Australia’s Refugee Policy Has Been Declared Illegal. Could Europe’s Follow?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, is greeted by European Council President Donald Tusk prior to a meeting. Brussels, Belgium, October 5, 2015. (Virginia Mayo/AP Photo)

In October last year, a month after he was ousted by a vote from his own party, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott traveled to Europe to urge its leaders to adopt his near obsessive “stop the boats” policy on asylum seekers. In a London address honoring one of his conservative idols, Margaret Thatcher, Abbott trumpeted Australia’s strong-armed efforts to stem the flow of overloaded and rickety vessels seeking its shores.

As many commentators pointed out at the time, applicable Australian lessons for European policymakers were, and remain, essentially nil. Where Abbott’s homeland has at most dealt with an influx of about 20,000 individuals a year (a figure he has often exaggerated), Europe was and is contending with arrivals in the hundreds of thousands. Moreover, the latter stands alone as a largely multi-state bloc with divergent economies, cultures, and histories, connected by direct land routes and porous borders to the sources of those seeking its protection.

These differences seemingly didn’t stop policymakers in Brussels and national European capitals from heeding the message, even if subconsciously. The recent 1:1 deal between the European Union and Turkey was straight out of the Australian playbook. Under former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2011, it pursued a swap deal with Malaysia that was subsequently struck down by Australia’s High Court, which found that the 800 individuals scheduled to be sent to Malaysia would have no legal protection from further prosecution, and thereby have contravened Australia’s own migration act. Nonetheless, Australia continues to pay poorer countries such as Papua New Guinea and Cambodia to resettle refugees.

Now comes a further warning for Europeans who might still be looking far south for inspiration. On Tuesday this week, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea declared illegal an arrangement that the country also has for detaining Australia’s unwanted asylum seekers while their claims are processed. In rejecting a constitutional amendment imposed last year to facilitate this “offshore processing” system, for which Papua New Guinea receives significant sums of Australian money, the court called for governments in both countries to “take all steps necessary to cease and prevent” it. This built on persistent censure of Australia from the United Nations and other institutions over its rejection of international obligations, including through a blanket ban on permanent residency for those arriving via boat without a valid visa.

Furthermore, the ruling has now given rise to speculation that the asylum seekers detained on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island—often for stretches lasting several years—could sue the Australian government over their illegal treatment. Like other centers that Australia maintains on the tiny island nation of Nauru, the Manus facilities have been the site of continual controversy. They have witnessed riots, the killing of one detainee, widespread reports of sexual abuse, and various other privations. News of these have reached the outside world despite gag orders on officials working there and bans on journalists visiting.

Europe has yet to pursue the offshore processing model that is the subject of the recent ruling. Nonetheless, a form of Australia’s strict border controls has been creeping into the continent’s policies and formal discussions for some time. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron also recently raised the notion of turning back asylum seeker boats in the Mediterranean toward Libya, as Australia does with vessels setting off from Indonesia and other countries. On at least one occasion there was speculation Australia paid the people smugglers involved, despite these being the very people it claims to be thwarting in its compassionate justifications of its policies.

Some in the European policy sector are also mulling the detention center idea itself, albeit in a softer form. A Polish Institute of International Affairs paper released in January this year found that “since implementing its harsh policy towards the ‘boat people,’ the number of people trying illegally to reach Australia as well as deaths at sea have decreased drastically.” It subsequently argued for Europe housing asylum seekers in “transition” centers, which would be situated on the edge of the bloc in member state territory, to provide greater oversight.

It is true that the numbers of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia via boat has dropped as a result of its strict policies. Nonetheless, critics rightly argue that this outcome fails to take account of the ultimate fate of those who seek resettlement elsewhere. Australia has channeled far more time and effort into advertising campaigns warning against attempted migration from places like Afghanistan than it has into finding a viable regional solution.

In its deal with Turkey, Brussels appears to have made a short-sighted decision of this nature. It has certainly made an Australian-like bargain with a regime that does not outwardly share its values. This has opened the door to illegal practices by proxy. At the time of the deal’s unveiling, for example, Amnesty International claimed to have evidence of Turkish authorities “rounding up and expelling” 100 Syrians to their war-torn country—forbidden under relevant national, regional, and international laws. The cases allegedly included young children without their parents, and an eight-month pregnant woman.

Despite European Council President Donald Tusk recently celebrating the success of the Turkey deal, and reportedly calling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government “the best example in the world on how to treat refugees,” there are obvious warning signs for Brussels from Australia’s legal setbacks. Specifically, there is a threat that the EU’s current arrangements might one day be declared illegal themselves, with those subjected to them afforded the right to seek compensation. Claims from rights groups, legal scholars, and United Nations officials already allude to such a possibility. Moreover, there is clearly wisdom in avoiding other Australian-like policies such as indefinite detention of individuals, or turning back boats or caravans of desperate people, when another key plank of that country’s strategy has fallen.

The great tragedy in the Australian example is that domestic campaigners on behalf of refugees have long criticized the human rights records and institutional weakness of countries to whom their government has offloaded responsibilities. Now, a key body in one of those countries has successfully held up Australian policies to a higher standard than its own legal system.

It is difficult to see this exact dynamic playing out in Turkey, particularly with the authoritarian Erdoğan in power and enjoying a high degree of control over the decisions of its courts. It is not unforeseeable, however, that the legality of the Brussels pact with Turkey might one day soon be considered by the European Court of Justice. Meanwhile, the Turkish example has borne out fears common in Australia that empowering foreign regimes with disparate values can backfire, as has been seen with Erdoğan’s increasing challenges of Europe’s tradition of free expression.

The European comparisons with Australia’s asylum seeker policies are ultimately useful for the sake of a warning rather than lesson. If the EU continues down the same path, the future is likely to be one of increasing criticism and questioning of its values, and, ultimately, its legitimacy under its own and others’ legal systems. Meanwhile, the greater regional and global problem will continue to go unresolved. Ultimately, policymakers on the continent would be better served by remembering that they are—unlike the decidedly insular and John Donne-shunning Australia—a piece of the continent, with actions that have much broader and longer-lasting implications than they are currently contemplating.

This article originally featured on New Europe.