Wednesday

19th Jun 2019

Opinion

EU cannot copy Australia's offshore asylum model

  • Australia's treatment of migrants has sparked regular protests on Nauru island. (Photo: © Private)

Casting about for ways to manage refugee flows, some European policymakers speak of emulating Australia’s use of offshore processing centres. But Australia’s approach to asylum seekers is fiscally irresponsible, morally bankrupt, and increasingly unsustainable politically. It’s no model for Europe.

To start with, the Australian approach is expensive: the country’s taxpayers are spending something on the order of €240,000 per person per year on offshore facilities. That figure doesn’t include the cost of the coast guard’s interdiction operations, the payouts the Australian government may have made to smugglers to turn boats back to Indonesia, and the €38 million it is known to have paid Cambodia to accept a handful of refugees it had sent to Nauru.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Many migrants held in the Manus Island camp complain of mental health problems (Photo: Global Panorama)

Let’s think about those numbers for a minute. Instead of sending those migrants to its offshore facilities, Australia could send each of them to Harvard to receive a four-year undergraduate education. Or each could get a home outright in much of the United Kingdom, or a year-long stay at the Ritz London. Or Australia could buy each of them a Bentley, Ferrari, or Lamborghini.

What’s more, it’s by no means clear what the price tag would look like if the Australian model were scaled up to European proportions—or if it’s even feasible to do so. The migration flows Europe faces are about 20 times greater than those to Australia, which had peak boat arrivals of just over 20,000 people in 2013.

And it’s worth keeping in mind that Australia has made that outlay for arrangements that are only temporary. Nauru has said it expects the refugees it holds to move elsewhere at some point. Papua New Guinea’s government has conceded, in response to a ruling by that country’s supreme court, that its Manus Island facility must be closed as soon as possible.

The point is that this doesn’t look like the best way for Australia – or the EU – to spend its taxpayers’ money. The human cost isn’t as easily quantifiable, but it’s enormous. I’ve been to both Manus Island and Nauru and seen first-hand what offshore “processing” means for the people who are forcibly transferred and held indefinitely in countries where they’d never intended to go.

'Sinister exercise in cruelty'

Nearly everybody I spoke to reported that after they were transferred to these remote locations they’d developed mental health issues of some kind—high levels of anxiety, trouble sleeping, mood swings, and feelings of listlessness and despondency were most commonly mentioned.

Children as well as adults have regularly considered and even attempted suicide. A 15-year-old girl told me that she’d tried to commit suicide twice while on Nauru. “I’m tired of my life,” she said.

A leaked report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that post-traumatic stress disorder and depression “have reached epidemic proportions” among those held in both locations.

It should be no surprise that Australia’s pursuit of policies that cause severe and lasting harm to refugees and asylum seekers has done significant damage to its international reputation as a rights-respecting country. “The world’s refugee crisis knows no more sinister exercise in cruelty than Australia’s island prisons,” the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote in December, reporting on his visit to Manus Island.

Australian officials attempt to spin sustained abuse as a life-saving measure, claiming that offshore operations are necessary to deter smuggling by boat and thus save lives at sea. Put another way, some 2,000 people are held on remote islands as an example to others. As a refugee on Manus remarked: “The cost of Australia’s border protection policies is a human sacrifice—us. They need us here as a symbol to stop the boats.”

Driving people to breaking point

It doesn’t have to be this way. Safe, legal pathways of migration from transit countries would help many refugees avoid having to take dangerous boat journeys, and wouldn’t punish people for making it to their intended destination. That would be a far better deterrent and a far better approach for EU countries to take.

The EU should end its efforts to outsource responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers to outside countries—the opportunistic, flawed deal with Turkey and problematic cooperation with Libyan authorities—and focus instead on initiatives to improve conditions for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Libya and elsewhere.

Access to work and education for refugees in those countries would make an enormous and immediate difference. EU support, diplomatic and financial, can help that happen.

Australian policies have left lives in limbo, driving people to the breaking point. Europe should take a different path.

Michael Garcia Bochenek is Human Rights Watch’s senior counsel on children’s rights.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Austria proposes to offshore EU asylum

Austria's defence minister is proposing a radical overhaul of the EU asylum rules, including offshoring the asylum process and imposing limits on EU state intakes.

Asylum conditions on Greek islands 'untenable'

Germany is preparing to send people back to Greece with the EU's blessing, even though the EU commission has described snow-covered migrant camps on Greek islands as "untenable".

Catalonia MEPs are a judicial, not political, issue

Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comin currently live outside Spain. They were prosecuted for the serious crimes, and they have fled justice. It is not possible to judge in absentia in Spain, where the justice system protects the rights of defendants.

Letter

MDIF responds to Orban criticism

In his response, Dr Zoltan Kovacs does not even try to refute my main point about Hungary: that most Hungarian news media have been captured by the state, and that this anti-democratic trend is spreading across Eastern Europe.

News in Brief

  1. New socialist group leader to push for Timmermans
  2. Romanian ex-PM frontrunner to head new liberal group
  3. France, Germany and Spain in fighter jet deal
  4. Tusk grilled in Poland over role as PM
  5. Italy is 'most credible' US partner in EU, says Salvini
  6. EU blames Sudan junta for killings and rapes
  7. Report: EU may suspend Turkey customs union talks
  8. Swiss stock exchange could lose EU access in July

Six takeaways on digital disinformation at EU elections

For example, Germany's primetime TV news reported that 47 percent of political social media discussions were related to the extreme-right AfD party, when in fact this was the case only for Twitter - used by only four percent of Germans.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  3. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  5. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  6. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  7. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  8. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody

Latest News

  1. EU urges Swiss to move on talks or face sanction
  2. Frontex transparency dispute goes to EU court
  3. Commission goes easy on scant national climate plans
  4. Macron and Mogherini decline to back US accusation on Iran
  5. EU summit must give effective answer on migration
  6. Spain's Garcia set to be next Socialist leader in parliament
  7. Erdogan mocks Macron amid EU sanctions threat
  8. The most dangerous pesticide you've never heard of

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  2. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  5. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  10. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  11. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  12. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us