seekers who were forcing their way into Australia from the early 2000s till 2014. But the question remains what is to be done about this dreadful situation. While human rights groups may pontificate about how morally superior the EC is to Australia because it has rejected the turning the boats back strategy they provide no answers. They clearly get a warm moral glow from such moralistic posturing in defence of asylum-seeker rights which encourage hundreds of thousands of refugees to risk their lives trying to reach Europe, with thousands drowning in the process. However, such HR groups (like their Australian counterparts) not only refuse to recognize the “body count” cost of their “open door” policies that call for all to be let in who make it to Lampadusa etc, but fail to come up with an alternative to turning the boats back. The more that succeed in entering Europe, the more will come, the more will drown and the greater the numbers of people that the EC countries will have to accommodate. And should these people be housed in refugee camps till countries can be found that will take them or what?

Dennis | 19 May 2015  

Not only is Australia's policy inhumane, it doesn't work. Now that we're hearing about all those asylum seekers adrift at sea, I'm beginning to wonder whether 'stop the boat' policy ever did work. In any case, other countries are now emulating our policy with the terrible present result. Good on the EU. Thanks Nikolas for your interesting information.

Anna | 19 May 2015  

The Australian solution to everything that is unpleasant or uncomfortable is to sweep it under the carpet or offshore so no one can see it. Out of sight out of mind seems to allow our politicians to sleep better at night. It costs considerably more to implement our Pacific solution than to e humanitarian, but since the Tampa our politicians have raced to the bottom to stir up xenophobia and perhaps votes. Our media reflects this. At least on the Italian news they still refer to 2000 desperate people escaping persecution (not illegals or boat people)

Very Sad | 29 May 2015  

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