Why stopping the boats does not solve the problem

Austria’s foreign minister recently suggested that people seeking asylum in Europe should not be allowed to enter the continent, but should be held on offshore islands instead. Sebastian Kurz said that the principles of the “Australian model” should be applied to Europe, and went as far as to suggest that people who entered Europe “illegally” should lose their right to apply for asylum.

At first glance, the “Australian model” may seem attractive to European politicians: this uncompromising and unapologetically militarised solution seems to have brought order to what had been a period of unregulated arrivals of thousands of people. In the words of the former commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, “The Australian government has introduced the toughest border protection measures ever…If you travel by boat to Australia you will never make Australia home.”

However, if Minister Kurz looked more closely, he would see the unforeseen and potentially catastrophic consequences of Australia’s tough border policies. 

The harm Australia’s policies have caused to the people stranded on Nauru and Manus Island, those detained in mainland detention centres and nearly 30,000 people seeking asylum and living in the Australian community is well documented. With the return of a Coalition government, it’s timely to ask, is ‘stopping the boats’ a successful, sustainable approach?

If stopping the boats and securing Australia’s borders are the goal, then it appears the government has succeeded. The boats have stopped arriving on Australian shores; however, they have not stopped leaving Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

While the number of boats attempting the journey to Australia has been dramatically reduced, people have not stopped trying to make their way to a country where they can find safety. In May a boat with 12 Sri Lankans was intercepted off the Australian territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Within two days the group had been returned to Sri Lanka. In fact, since Operation Sovereign Borders began in 2013, 26 boats have been intercepted, and 708 people returned to the countries from which they fled.  

What about those who would have boarded boats headed for Australia, but have not because of its current policy? Has a ‘stop the boats’ policy resolved the global challenge of forced migration?

A recent paper by Caroline Fleay and Lisa Hartley[1] evinces that “Australian policies are having disturbing impacts beyond our borders.” The authors describe how the Australian government’s direct collaboration with Sri Lankan security agencies has prevented the departure of people in fear of persecution who would like to seek asylum elsewhere.

The paper also outlines how the government’s policies restrict the ability of people seeking asylum to move beyond transit countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and effectively ‘warehouse’ them in countries that deny them access to health services, education and the labour market; these people also have little or no prospect of resettlement. 

Alarmingly, the paper cites community members in Malaysia who claim that, because the route to Australia has been blocked, “those seeking safety and protection from their home countries are now undertaking longer and more hazardous journeys to Europe”. This troubling development points to an uncomfortable truth: because people are not drowning en route to Australia does not mean they are not dying elsewhere. The complacency in Australia about the fate of those who can no longer arrive here by boat can be summed up as ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  

The publication of this research coincides with the release of the United Nations agency for refugees (UNHCR) Global Trends Report 2015. The report finds an unprecedented number – some 65.3 million people, or one in 113 − was displaced by conflict and persecution in 2015. The overwhelming majority – 86 per cent – of those displaced reside in developing nations. They are there not because those countries have formally agreed to resettle recognised refugees through the UN resettlement program, but because those countries have kept their borders open and offered much-needed refuge. 

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has said, “At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.”

As conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan continue, the UNHCR is desperately urging neighbouring countries to keep their borders open. Australia’s policy of shutting its doors to people in need of protection undermines UN requests and completely ignores the plight of thousands of people stranded across the Asia Pacific region.

However, a border policy that is completely open is not the alternative to Australia’s ‘stop the boats’ policy. Countries have the right to protect the integrity and security of their borders and to regulate movement across those borders. That right, however, cannot be allowed to render void the right of people seeking asylum to cross borders according to international law. It also should not countenance the return of people to countries where they may face persecution, harm and violation of their human rights or where their asylum claims cannot receive a fair and timely hearing.

Greater efforts must be made to reduce the need for people to take dangerous and irregular journeys. Rather than pouring valuable resources into returning boats and forcibly repatriating irregular migrants, Australia’s efforts should focus on engaging our regional neighbours to strengthen co-operation, address the causes of forced migration and develop the region’s protection infrastructure.

Historically, states in Asia Pacific have viewed protection as something that happens elsewhere, often in industrialised countries such as the US, Canada and Australia. Assisting our neighbours to develop and co-ordinate asylum procedures could lead to refugees receiving the same treatment no matter where they go. One key consequence of increasing protection for asylum seekers in transit countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia would be the reduction of onward movement to countries such as Australia.

The Australian government’s current strategy of preventing people from fleeing persecution in their own countries and restricting people from leaving transit countries where governments are unable or unwilling to provide protection is causing people to take longer, more dangerous journeys to Europe and other places. If Australia’s approach was universally adopted, the entire global protection regime would grind to a halt. If you could not flee to another country without that country’s prior approval, there would be a global catastrophe: millions of people would face harm and death in places from which they cannot flee.

‘Stopping the boats’ is a simplistic solution to a complex problem: people moving irregularly in search of safety and security. Forced migration is a challenging problem with no simple solution. In the short to medium-term, countries need to work together to manage the challenge. Australia’s current plan – to deter, deflect and ignore – is prohibitively expensive, inhumane and ineffective in addressing the global challenge of forced migration. Crucially, a unilateral policy of closed borders fatally and comprehensively undermines the architecture of the global protection regime.

Oliver White is Assistant Director, Jesuit Refugee Service.                                                       

[1] Fleay, C. & Hartley, L. (2016). The regional impacts of Australian asylum seeker policies: What ‘stopping the boats’ means for people seeking asylum in our region. Academy of the Social Sciences Australia Academy Papers 2/2016, Canberra. http://www.assa.edu.au/publications/papers/234

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Oliver White Image
Oliver White

Oliver White is Assistant Director, Jesuit Refugee Service.

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