Is the ‘Australia solution’ the answer to Europe’s immigration crisis?

Is the ‘Australia solution’ the answer to Europe’s immigration crisis?

Canberra’s hardline immigration approach has been touted as a model but obstacles remain.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The so-called ‘Australia solution’—a system where irregular arrivals are processed offshore—is increasingly being touted as a way forward by politicians in Europe.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Although Europe will likely continue to externalise its immigration problems, there are likely too many obstacles for an Australia-style policy to be replicated
– Rather than being a viable option, calls for an Australia solution are likely to continue to be deployed as a way of galvanising populist voters and parties throughout the EU

After record numbers of boat arrivals produced rising economic, cultural and security-based anxieties amongst the Australian electorate, the Rudd government moved in 2013 to reinstitute a system of offshore processing. In the following years, this system has evolved to encompass two detention centres, one in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea and the other in Nauru. Under these arrangements, irregular maritime arrivals are processed offshore and are never allowed into Australia — even if they are found to be genuine refugees. This policy has proved to be remarkably successful and is politically backed by a bipartisan consensus.

After grappling with an immigration crisis in 2015 which far surpassed anything Australia has ever faced, populist parties became a significant force in Europe as the politics of fear took hold. This occurred even as the number of arrivals into Europe actually plummeted. In this climate, Australia’s hardline policies have increasingly been seen as a viable solution to Europe’s woes, a political trend exemplified by the rise of Sebastian Kurz as the Chancellor of Austria. One of the main proponents of the Australia solution, Kurz has used the politics of immigration to restyle himself and his traditionally centre-right Austrian People’s Party into an election-winning populist political force.

As part of his Australia solution, Kurz proposes the establishment of processing centres in North Africa. All irregular migrants who reached Europe or the Mediterranean would be repatriated to these centres, thereby deterring asylum seekers from making the sea voyage to Europe. It is uncertain how many of those processed at the centres would actually be allowed to settle in Europe, or how exactly they would be resettled. Kurz has, however, proposed following Australia’s lead in resettling refugees through the UNHCR’s voluntary refugee resettlement program. Effectively, this would entail the complete externalisation of Europe’s irregular migration policy, and in all likelihood, a massive reduction in the EU’s refugee intake.

FERTILE GROUND

Europe migration processing north africa

Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty

Kurz’s efforts have coincided with the general push at the EU level to externalise its immigration policies. Amid significant division after the EU failed to reach agreement on resettlement quotas in 2015, externalisation has proved to be the only effective way to reach a solution — albeit a political rather than humanitarian one — to Europe’s immigration woes.

The resurgence in the electoral fortunes of populist parties has largely precluded the emergence of any efforts at creating a functioning, European-level immigration policy. In this context,  Europe has reached deals in recent years with authorities in Turkey and Libya, aimed at closing off the main migration routes into Europe.

While these efforts have actually borne some fruit, immigration is still a supercharged political issue. The outcome of the heated June EU Summit — which was basically convened to come up with an EU-wide arrangement in order to save German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fragile coalition — was a statement which called for the establishment of ‘regional disembarkation platforms’ in North Africa. At these centres, it is envisaged that asylum seekers will ‘receive protection…including through resettlement schemes.’ Kurz’s ideas have now become mainstream.

DOES THE AUSTRALIA SOLUTION ACTUALLY HOLD WATER?

Italian navy rescue asylum seekers

Photo: Massimo Sestini/Polaris

Although an ‘Australia solution’ or something closely approximating it is clearly attractive as a simple fix to a complex problem, questions abound over its viability.

First, is not clear whether the proposal will receive enough support within the EU to be implemented. Although governments in Italy and France are very supportive of the proposal, other countries—even if they endorsed the summit’s statement—have reservations about implementing offshore processing centres. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s recent decision to take a boat load of asylum seekers suggests that pro-refugee sentiment resonates in Spain.

The Australia solution may also effectively amount to kicking the can down the road. One way or another, Europe is going to have to find a way to repatriate and, in all likelihood, resettle a significant number of those who reach the offshore processing centres. However, source countries have often refused to accept the return of those whose claims for asylum fail. More importantly from a European perspective, resettling successful applicants will inevitably entail the very type of cross-continent cooperation—potentially on a far larger scale—that failed in 2015.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle to the EU scheme is that so far, no North African countries have expressed (at least publicly) any interest whatsoever in hosting centres on their territory. To the contrary, leaders from Tunisia and Libya have expressed their unequivocal opposition to the EU’s plans. Knowing that their respective publics would resent being Europe’s dumping ground, the leaders of these countries are also worried that large scale influxes could exacerbate already fragile security environments and economies.

These issues would not be of such a concern if leaders actually trusted Europe to resettle refugees. The fact is that such trust is sorely lacking. Many have used the example of Niger—which agreed to host refugees repatriated from Libya—to question whether Europe would be willing to resettle significant numbers of people, given that it manifestly failed to resettle the vast majority of the 1,400 who arrived in Niger.

Finally, there are legal and financial issues. The presence of the European Convention on Human Rights and the lack of a mechanism within EU law to facilitate asylum claims made from outside the EU mean that legal challenges could be forthcoming. If the Australian experience is anything to go by — combined with the existing abuses facing migrants in the region —  human rights concerns would undoubtedly in any hypothetical North African processing centre. Further, a 2012 European Court of Human Rights ruling on the legality of the Italian Navy’s practice of sending boats back to Libya, suggests that European human rights protections could apply even in an offshore context.

Moreover, it costs the Australian government €240,000 to detain just one person for a year in offshore detention. Obviously, Europe has much higher flows of irregular immigrants and given the difficulties in terms of repatriating and resettling asylum seekers, it is likely that the EU would be left with a hefty bill.

WHAT NOW?

Salvini matteo migration

Photo: EPA-EFE/Riccardo Antimaiani

Clearly, any attempt to export an Australia-style solution to the EU will face many obstacles, which is unsurprising given the differing political, legal, and geographical contexts. That being said, due to the heated political nature of the irregular immigration issue and the difficulty in achieving common ground at the EU level, it is unlikely that the EU will entirely jettison its externalisation efforts.

Cooperation with Libya and Turkey will be maintained and possibility redoubled, and other bilateral deals could well be forged if individual North African countries succumb to European pressure and inducements. Because of its easily consumable nature—not unlike former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ‘stop the boats’ slogan—do not expect rhetorical references to an ‘Australia solution’ to disappear from the EU lexicon anytime soon.