My investigation in US magazine The Nation:
Soon after President Trump assumed office in January 2017, he had a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The transcript of the conversation, leaked in August, revealed that the new US president admired his Australian counterpart because Turnbull was “worse than I am” on asylum seekers. Turnbull had proudly stated, “If you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize–winning genius, we will not let you in.”
In their phone call, the prime minister begged the US leader to adhere to a deal struck by Turnbull and former President Barack Obama the year before, in which the United States had agreed take up to 1,250 refugees imprisoned by Australia for years on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru in the Pacific. In exchange, Australia would take refugees from Central America.
Trump didn’t understand why Australia couldn’t take the PNG and Nauru refugees in. Turnbull responded, “It is not because [the refugees] are bad people. It is because in order to stop people smugglers we had to deprive them of the product.” Trump liked what he heard. “That is a good idea,” he said. “We should do that too.”
Turnbull was proudly explaining the complex system established by Australia many years earlier: Refugees are imprisoned in privatized, remote detention centers on the Australian mainland and on Pacific islands. Trump isn’t the only one who is impressed; many Western leaders have not only expressed admiration for Australia’s draconian refugee policies but have initiated ways to implement them in their own nations to contend with the recent surge of people fleeing Africa and the Middle East.
The mainstreaming of xenophobia regarding refugees was perfected by Australian politicians more than 20 years ago. Along with a media-savvy mix of dog-whistling against ethnic groups with little social power, refugees have been accused of being dirty, suspicious, lazy, welfare-hungry, and potential terrorists—and they’ve been accused of refusing to assimilate, despite the country’s largely successful multicultural reality.
Australia hasn’t been shy in offering advice to European nations struggling with an influx of refugees. Former prime minister Tony Abbott warned his European counterparts in 2016 that they were facing a “peaceful invasion” and risked “losing control” of their sovereignty unless they embraced Australian-style policies.
“Effective border protection is not for the squeamish,” he claimed, after pushing the concept of turning back refugee boats at sea and returning people to their country of origin, “but it is absolutely necessary to save lives and to preserve nations.” Abbott refused my requests for comment.
Australia has accepted about 190,000 people annually in its permanent migration program in recent years. This year, however, the migrant intake will be the lowest in seven years. There’s an inherent contradiction in Australia’s migration policy: The country quietly accepts many refugees who come by plane, but treats those arriving by boat with contempt and abuse. Between 1976 and 2015, more than 69,600 people seeking asylum—mostly from Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East—have arrived in Australia by boat.
Unlike some European nations, such as Britain, Spain, and Italy, where about 65 percent of people oppose immigration, authoritative polling by Australia’s Scanlon Foundation found that a majority of citizens back new arrivals: 80 percent of respondents rejected selecting immigrants by race, and 74 percent opposed the idea of selecting immigrants by religion—and yet growing numbers of people expressed opposition to or suspicion of Islam. And calling for a large cut in immigration has entered the Australian mainstream. The latest polling from the Lowy Institute in 2018 found that a majority of Australians now back a curb in migration. Many of those pushing this argument claim that caring for immigrants is too costly and that priority should be given to improving the infrastructure and environment. It’s possible, of course, for such a rich country to do both.
The internationalization of Australia’s refugee stance has, unfortunately, coincided with Europe’s right-wing populist surge. Europe has recently faced millions of asylum seekers arriving on its shores. Many want them stopped and turned back. It’s a view shared by some of the continent’s most extreme political parties; Italy’s new right-wing government is already turning refugee boats away. Some far-right Danish politicians tried but failed to visit Nauru in 2016 to see how it was housing refugees. Punitive attitudes are moving from the fringes to the mainstream, so it’s not surprising they want to see how Australia does it. If this democratic country can warehouse refugees for years, with little tangible international sanction—apart from increasingly scathing UN reports on its migration program—why not European states, with far more people crossing their borders?
I heard this argument regularly when talking to European fans of Australia. Jens Baur, chairman of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany’s Saxony region, told The Nation that he praised Australian “success” against refugees because it was an effective “deterrent.” For Baur, Europe used “ships of the navies of European states as a ‘tug-taxi,’ bringing refugees from the North African coast to Europe.” He wanted Europe to follow the examples of Australia and anti-refugee Hungary.
A more influential European politician, Kenneth Kristensen Berth of the ultranationalist Danish People’s Party, Denmark’s leading opposition party, has increasingly copied Australia’s hard-line position as his party has grown in popularity. Berth said that he liked the “efficiency” of Australia’s system and had no sympathy for refugees trapped on Pacific islands.
“It is their own choice,” Berth told me. “They have been warned by Australian officials that they will never be able to call Australia their home if they tried to reach Australia illegally. As long as they are not manhandled in these detention centers, I do not find any fault at the Australian side.” (In fact, countless refugees have been assaulted.)
One of the key architects of Brexit, former far-right UKIP leader Nigel Farage, praised what a fellow UKIP MP called Australia’s “innovative” refugee approach and wanted the European Union to follow. Farage ignored my repeated requests for comment.
The ideological underpinning of Europe’s far-right support should be understood as a politically savvy mix of racism, a kind of nationalist socialism, and isolationism. Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of the recently published book Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, explains that many far-right leaders are “defenders of a nativist nanny state.” He told me, “They are not neoliberal dismantlers of the welfare state but defenders of social benefits for only the native born. This is a populist pitch that has been extremely effective at drawing ex-Communists and social democrats into their ranks. These politicians are seeking ways to protect their comprehensive social safety nets and avoid sharing with newcomers.”
Polakow-Suransky finds that in this worldview, Australia’s generous social benefits to its citizens should be copied in Europe but not for “what they perceive as the grasping hands of undeserving new arrivals who are seeking to leech off their welfare state.”
The Australian methods are ruthlessly effective; waves of refugees have attempted to arrive by boat since the early 1990s. Thousands have been physically and psychologically traumatized after being locked up, and one was even killed in detention by local guards (a subsequent Senate inquiry found that Australian authorities failed to adequately protect him). They’re often refused necessary medical care, and sometimes returned to danger in countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. A fundamental element of international law, which Australia routinely breaks, is the concept of non-refoulement, the principle that refugees should not be sent back to a place where they will be in danger.
Australia’s refugee policy has been condemned in reports by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, as well as in eyewitness accounts by activists and journalists. I’ve visited many of the most extreme facilities myself—such as Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean—and have heard horror stories from asylum seekers and guards. Successive Australian governments have paid tens of millions of dollars in compensation to many of these refugees, and yet the policy continues, with strong public support. In an age of refugee demonization, Australia was well ahead of the curve.
These policies were developed before the September 11 terror attacks, but they gained greater currency after that infamous day. After that trauma, it was easier to brand boat arrivals as potential terrorists and Islamist extremists; there’s been almost complete bipartisan political support for this view ever since.
Australia’s anti-refugee campaigns are targeted at a scared white population, of course, but their appeal is broader than that. According to the 2016 Census, nearly half of citizens were born to first- or second-generation migrants—and there are plenty of conservative former migrants who have little sympathy for more recent arrivals by boat. As journalist James Button wrote recently in the Australian magazine The Monthly, “Most Australians, including migrants, accept the brutal bargain: you have to be invited, there’s a right way and a wrong way.” The “wrong way” apparently deserves no sympathy. It doesn’t help that there are still very few nonwhite mainstream journalists in Australia, which means the perspectives of the growing number of non-Anglo residents are not getting the media attention they deserve.