Four years ago, the Australian government sparked criticism after it ran an advertisement aimed at discouraging asylum seekers from traveling illegally to the country. "No Way", the poster read. "You will not make Australia home. If you get on a boat without a visa, you will not end up in Australia. Any vessel seeking illegally to enter Australia will be intercepted and safely removed beyond Australian waters".
It was an extremely tough message, but it worked. "Australia's migration rate is the lowest it's been in 10 years", said Peter Dutton, Australia's Home Affairs Minister. Speaking last week on the Today Show, Dutton added that the drop was about "restoring integrity to our border". The Australians are apparently happy about that. A new poll just revealed that 72% of voters support Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's immigration policy. Australia, a Western democracy, has for years, tried to deal with a migration crisis from the sea.
"Europeans think it's easy in Australia to control our borders, but they're just making up excuses for doing nothing themselves," said retired major general Jim Molan, co-author of Australia's asylum policy.
In 2013, Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister under the slogan "Stop the boats". "Stop the boats" is now also the slogan of the new Italy's new Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who, since the formation of a new government last month, has been totally focused on curbing immigration from "the world's most lethal" route: across the Mediterranean.
It would seem that the best possible model for Europe to implement is a skills-based immigration system to curb the illegal one.
Last year, EU officials came to Australia for help. At a recent summit, European Union member states agreed to copy the Australian model of turning back the migrant boats and sending them to third-countries, to centers there run by local authorities, on the model of the Manus Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea, which was used to house migrants turned away from Australia. Italy is now looking to create similar reception centers on the southern border of Libya.
The Manus Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea, where Australia used to send illegal immigrants turned away from Australia. It was formally closed on October 31, 2017. (Image source: Australia Department of Immigration and Citizenship)
François Crepeau, the U.N. special rapporteur on migrant human rights, urged Europe not to view Australia as a model; he labelled the idea "cruel, inhuman and degrading". Stopping migrants from dying at sea, however, is the opposite of cruelty; it is humanity. "We have got hundreds, maybe thousands of people drowning in the attempts to get from Africa to Europe", Abbott said in 2015. The "only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats".
Australia's Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, explained that "we are not going to accept people who have sought to come to our country illegally by boat". Humanitarians, as Abbott put it, were helping them in the name of a "misguided altruism".
Under the government of Australia's former Prime Minister Julia Gilliard, in May 2013, Australia excised even the mainland from its migration zone. This meant that migrants might be sent to the detention facilities abroad even if their ships landed.
The Australian model is not only based on keeping the borders safe and prioritizing highly-skilled immigrants. It also revolves around the idea of a cultural legacy that migrants have to embrace. Prime Minister Turnbull says he wants a test, for immigrants, of "Australian values", including questions on whether it is acceptable to strike your spouse, ban girls from education, or carry out female genital mutilation (FGM). In multicultural Europe, the same test would be taboo. Turnbull has called to "defend" these Australian values. Preserving the nation-state and its cultural Western tradition, he says, is necessary to assimilate the migrants. "My long experience in Australian politics has been that whenever a government is seen to have immigration flows under control, public support for immigration increases, when the reverse occurs hostility to immigration rises" former Australian Prime Minister John Howard wrote.
As Italy is now dealing with boats from Africa trying to reach its shores, it might be helpful to remind the public that Australia also started with the "Tampa Affair": In 2001, Australia prevented a Norwegian boat, which had rescued hundreds of asylum-seekers in the Indian Ocean, from bringing them to Australia. It is called, "the boat that changed it all". The immigration minister at the time, Philip Ruddock, warned Australians that 10,000 people from the Middle East were preparing to embark boats from Asia to Australia. The Australian government ignored a request by the United Nations to let the refugees set foot on their island. Public opinion stood behind the government. Since, several decades ago, the first wave of "boat people" from Vietnam (1976–81) was received by the Australian public with sympathy, new arrivals quickly became a matter of increasing concern, as is happening now in Europe. Since then, Australia's policy to solve its own migration crisis has been, "no resettlements, no boats".
Following the Tampa Affair, the defining elements of Australia's future policy were put into place:
"Islands were excised from the Australian migration zone to prevent asylum seekers lodging visa applications; detention centres were set up on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and the tiny and bankrupt republic of Nauru; and a reluctant Navy was engaged to intercept and turn back vessels containing asylum seekers".
Italy faces a new potential wave of 700,000 migrants currently in Libya. The Italian government should now follow Australia's example.
It is with a heavy heart that I am making these suggestions. It must be crushing to live in a country where governance might be questionable at best, and economic opportunities limited, if that. People know they are risking their life in search of a better break. But if the West is not to be overwhelmed, these problems seriously need to be addressed.
Illegal immigration is bad for Europe -- and bad for migrants, as well.
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.