Abbott advises EU: Stop the boats

Abbott advises EU: Stop the boats
MPs attending a voting session on Wednesday at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. They were holding up signs to criticise the recent drowning of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean Sea

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has urged Europe to copy his hardline border security measures which ended the flow of asylum-seeker boats, but critics say his approach will not work elsewhere and only shifts the problem to other countries.

After winning the federal election in 2013 with a pledge to "stop the boats", Mr Abbott introduced a range of controversial measures, including deploying the navy to tow back boats to Indonesian waters.

He has also transferred asylum seekers to detention centres in remote Pacific island nations Nauru and Papua New Guinea and even provided fresh lifeboats for would-be migrants to head back to foreign waters.

Australia in recent years has seen asylum seekers mainly from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

They travel to transit camps in Indonesia from where they attempt the dangerous trek in rickety boats across the Indian Ocean.

Numerous boats have sunk and many asylum seekers have died while attempting the voyage, with almost 900 deaths since 2011.

The tough measures angered Indonesia and were criticised as being in breach of international law, but they have succeeded in bringing an abrupt end to the flow of boats to Australia.

About 160 asylum seekers made it by boat to Australian waters last year, down from 20,587 in 2013 and 17,204 in 2012. There were reportedly no arrivals up to March this year.

When a migrant boat capsized off the coast of Libya earlier last month, killing more than 800 people, Mr Abbott suggested that European leaders should follow his lead on border security.

"The only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats," he said.

"That's why it is so urgent that the countries of Europe adopt very strong policies that will end the people-smuggling trade across the Mediterranean."

But analysts dispute Mr Abbott's advice, saying Australia has the geographic advantage of being isolated, so that deterring boats leaves migrants with few alternative means of reaching it.

Migrants heading to Europe, in contrast, have numerous other means, and efforts by individual nations to block them may lead them to seek other destinations.

An expert on border security, Professor Sharon Pickering of Monash University, said Australia's approach had not actually ended the migrant flow. Asylum seekers are more likely to now end up in transit countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

"It is very unlikely that Australia's response can be applied to Europe," she told The Straits Times.

"There has been a stop of flow of people to Australia but there has not been a stop of flow of people. They go to other places. You would have to look at what is happening in Malaysia and Indonesia and places that are proximate to Europe."

Australia's policy has led to 1,707 asylum seekers being held in the detention centres of Nauru and Papua New Guinea as of March 31 and there is little certainty about where they will end up.

The latest plan involves a deal with Cambodia in which Australia will help people found to be refugees to settle there from Nauru.

Prof Pickering said it would be "unworkable" for Europe to try a similar approach or set up a series of offshore detention centres because of the vast numbers of people headed there. "In Europe, the resources required to mimic an Australian response would be seemingly endless," she said.

"You have a situation with Australia of long-term limbo for a large number of asylum seekers wanting protection. There is no end in sight. The legal and reputational impact is far-reaching."

Australia's approach is also unlikely to be adopted in Europe because it would not be consistent with European and international law, say analysts.

International refugee law expert Jane McAdam wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: "This is a long-term, global challenge that will remain for as long as there is oppression and discrimination in the world."

jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com


This article was first published on May 1, 2015.
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