Refugee crisis: Europe looks to Australia for answers

Australia immigration

Refugee crisis: Europe looks to Australia for answers

Across Europe, and particularly in Germany, newspapers carried stories that asked: Could Australia's tough border protection regime serve as a model for Europe?

April 27, 2015 "Australia's prime minister tells Europe: Stop the boats!" cried a headline in the Austrian tabloid. The debate was fuelled by Tony Abbott's blunt call for Europe to adopt "very strong policies" in the wake of the drowning of an estimated 800 asylum seekers last weekend and Julie Bishop's tour of the continent in which she was repeatedly asked about Australia's regime.

Bishop told Fairfax Media she received "considerable interest" from journalists and senior officials during her travels. The German Interior Ministry's top bureaucrat, Dr Emily Haber, probed deeply into the issue and took copious notes. "It's fair to say she was interested in Australia's experience and wanted to hear more. She asked for significant detail," Bishop told Fairfax Media. "I've said we are happy to share experiences and information."

Bishop, however, made the point that Europe was different from Australia and therefore transposing Operation Sovereign Borders to the Mediterranean might not be effective.

So could it work? And would Europe even be interested in going down such a hardline path?

Retired army General Jim Molan, the co-architect of the government's tough border protection regime who kick-started the debate this week with a fierce commentary in The Australian, insists it can work.

The European situation is "not markedly different" from Australia's, he said. "Every single one" of the pillars of Australia's approach – boat turn-backs, offshore processing and regional resettlement, removing incentives such as family reunions and showing staunch "resolve" – could be adopted by Europe.

Molan won't to go into detail on how precisely it would work, saying operational security is important and it would be up to the Europeans to release information if they wanted to. But he says European nations have large and modern navies, and "for offshore processing, there are any number of options that Europe could use".

"There are places you could do it tomorrow and in many ways it would be easier than Australia's experience."

He refuses to say where, but doesn't deny that North Africa is the logical choice.

Likewise for resettlement. While Libya would seem to be out of the question – after all, people are fleeing Libya itself – "there are other ways to handle that", he said.

If Europe wants to hear about how, they need only ask, he says. "What I'm saying is that when you're ready to control your borders, come and talk to the Australian government because we have all the experience and we know it can be done."

That's the operational perspective. Legally, things are considerably more complex. Jane McAdam, a professor of international refugee law at the University of NSW, pointed out that the European Court of Human Rights had already ruled that boat turn-backs were illegal.

In a landmark case in early 2012, the court found in favour of 24 Somalian and Eritrean asylum seekers who were pushed back to Libya by Italian authorities, concluding that Italy couldn't send them back to where they might suffer human rights abuses.

Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, agrees that on boat interceptions there is "enormous jurisprudence and legal basis within the EU which would preclude that".

Collett says there has been increased discussion about offshore processing, however, with Germany suggesting Egypt and Italy suggesting Tunisia as possibilities.

"It has always been deeply controversial, but there has been renewed interest in discussing that, and you will see more of it in the next month."

It's been controversial because of concerns about whether proper processes can be guaranteed in third countries. Collett says it would be "somewhat extraordinary" for Egypt to be given the task, given its human rights concerns.

McAdam says that a push by Britain in 2003 for Europe to adopt offshore processing had been "shot down in flames by the rest of the EU". Other countries were worried that offshore processing would breach Europe's obligations to give asylum seekers a fair hearing, including access to legal representation and the ability to appeal decisions.

"The consistent view was, how can we do this and still abide by our legal obligations?" McAdam said. Unlike Australia, she points out, the EU incorporates international law into its domestic law.

Collett says the "mood of crisis" following the deaths at sea have prompted a willingness to look hard at new solutions. "Australia's approach has been seen as an extremely tough approach but in a context where politicians just want the boats to stop coming, they also see Australia as having been successful. They want to look at that more."

But it is more of a political discussion for leaders looking for a "quick solution" than a serious and long-term answer, she adds. In the end, Europe is different to Australia, with long and porous land borders, complex sea boundaries and closer proximity to the regions from which people are fleeing.

"I don't think it's the same kind of debate in Europe as happened in Australia," Collett said, "partly because of the geography and because the conflicts in the neighbourhood of Europe are much more immediate."

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