Refugees. Lessons From Australia?

By Guest Writer Matt BurnsGUESTSM2

While Europe continues to creak under the pressure of a massive influx of migrants from some of the world’s poorest and most war-torn nations, some idealistic but naive EU politicians and eurocrats may be thinking that the migrant crisis was unavoidable.

They may argue that the migrant crisis was an inevitable consequence of a region being thrown into chaos by war, poverty and the want of a ‘better life’. However, one country proves that the current situation did not have to be as unprecedented, chaotic and potentially damaging to such a wide range of European institutions, cities and attitudes as it looks set to be. The country? – Australia.

It is important to note from the outset that blaming the migrants, who are often desperate, for wanting to get to Europe, or even Australia, is futile and ultimately wrong. However, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel and those who walk the corridors of power will not escape blame for the crisis when all. They made, what many Australians would describe as, a ‘rookie error’ by sending overt signals that Europe was content to accept the world.

It could be argued that Europe not only welcomed migrants in overflowing boats landing on its shores – it encouraged them.

Speeches from Europe’s most powerful head of state (Merkel), promising to absorb every migrant who arrives does not do much to put off potential migrants. Migrants are not only risking their lives, but their sheer numbers are pushing Europe further than it can cope and creating disharmony between EU member states.

When the first boats began arriving, initially crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, Europe was faced with a stark choice – turn the boats back, or send navy and coastguard vessels out to pick up the migrants and bring them to Europe. Since the early 2000s Australia has been faced with the same problem, however Europe and Australia take vastly different approaches.

Europe decided to ‘rescue’ the migrants, bringing every single one to Europe’s shores, while citing ‘European values’; in contrast, Australia decided that the ‘boat people’, as they call migrants arriving illegally via boat, as a security threat, therefore they took (and continue to take) a series of tough measures to intercept the boats, either turning them back or detaining migrants in offshore holding centres. The Australians have also made deals with nearby countries, such as Papua New Guinea whereby these third party countries will take in migrants. This acts as a strong deterrent, as in many cases PNG is poorer than the migrants’ homeland.
The difference in approach in dealing with the same problem is glaring. The two approaches can be put into two camps; European decision-makers are idealists, while Australian decision-makers are realists, naturally both have their dissenters.

Merkel 2The idealistic approach which Angela Merkel pushed on Europe, perhaps without much foresight, may appear on the face of it to be the ‘right thing’ to do. However it has one major flaw, a by-product is that it serves as a major encouragement to other migrants to attempt the crossing. Another problem is many of these newly encouraged migrants will not be fleeing war and sheer numbers mean they cannot be vetted. EU records indicate that only 1 in 5 migrants are Syrians, others hail from a variety of other countries. This presents an obvious security threat, to add to the difficulties in coping with ever-increasing numbers.

The realist approach, known officially as the ‘Pacific Solution’ and later ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ by the Australian Government, may appear harsh, and the conditions in some of the offshore detention camps are unacceptable. However, this approach gives Australia two clear advantages over their European counterparts: Firstly, control over who they give asylum to, thus allowing Australian authorities to vet and process migrants; secondly, it acts as a check on the numbers, meaning the authorities can prepare the necessary provisions and manage the flow in an orderly manner. One would presume these elements are a prerequisite to any sovereign nation.

There is a third element which gives the Australian approach another advantage. This element is the affect their approach has on people smugglers. People smugglers like to operate unchallenged, the possibility of Australian special forces landing on their vessels and taking some form of aggressive action is often enough to stop all but the most hard-core of smugglers. According to Manual Jordao, a UNHCR representative for Indonesia, “word has got back to people smugglers and asylum seekers in their countries of origin that the prospects of reaching Australia from Indonesia by boat is now virtually zero”, as a result of this the numbers dropped dramatically.

Perhaps if Europe had taken Australia’s approach from the outset, the situation would not be such a catastrophe, however this is now a matter of academic debate. Ultimately, the Australian approach and the European approach have their respective pros and cons, however it is undeniable that the approach adopted by the Australians gives a degree of control the European approach lacks.

Today European nations on the front line have no idea who is passing through their borders and into their cities, this may or may not have unanticipated consequences. One thing is clear – the status quo is unsustainable. Sooner rather than later ‘European values’ will have to be tweaked towards the realism of Australia, rather than the idealism of Germany.

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