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Australia Has Engineered New Levels of Border Cruelty — and Exported Them to Europe

Australia’s notoriously cruel border regime once made it a human rights pariah among rich nations. Now, its policies of “pushbacks” and long-term detainment have been adopted in Europe.

Greek police push back asylum seekers from the Moria camp who gathered outside the port of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in March. (Milos Bicanski / Getty Images)

The orange “floating tents” are increasingly common in the Aegean this year. People of all ages, huddled inside the motorless vessels, are on a return journey. After having reached Greek waters or islands by boat, they are set adrift back to Turkey by the Hellenic coast guard — using its own rescue equipment, sometimes with the complicity of the EU border and coast guard agency, Frontex.

It is one of the many “pushback” strategies that have been illegally implemented in the Aegean in recent years to prevent asylum seekers from landing on EU terrain; there have been an estimated eight thousand asylum seekers expelled from Greece in 2020 alone. Others seeking to reach the country find their dinghies intercepted by masked men on flagless boats, are shot at or beaten with chains, and then towed back out of European territory. Others are simply picked up and deposited on one of the Turkish islets in the Aegan, many of them uninhabited.

It was perhaps tactics such as these that Australia’s former prime minister, Tony Abbott, had in mind when he told a gathering of center-right members of the European parliament in 2016 that they could not afford to be “squeamish” about border protection. The following week, then Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, similarly declared to the United Nations that his country’s border policies were the “best in the world.”

At the time, the European continent was confronting the largest mobilization of refugees since the Second World War, with more than a million asylum seekers arriving during the previous year. And despite Australia having earned the status of international human rights pariah due to its hard-line approach on asylum seekers — deemed the worst among Western democracies — it seems EU leaders have since needed no further persuasion in the form of Antipodean spruikers to emulate such policies.

Australia’s “Sovereign Borders”

When elected in 2018, Australia’s current prime minister Scott Morrison brought to his Canberra office a trophy shaped like an Asian fishing boat, emblazoned with the words “I Stopped These.” It is a self-congratulatory reminder of Morrison’s role as Immigration Minister for Abbott’s conservative government in forging “Operation Sovereign Borders” — a policy credited with eliminating asylum seeker arrivals by sea to Australia. Beginning as an election mantra for Abbott’s Liberal party in 2013, the operation aimed to “stop the boats” that had brought some thirty-eight thousand asylum seekers to Australia since 2009.

The military-led strategy rested on two core components: so-called “tow-backs” and offshore detention. The former tasked the Australian Defence Force with identifying and returning asylum seeker vessels to their point of departure, normally Indonesia. This included buying and deploying vessels (such as orange lifeboats) to turn back unseaworthy boats, as well as instances of paying Indonesian people-smugglers to deliver the same ends.

“Regional processing” — policy speak for offshore detention — meanwhile saw arrivals bound for Australia transferred to centers on Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where their claims would be assessed pending resettlement. (The misnomer “processing” was readily apparent by 2016: the average duration in immigration detention stood at four hundred fifty days, with a quarter of asylum seekers spending more than seven hundred fifty days behind bars.)

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison speaks at the Australia Day citizenship ceremony at Lake Burley Griffin on January 26, 2020 in Canberra, Australia.
Rohan Thomson / Getty

The policy has since seen more than four thousand asylum seekers, including children, transported to Manus and Nauru, where many have waited more than five years for the outcome of their claims. At least a dozen have died in detention, including through acts of suicide such as self-immolation. Other deaths have been documented resulting from turn-back operations.

There have been countless instances of abuse by security guards, violence, self-harm, and physical and psychological illness (mostly untreated) resulting from the dire material and social conditions at both Manus and Nauru.

As well as routinely violating the international law of non-refoulment — that refugees should not be returned to a place of danger — Australia’s policy has been found to breach a catalogue of other human rights, including acts of torture against children, as one United Nations’ report concluded.

The Abbott and Morrison leaderships cannot alone credit themselves with this record. The principles enshrined in Operation Sovereign Borders date back to 2001, when Liberal PM John Howard instated the “Pacific Solution” to intercept and detain arrivals offshore in neighboring states.

The same year, more than three hundred fifty asylum seekers — almost half of them children — drowned when their fishing boat sank in international waters south of Indonesia where the Australian navy was conducting extensive patrol operations at the time. No official inquiry was held to determine why the vessel had not been detected, or why it took three days for the news to come to light — yet neither of Australia’s two major parties hesitated to use the event as political capital in promoting a harsher border policy on the pretext of ending deaths at sea.

And a decade before this, it was the Labor government of Paul Keating that lay the ideological foundations of Australia’s border regime. The law of mandatory detention obliged all “unauthorized arrivals” to be locked up, regardless of age or circumstance. The detention facilities — mostly outsourced to multinational private security and prison contractors — were characteristically isolated desert sites, materially deprived and wrought with misconduct, abuse, frequent hunger strikes, riots, suicide (including attempts by children), and other forms of self-harm.

Australia’s punitive trajectory was, however, garlanded by the Abbott government with the addition of the policy that any asylum seeker reaching Australia by boat would never be settled within its borders. A concurrent $20 million offshore advertising campaign was launched under the banner, “No way. You will not make Australia home.” (Or as former PM Malcolm Turnbull later declared, “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.”)

The Australian government has since invested an estimated $573,000 per year in detaining each individual offshore, with the system regularly costing more than $1 billion annually. With few exceptions, these policies have gone unchallenged in parliament, receiving bipartisan support among leaders of successive governments and oppositions.

Reproducing the Pacific Solution

On an emergency visit to Greece’s land border with Turkey in March this year, when some ten thousand asylum seekers arrived at the crossing trying to reach Europe, the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen thanked Greece, for acting as “our European shield in these times.” The mass mobilization of migrants followed an announcement by Turkey’s President Erdoğan that he was ordering guards at land and sea borders with Greece to step down.

Greece’s New Democracy prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis responded by stating that his country would not tolerate “illegal” entries and needed to boost “deterrence at our borders to the maximum.” He then suspended all new asylum applications to the country (a measure itself deemed illegal under international law). “Greece does not bear any responsibility for the tragic events in Syria and will not suffer the consequences of decisions taken by others,” he stated.

The night prior to the EU visit, one Syrian man among the gathering at the land border was shot dead by Greek guards while trying to cross (this might have been expected, since the Greek army and navy had simultaneously decided to conduct exercises along the country’s eastern frontier using live machine guns, rifles, and pistols.)

Amid these developments, Leyen announced an additional €700 million in EU funds to Greece, alongside the deployment of a “rapid border intervention” comprised of various patrol vessels, helicopters, aircraft, thermal-vision vehicles, and a further hundred border guards. The Greek PM duly tweeted to hail the “support by all 3 [EU] institutions at a time when Greece is successfully defending EU borders.”

What the EU parties were also attempting to defend was a failing 2016 accord with Turkey that member states had forged with the aim of shielding the continent from asylum seekers by other means. Brokered after the scale of arrivals to Europe reached unprecedented levels from 2015, the EU-Turkey deal centerd on a quid pro quo: Turkey would accept returned refugees from Greece in exchange for the resettling of recognized refugees from within its own borders to the EU.

Asylum seekers travel by boat in the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Tunisia. (Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images)

Erdoğan’s government was accordingly obliged to prevent sea crossings from Turkish shores and, for its part, would receive €6 billion in EU assistance. So as not to breach non-refoulment law, the EU listed Turkey as a so-called “safe third country” for refugees, making returns there legal under its existing obligations.

Where the preceding year had seen international media gush over the EU’s reception of asylum seekers who had traversed its open borders to arrive in northern member states — the celebrated “Willkommenskultur” of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany — the March 2016 deal signaled a reversal of this trajectory.

In its place, borders were sealed and the guiding imperative became that of closure — of deterring, detaining, and, more recently, deporting new arrivals under penal conditions. Anyone landing on the Greek islands has since been held there under a “geographical restriction” until their asylum claim is processed — a waiting time of anywhere between months and years.

The effect of the agreement has been to transform the Aegean islands into a kind of “double frontier”— a second borderland where asylum seekers (some fifty thousand at present) are detained indefinitely in an effort to prevent them from reaching the European continent.

Within months of the deal, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs were condemning the overcrowded facilities and entire Aegean archipelago as open-air prisons. Within months, the razor-wire-bound island camps (many operating at three times their capacity) bore all the hallmarks of their Antipodean precedents: gross structural deficiencies, widespread physical and mental illness, corruption, violence, sexual abuse, and suicide.

While an accomplishment in begetting human suffering, what the EU-Turkey deal has not succeeded in doing is stopping asylum seekers from coming to Greece by boat. Over the last year, arrivals via the Aegean rose to the highest levels since the 2015–16 peak, engendering evermore desperate measures by the EU — among them, a floating “fence” off the coast of Lesbos, and scheme offering €2,000 to asylum seekers on the islands to leave the country.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, traffic on the most well-frequented migratory sea route from North Africa to Italy has likewise continued. Faced with this fact, the Italian and Libyan governments in 2017 signed an externalization agreement in the form of a memorandum of understanding that leveled Libyan authorities with responsibility for intercepting asylum seeker boats in exchange for development funding, border enforcement training, and financing of its definitively hellish migrant detention centers.

The agreement was renewed this year with the EU allocating some further €60m to shore up Libya’s border management — despite internal criticism of its “poor” outcomes and condemnation for EU complicity in human trafficking and other abuses by Libyan officials. Spain, too, has introduced a system of border externalization — a “Cerberus response” as it has been called — whereby Moroccan authorities intervene to halt EU-bound asylum seekers, sometimes through violent force.

In the British Channel, whose waters some seven thousand asylum seekers have crossed to reach the UK this year, Boris Johnson’s government has launched a new blockade experiment to halt what the prime minster has deemed “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal” crossings.

Official documents recently confirmed his government’s eagerness to negotiate “an offshore asylum processing facility similar to the Australian model in Papua New Guinea and Nauru” alongside military strategies “akin to the Australian ‘turn back’ tactic, whereby migrant boats would be physically prevented … from entering UK waters.”

The Australian model has previously drawn admiration in Britain from UK Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, who hailed Abbott’s approach as “heroic” and “absolutely right” (in contrast to Merkel’s “lunatic policy…saying ‘Please, world, come here, we’re pleased to have you.’”)

Australia has garnered other proponents across the EU since 2016, with politicians from states including France, Holland, Denmark, Greece, Austria, and Belgium expressly advocating the country’s hard-line approach. (US President Donald Trump was likewise impressed by what he saw in the Pacific, telling Turnbull soon after his election, “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”)

Few EU politicians have matched Trump’s candor, though they have nonetheless promulgated equivalent policies, under the same hand-wringing auspices of saving lives and stripping smugglers of business as in Australia.

In the years since the EU was awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for “the advancement of human rights in Europe,” its borders have become the world’s deadliest frontier, costing more than twenty thousand lives. The increase in arrival rates and deaths at sea following the EU’s 2013 abolition of the Italian search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, similarly debunks the official myth that the operation acted as a “pull factor.”

Instituted in its place, Frontex’s border patrol “Operation Triton” and member states’ simultaneous crackdown on independent NGO search and rescue missions, are more accurate yardsticks of EU priorities. Earlier this month, one hundred people drowned within twenty-four hours in three separate shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean, while EU governments held six search and rescue operators impounded in ports.

And while the EU scouts further afield to outsource asylum seeker processing to “offshore” sites — with proposals in recent years ranging from Albania and Ukraine to Morocco, Mali, and Burkina Faso — the guiding imperative for managing those who do reach the continent has become an Australian-style apartheid.

In the absence of swathes of desert terrain, camps in mainland Greece have typically been established in sparsely populated areas, remote from urban centers. The island hotspots meanwhile increasingly resemble the hoped-for ideal of closed detention centers. Never has this logic been more apparent than since the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been mobilized to enforce camp lockdowns while denying the most basic health and living facilities, as well as access by media, NGOs, and activists.

Key to the dehumanizing efficacy of Australia’s border regime, it seems, has been its capacity to cut off physical and other contact between asylum seekers and the wider population, and to thereby obstruct the forms of solidarity or political struggle it might give rise to.

While Europe’s geography has rendered this impossible, the evermore vehement efforts by Greek and other EU authorities to criminalize or otherwise prohibit refugee NGO and volunteer support — or indeed human encounter altogether — serves the same goal of disaggregating social solidarity.

Even those with recognized refugee status in Greece have found themselves excluded through a denial of rights to social security, housing, education, healthcare, employment opportunities, and other integrative measures. The net effect of these policies is a familiar message, “No way, you will not make Europe home.”

Migrants arrive in port aboard a Border Force vessel after being intercepted while crossing the English Channel from France. (Leon Neal / Getty Images)

With the EU anti-torture committee last month leveling Greece with charges of inhuman and degrading treatment of asylum seekers, it may be tempting at times to think, as some have suggested, that Europe’s more robust human rights institutions could prevent the worst violations of the kind meted out in Australia.

Yet, developments since the EU-Turkey deal have confirmed the flexibility of international law in the greater service of border regimes. As in Australia, precepts of universal human rights are frequently being subordinated to individual states’ rights to “sovereign borders.” (As Theresa May explicitly declared: where human rights laws stood in the way of deportation, they could simply be changed.)

The campaign against asylum seekers in Europe has now reached such absurd extremes that retributive laws are being used against migrants themselves. This was made clear last month when an Afghan father was charged by Greek authorities with endangering his son’s life, after the six-year-old boy died when their boat capsized trying to reach Samos island.

As one Greek activist told me when observing Europe’s current trend of abrogating human rights on its borders, “Why don’t we just put up electric fencing, corner to corner, and some crocodiles in the river and admit that the basic foundation of our culture has changed?”

It is unsurprising, then, that a regime so intent on denying the most basic forms of agency and dignity has produced the same, most elementary of entreaties among those it seeks to punish — one seen for decades on placards from behind razor wire in Australian desert camps and on tropical island prisons: “I am human.”