Ben Harris

Naked Politics Blogger 

Australia is a huge country. It is roughly the same size as mainland USA and would easily cover most of Europe. It takes just as long to fly coast to coast in Australia as it would do to fly from London to Moscow and with a population of just under 24 million it is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. It is precisely because of these demographics that it seems absurd to think that Australia once had its very own migrant crisis, yet this is indeed the case, albeit one on a much smaller scale to what we are seeing right now in Europe.

Despite its relatively isolated geographical location, Australia has quite a long history of people seeking asylum there, first from South East Asia during the 1970s and 1980s and later from other parts of the continent such as Sri Lanka and later Afghanistan and Iraq. While many asylum seekers have arrived by plane in the past, since the turn of the century increasing numbers have arrived by boat from Indonesia, a trek that is just as dangerous as the journeys currently being made across the Mediterranean by people trying to get into Europe.

In August 2001, an incident involving a boat full of sinking migrants from Afghanistan catapulted the issue of boats to national attention. The migrants who were rescued did not want to be returned to nearby Indonesia but at the same time the Australian government did not want to accept them. This necessitated what would be known as the “Pacific Solution”, a policy whereby incoming refugees who travelled by boat and sought illegal entry into Australia would be redirected to detention centres on pacific island states such as Nauru rather than allowing settlement in Australia immediately.

By the time the Pacific Solution was ended in 2007 by the incoming Labour government under Kevin Rudd, it had achieved mixed results. Although the number of migrants was down, there were concerns over the human rights situation, with migrants not allowed access to Australian lawyers and even children were detained until this was abandoned in 2005. In the late 2000s and early 2010s more liberal policies were pursued, but this was not without its own drawbacks as the numbers of people attempting to make the journey to Australia by boat substantially increased. People smuggling networks grew and as a result more and more people were dying at sea.

Eventually in 2013 Prime Minister Rudd (who had been ousted by a Labour colleague in 2010 only to return 3 years later just prior to an election) reintroduced the policy of processing refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. However, people who were found to be genuine asylum seekers would not be settled in Australia but instead Papua New Guinea, which Australia would compensate for in the form of aid to the country. There was of course a political dimension to this move as Labour were trailing the opposition Liberal Party in the polls on the issue of asylum seekers (they went on to lose the election), which is a huge issue in Australia. Nonetheless, the policy appears to have been successful in deterring people from making the dangerous journey across the sea and thus reduce needless loss of life. With it now being much harder to enter Australia illegally by boat, this has also lessened the extent to which criminal gangs can exploit people through smuggling networks.

While it may appear as if Australia simply unwelcoming of foreigners, the government led by PM Tony Abbott isn’t quite as heartless as some make out. In addition to their annual refugee quota, Abbott recently announced that Australia would take in 12,000 Syrian refugees. Despite its small population, Australia is also the eighth largest recipient of asylum seekers in the developed world. The country has been grappling with its very own migrant problem and while no solution has been perfect, it is clear that deaths can be prevented by taking a tougher stance on boats.

So what can Europe learn from the Australian experience? Unlike Australia, Europe isn’t a single island and similarly it is it is facing potentially millions of migrants rather than tens of thousands. Border security alone will not solve the crisis, although it may at least help. Hundreds if not thousands of people are still dying however trying to get to Europe and this can’t continue.

If Europe is to deal with this crisis effectively it must show both compassion and toughness. Syrian refugees should not be abandoned ,nor should neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Turkey be forced to take even more refugees when they have already taken millions. At the same time however, Europe cannot simply throw open its borders – such a policy would not be good in the long term for either Europe or Syria. An effective policy would be one that refuses entry to migrants who attempt to enter illegally but at the same time agrees to take refugees directly from camps in and around Syria with priority given to the most vulnerable. Indeed, this is something that the UK at least appears to be planning on doing. If more deaths are to be prevented, this is the only possible way of doing that short of a miraculous peace in the Middle East.

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Last Update: April 29, 2018