Australian activists opposed to these policies have spent decades campaigning against them, including attempts to refer Australia to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over the country’s abuse of refugees in detention. Human-rights lawyer Madeline Gleeson, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales Law School in Sydney, told me that there were “persuasive grounds for arguing that certain conduct of Australian officers could engage their individual criminal responsibility,” but prosecution in an international court faces major obstacles, such as whether such a court could even be convinced to hear a case about abuses committed by a Western, democratic nation.
It’s now impossible to deny that Australian refugee policy is inspiring some of the most draconian asylum directives in the EU and beyond. How did a nation with such a positive international reputation become a global leader in harming asylum seekers?
For most of its existence as a settler-colonial nation, Australia had an official White Australia policy, preferring migrants with a British background. This began to change in the 1950s, and by the late 1970s, Australia was welcoming tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the chaos in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. But in the early 1990s, the Labor government introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers, who mostly came from Cambodia at the time (survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, the numbers were modest; they didn’t surge until the early 2000s, partly due to the “war on terror” under more conservative Prime Minister John Howard). The prime minister at the time, Paul Keating, said recently, “To be honest, it was not a great human rights issue for [the] cabinet at the time”—because they feared an avalanche of asylum claims from global conflict zones and troubled countries in the region, including China. It was the beginning of a process that has become increasingly harsh.
The scale of Australia’s detention network is difficult to fathom. With a population of around 25 million, and a land mass not much smaller than that of the United States, Australia has room for many more refugees and a need for skilled newcomers. But the country has long had a fear of the outsider (this sentiment may be partially rooted in the fact that Australia, established as a British colony in 1788, committed genocide against its first inhabitants, the Aborigines). Whereas once it was the Chinese and Vietnamese arrivals who were viewed with suspicion, today many Australians are convinced that brown, black, and Muslim refugees deserve the harshest treatment imaginable.
The cost of maintaining Australia’s detention camps is astronomical. The latest figures, released in early 2018, show that in the 2016-17 fiscal year, Australia spent $4.06 billion on “border protection.” This included “offshore management” of over $1 billion. The annual cost for each refugee housed in detention was $346,178.
Australia spent $10 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year (and millions more on other, similar projects) on overseas advertising directed at citizens in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The message was clear: Do not come to Australia by boat, because the path is completely blocked. The world’s surging refugee population—the largest since World War II, at more than 68 million—has done nothing to soften Australia’s resolve (aside from a small effort to welcome 12,000 refugees from war-torn Syria and Iraq). On the other hand, when white South African farmers faced threats earlier this year, the Australian government said they “deserve special treatment” and could be fast-tracked into the country.
In 2013, the Australian Parliament passed legislation removing the country’s mainland from its migration zone, allowing the government to send all arriving asylum seekers to PNG and Nauru. The point of offshoring refugees was that the Australian government could claim that any abuses or problems there were the responsibility of the countries in which they occurred, client states such as PNG and Nauru. It was a blatant lie, but it allowed multinationals that run those facilities to make a fortune (I attempted unsuccessfully to get a response from the company currently running the Manus Island facility, Paladin Solutions PNG). The offshoring in these poor and corrupt countries consigns the people imprisoned there to a legal black hole, in locations akin to Guantánamo Bay or even so-called “black sites” where journalists are rarely allowed access.
Operation Sovereign Borders was the name given in 2013 to the Australian government’s program to deter refugees at sea; it included payingIndonesian people-smugglers to turn boats around. Since 2013, the Australian Navy has turned back at least 31 boats carrying 771 people. Despite the fact that many asylum seekers were found by Australia to have legitimate claims, this had little effect on their treatment at the hands of officials, who often delayed decisions about their fate for years. The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection ignored my repeated requests for comment.
European support for Australia’s refugee policies goes way beyond rhetoric. I’ve spent years investigating this issue and found evidence that officials from both individual European nations as well as the EU are secretly meeting senior Australian officials to understand how to adopt Australia’s policies on a continent-wide scale.
A former senior official at the UN, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to me that in 2016 Australia’s Ambassador for People Smuggling and Human Trafficking, Andrew Goledzinowski, undertook a tour of Europe, trying to convince governments and the UN of the virtues of Australia’s offshore processing model. Goledzinowski is now Australia’s High Commissioner to Malaysia. The Australian government refused to comment on the inner workings of its refugee strategy.
“I am certain that this tour was part of a much broader and longer-term Australian effort to export and legitimize its approach to the refugee issue,” the UN official said. “In that respect, looking at the trajectory of EU asylum policy, it has been pretty successful. The interceptions by Libyan coast guards [of refugees fleeing to Europe who are then sent back to horrific conditions in Libya] are essentially an arms-length version of Operation Sovereign Borders.”
In early 2017, Australian media reported that at least six European countries were asking Australia for advice in managing the refugee crisis. A spokesperson for Peter Dutton, who was then Australia’s immigration minister (he’s now home affairs minister), told the press then that “a number of European nations and the European Union have sought advice from the Australian Government on Operation Sovereign Borders. The minister has personally had discussions with several of his European counterparts.”
Last year the EU openly embraced Australian-style border-protection policies, while still denying it was doing so. When Italy announced it was sending its Mediterranean navy into Libyan waters to intercept refugees and send them back to Libya, along with plans to train the Libyan coast guard to manage the job on its own within three years, refugee rights were ignored.
The Libyan coast guard is underfunded and has been accused of abuses, including firing on refugee boats, but the EU and Italy are committed to boosting Libya’s role as gatekeeper of new arrivals, even though the country is engulfed in civil war and asylum seekers have experienced rape, torture, and enslavement. Amnesty International has accused the EU of complicity in mistreatment—including torture—of refugees by paying Libyan officials to work with people-smugglers and militia groups.
Despite these problems, Italy and the EU plan to spend 44 million euros between now and 2020 to help Libya build a vast search-and-rescue enterprise at sea, according to documents obtained by Reuters in late 2017. And French President Emmanuel Macron said last year he wanted to buildrefugee-processing centers in Libya to assess applicants before they come to Europe (France currently processes some refugees in a small outpost in Niger).
The EU already gives huge amounts of money and aid to Libya and Niger—two nations that have been cited by Amnesty International and other human-rights groups for numerous violations in their treatment of refugees—to effectively keep Europe-bound refugees in Africa. The EU, which has for years been quietly militarizing its response to border security, plans to spend billions to create an EU army.
When I asked the European Commission about contacts with Australia on its immigration policies, it claimed there had been none. But commission officials also told me that they had “enormous concerns” about security in Libya and were therefore focused on “strengthening our cooperation with neighboring countries to intervene before migrants embark on perilous journeys to Europe and to prevent deaths at sea by ensuring that migrants find a refuge in partner countries and by opening legal ways to Europe through resettlement.”
Critics of European policies have been increasingly marginalized. Jeff Crisp, former head of policy development and evaluation at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told me that the EU strategy was “smarter than that of Australia. While Canberra employs its own military personnel to implement Operation Sovereign Borders, the EU has contracted out the dirty work to the Libyan coast guard and associated militia groups. And while the Libyan slavery scandal threatened to expose the failings of EU refugee policy, it is now being used by Brussels to suggest that the best solution to the refugee issue is to send them all back to their countries of origin.”
It was perhaps imaginable that Australia would become an inspiration for all the wrong reasons. And with Trump in the White House, Washington could follow suit. Author Polakow-Suransky argues that the Trump administration could “attempt an Australian-style policy on a mass scale and pay off poor Central American countries to stop the flow of migrants or detain them.” In fact, Washington is already paying Mexico to keep migrants away from the US border and has helped militarize the Mexican-Guatemalan border to stop the refugee flow. Private contractors are currently reaping financial rewards from the Trump era’s harsh border policies.
Australia is one of the most successful multicultural nations on earth, and yet its legacy is now tainted by extreme efforts to dehumanize the most desperate people alive. The world is watching and learning.
Antony Loewenstein, an independent journalist and filmmaker, is the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. He is currently writing a book on the global “war on drugs.”