My column in the Guardian:
Australia first introduced onshore detention facilities in 1991 at Villawood in Sydney and Port Hedland in Western Australia. Mandatory detention came in 1992. Bob Hawke’s government announced it was because “Australia could be on the threshold of a major wave of unauthorised boat arrivals from south-east Asia, which will severely test both our resolve and our capacity to ensure that immigration in this country is conducted within a planned and controlled framework”.
More than 20 years later, the rhetoric has only worsened against the most vulnerable arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Policies that years ago seemed unimaginable, such as imprisoning refugees on remote Pacific islands, are the norm and blessed with bipartisan support.
The sad reality is Australia’s refugee policies are envied and copied around the world, especially in Europe, now struggling to cope with a huge influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Walls and fences are being built across the continent in futile attempts to keep out the unwanted. A privatised security apparatus is working to complement the real agenda. Australia is an island but it has long implemented remote detention camps with high fences and isolation for its inhabitants.
As a journalist and activist who has publicly campaigned against Canberra’s asylum policies for over a decade, this brutal reality is a bitter pill. In early 2014 I called for UN sanctions against Australia for ignoring humanitarian law and willfully abusing refugees in its case both on the mainland and Nauru and Manus Island. I still hold this view but must recognise facts; the international mood in 2016 for asylum seekers is hostile. As much as I’d like to say that my homeland is a pariah on the international stage, it’s simply not the case.
When Denmark recently introduced a bill to take refugees’ valuable belongings in order to pay for their time in detention camps, this was remarkably similar to Australia charging asylum seekers for their stay behind bars. Either directly or indirectly, Europe is following Australia’s draconian lead.
Consider the facts in Europe: after Sweden and Denmark reintroduced border controls, a borderless continent is now in serious jeopardy. The Schengen agreement – introduced in 1985 to support free movement between EEC countries – is on the verge of collapse. In early January, the European Union admitted it had relocated just 0.17% of the refugees it pledged to help four months earlier. In 2015 more than 1 million people arrived by boat in Europe.
This mirrors Australia’s lacklustre efforts to resettle refugees in its onshore detention camps. Figures released by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in December found that asylum seekers had spent an average of 445 days behind barbed wire. In both Australia and Europe there’s general acceptance of these situations because those seeking asylum have been so successfully demonised as potential terrorists, suspiciously Muslim and threatening a comfortably western way of life.
Germany, a nation that took in more than 1 million refugees in 2015 despite being unprepared for the large numbers, is now facing a public backlash against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance, leading to fear and rising far-right support. Australia has taken far fewer people with little social unrest and yet still unleashed over two decades a highly successful, though dishonest, campaign to stigmatise boat arrivals. The result is the ability of successive Australian governments to create an environment where sexual abuse against refugees is tolerated and covered up. A politician is unlikely to lose his job over it.
Europe and Australia promote themselves as regions of openness. It’s an illusion when it comes to refugee policy. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, despite his bombastic and discriminatory attitude towards refugees and Jews, is increasingly viewed across Europe as providing necessary warnings of the continent’s struggles. EU officials in Brussels told the New York Times that Orban was often right but wished he hadn’t couched his comments in conspiracy theories. Too few in Hungary are publicly resisting this wave of racism.
“Whenever Hungary made an argument the response was always: ‘They are stupid Hungarians. They are xenophobes and Nazis,’” Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman, told the Times. “Suddenly, it turns out that what we said was true. The naivete of Europe is really quite stunning.”
Brussels has proposed an Australian-style border force to monitor the EU’s borders and deport asylum seekers. Germany and France support the move. This proves that the most powerful nations have little interest in resolving the reasons so many people are streaming into Europe (such as war and climate change) and prefer to pull up the drawbridge. Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott encouraged Europe to turn back the refugee boats and it seems Brussels is listening. Europe is also copying Australia’s stance of privatising the detention centres for refugees.
None of this worries Rupert Murdoch’s Australian. In light of the New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, the paper editorialised in early 2016 that Europe must avoid “reckless idealism” and embrace an “enlightened world” where gender equality is accepted by all. The outlet has not expressed similar outrage with the immigration department’s blatant disregard for refugee lives. It’s also unclear how pushing for military action in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, pushed by the paper for years, contributes to an “enlightened world”.
It’s comforting to think of Australia as a global pariah on the world stage, pursuing racist policies against asylum seekers from war-torn nations. But it’s untrue. Canberra’s militarised “solution” to refugees is admired in many parts of Europe because it represents an ideology far easier to process and sell than identifying and adapting to changing global migration patterns.
None of this should stop activists fighting for a more just outcome, in both Australia and Europe, but today it’s more likely European officials will ask Australian officials for advice on how to “stop the boats” than chastise it for mistreating a raped refugee.
Australia has become an inspiration for all the wrong reasons.