A migrant from Southeast Asia in front of a poster in Melbourne that reads, “Real Australians Say Welcome,” 5 September 2015
For a year, the world has been captivated by a constant stream of reports on Europe’s refugee crisis. European leaders have tried, and failed, to effectively resettle refugees and limit the danger they face in their long journey to safety. Other nations, like Canada, have offered support to help lessen the burden posed by the influx of asylum-seekers, particularly from Syria.
But one wealthy western nation hasn’t been so quick to offer help, in part because it’s been dealing with a migrant crisis of its own for nearly twenty years. If you haven’t heard about it, you’re not alone. Since the late 1990s, Australia has been struggling to address its own asylum-seekers crisis, which shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.
Over a million refugees have arrived at the EU’s borders in the past year, prompting various responses from across the continent. Germany has promised to accept over 800,000 refugees over the next several years, while Hungary continues to resist accepting any. Scandinavian countries clamor to accept more refugees than original EU plans called for, while the UK is reinforcing its road borders with French port cities to keep them out.
EU leaders cannot give up on a united plan to accept refugees quickly and humanely. The only solution is to embrace the influx of refugees, and ensure they’re settled in a sustainable fashion that keeps the rest of the continent’s security in mind, too. Australia provides a cautionary tale of the disaster that a divided, incoherent and cold-hearted response to refugees would bring to Europe.
The issue of asylum-seekers first made headlines in Australia in the late 1990s, when refugees began traveling to the country en masse from Burma and Sri Lanka, fleeing repressive governments and civil conflict. Similar to the current migrant crisis in Europe, many of these refugees travelled by boat. However, the average trip from Sri Lanka or Burma to Australia is far longer than the voyage from Syria to Europe — and therefore even more dangerous.
Since 1997, the Australian government has opted for a policy of “offshore processing,” dubbed the “Pacific Solution,” in response to its refugee crisis. Naval ships that spot vessels carrying asylum-seekers take them on board and transfer them to state-run detention centers. For the vast majority of refugees, detention ends with deportation to either Indonesia or worse, back to their home countries. The few who do get to settle in Australia must first survive months, even years, of waiting in detention centers on Nauru and Christmas Island.
Offshore processing is popular with the Australian citizenry for several reasons. It is marketed by the country’s governing and opposition politicians as the most surefire way to dissuade refugees from trying to make the dangerous sea journey in the first place. Though conditions in detention centers are obviously poor, the general populace considers them preferable to keeping the more than 13,000 undocumented migrants in Australia’s major port cities as they await processing by the government. As in Europe, xenophobia also plays a somewhat significant role in the solution’s popularity.
While the Pacific Solution is certainly punishing to refugees, what supporters don’t realize is that the policy hurts Australia in the long term as well. First, it denies the country the benefits of larger immigrant populations: increased multiculturalism, new economic opportunities, and political goodwill on the world stage. Second, the country loses an opportunity to better the lives of refugees and allow them to access the education, jobs and personal freedoms they came to Australia to find. Additionally, like any other wealthy state, Australia has a moral obligation to take in at least some of the refugees that arrive on its shores. Europe finds itself in a similar situation.
One thing is clear, however: the “Pacific Solution” has remained popular in the long-term, both with the electorate and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Liberal Prime Minister John Howard famously declared in 2001, “we decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” Echoing this claim, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in 2013, “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.” Only the Australian Greens, who hold a paltry nine seats in the Senate and a single seat in the House of Representatives, actively oppose the Pacific Solution. Unlike their counterparts in Europe, Australian leaders have maintained a unified, anti-integration position, even though their strategy has failed to deter the influx of migrants.
Moreover, the Pacific Solution has taken a heavy toll on Australia’s bilateral relations with its regional partners across the south Pacific. The Indonesian government has frequently expressed frustration at having to shoulder a large part of the burden of taking in refugees — what they view as an essentially Australian problem. Australian relations with smaller surrounding island nations, many of which host controversial refugee detention centers, alternate between tense and outright hostile. The result is a two-fold problem for Australia: tensions within its own region, and more broadly, a significant blemish on its international reputation. Europe faces similar dangers in pursuing a less-than-compassionate response to its refugee crisis. It can ill afford to gamble its already shaky relationship with its partners in Northern Africa, and risks raising an eyebrow from allies across the Atlantic, as well.
Europe and Australia’s refugee crises are not so different. Refugees fleeing strife and violence are willing to risk their lives traveling great distances in poorly-constructed vessels. Yet governments and populations in wealthy nations are reluctant to integrate so many outsiders into their communities. Many prefer to instead focus on attempting to mitigate the factors that drive refugees to flee their countries of origin — usually by either dumping billions of foreign aid or waging proxy wars to achieve a twisted semblance of peace.
Australia’s refusal to take constructive action on its migrant crisis provides a cautionary tale to leaders in eastern and southern Europe. Ignoring, punishing, or turning away refugees might prevent their immediate arrival, but it will not stop them from knocking at the door. Doing nothing is not an option.
What is certain is that the Pacific Solution has, for 18 years, failed Australia, failed its regional partners in the Pacific Ocean, and failed thousands and thousands of refugees, creating more problems than the singular one the program set out to solve. A similar quagmire awaits Europe, should its leaders remain in limbo over their own migrant crisis. An open, compassionate and sustainable response to the flow of refugees is the only response that will not spell even greater trouble for Europe down the road.
Benson Cook is a first-year student at McGill University, studying Political Science.