Soon after President Trump assumed office in January 2017, he had a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The transcript of the conversation, leaked in August, revealed that the new US president admired his Australian counterpart because Turnbull was “worse than I am” on asylum seekers. Turnbull had proudly stated, “If you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize–winning genius, we will not let you in.”
In their phone call, the prime minister begged the US leader to adhere to a deal struck by Turnbull and former President Barack Obama the year before, in which the United States had agreed take up to 1,250 refugees imprisoned by Australia for years on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru in the Pacific. In exchange, Australia would take refugees from Central America.
Trump didn’t understand why Australia couldn’t take the PNG and Nauru refugees in. Turnbull responded, “It is not because [the refugees] are bad people. It is because in order to stop people smugglers we had to deprive them of the product.” Trump liked what he heard. “That is a good idea,” he said. “We should do that too.”
Turnbull was proudly explaining the complex system established by Australia many years earlier: Refugees are imprisoned in privatized, remote detention centers on the Australian mainland and on Pacific islands. Trump isn’t the only one who is impressed; many Western leaders have not only expressed admiration for Australia’s draconian refugee policies but have initiated ways to implement them in their own nations to contend with the recent surge of people fleeing Africa and the Middle East.
The mainstreaming of xenophobia regarding refugees was perfected by Australian politicians more than 20 years ago. Along with a media-savvy mix of dog-whistling against ethnic groups with little social power, refugees have been accused of being dirty, suspicious, lazy, welfare-hungry, and potential terrorists—and they’ve been accused of refusing to assimilate, despite the country’s largely successful multicultural reality.
Australia hasn’t been shy in offering advice to European nations struggling with an influx of refugees. Former prime minister Tony Abbott warned his European counterparts in 2016 that they were facing a “peaceful invasion” and risked “losing control” of their sovereignty unless they embraced Australian-style policies.
“Effective border protection is not for the squeamish,” he claimed, after pushing the concept of turning back refugee boats at sea and returning people to their country of origin, “but it is absolutely necessary to save lives and to preserve nations.” Abbott refused my requests for comment.
Australia has accepted about 190,000 people annually in its permanent migration program in recent years. This year, however, the migrant intake will be the lowest in seven years. There’s an inherent contradiction in Australia’s migration policy: The country quietly accepts many refugees who come by plane, but treats those arriving by boat with contempt and abuse. Between 1976 and 2015, more than 69,600 people seeking asylum—mostly from Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East—have arrived in Australia by boat.
Unlike some European nations, such as Britain, Spain, and Italy, where about 65 percent of people oppose immigration, authoritative polling by Australia’s Scanlon Foundation found that a majority of citizens back new arrivals: 80 percent of respondents rejected selecting immigrants by race, and 74 percent opposed the idea of selecting immigrants by religion—and yet growing numbers of people expressed opposition to or suspicion of Islam. And calling for a large cut in immigration has entered the Australian mainstream. The latest polling from the Lowy Institute in 2018 found that a majority of Australians now back a curb in migration. Many of those pushing this argument claim that caring for immigrants is too costly and that priority should be given to improving the infrastructure and environment. It’s possible, of course, for such a rich country to do both.
The internationalization of Australia’s refugee stance has, unfortunately, coincided with Europe’s right-wing populist surge. Europe has recently faced millions of asylum seekers arriving on its shores. Many want them stopped and turned back. It’s a view shared by some of the continent’s most extreme political parties; Italy’s new right-wing government is already turning refugee boats away. Some far-right Danish politicians tried but failed to visit Nauru in 2016 to see how it was housing refugees. Punitive attitudes are moving from the fringes to the mainstream, so it’s not surprising they want to see how Australia does it. If this democratic country can warehouse refugees for years, with little tangible international sanction—apart from increasingly scathing UN reports on its migration program—why not European states, with far more people crossing their borders?
I heard this argument regularly when talking to European fans of Australia. Jens Baur, chairman of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany’s Saxony region, told The Nation that he praised Australian “success” against refugees because it was an effective “deterrent.” For Baur, Europe used “ships of the navies of European states as a ‘tug-taxi,’ bringing refugees from the North African coast to Europe.” He wanted Europe to follow the examples of Australia and anti-refugee Hungary.
A more influential European politician, Kenneth Kristensen Berth of the ultranationalist Danish People’s Party, Denmark’s leading opposition party, has increasingly copied Australia’s hard-line position as his party has grown in popularity. Berth said that he liked the “efficiency” of Australia’s system and had no sympathy for refugees trapped on Pacific islands.
“It is their own choice,” Berth told me. “They have been warned by Australian officials that they will never be able to call Australia their home if they tried to reach Australia illegally. As long as they are not manhandled in these detention centers, I do not find any fault at the Australian side.” (In fact, countless refugees have been assaulted.)
One of the key architects of Brexit, former far-right UKIP leader Nigel Farage, praised what a fellow UKIP MP called Australia’s “innovative” refugee approach and wanted the European Union to follow. Farage ignored my repeated requests for comment.
The ideological underpinning of Europe’s far-right support should be understood as a politically savvy mix of racism, a kind of nationalist socialism, and isolationism. Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of the recently published book Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, explains that many far-right leaders are “defenders of a nativist nanny state.” He told me, “They are not neoliberal dismantlers of the welfare state but defenders of social benefits for only the native born. This is a populist pitch that has been extremely effective at drawing ex-Communists and social democrats into their ranks. These politicians are seeking ways to protect their comprehensive social safety nets and avoid sharing with newcomers.”
Polakow-Suransky finds that in this worldview, Australia’s generous social benefits to its citizens should be copied in Europe but not for “what they perceive as the grasping hands of undeserving new arrivals who are seeking to leech off their welfare state.”
The Australian methods are ruthlessly effective; waves of refugees have attempted to arrive by boat since the early 1990s. Thousands have been physically and psychologically traumatized after being locked up, and one was even killed in detention by local guards (a subsequent Senate inquiry found that Australian authorities failed to adequately protect him). They’re often refused necessary medical care, and sometimes returned to danger in countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. A fundamental element of international law, which Australia routinely breaks, is the concept of non-refoulement, the principle that refugees should not be sent back to a place where they will be in danger.
Australia’s refugee policy has been condemned in reports by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, as well as in eyewitness accounts by activists and journalists. I’ve visited many of the most extreme facilities myself—such as Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean—and have heard horror stories from asylum seekers and guards. Successive Australian governments have paid tens of millions of dollars in compensation to many of these refugees, and yet the policy continues, with strong public support. In an age of refugee demonization, Australia was well ahead of the curve.
These policies were developed before the September 11 terror attacks, but they gained greater currency after that infamous day. After that trauma, it was easier to brand boat arrivals as potential terrorists and Islamist extremists; there’s been almost complete bipartisan political support for this view ever since.
Australia’s anti-refugee campaigns are targeted at a scared white population, of course, but their appeal is broader than that. According to the 2016 Census, nearly half of citizens were born to first- or second-generation migrants—and there are plenty of conservative former migrants who have little sympathy for more recent arrivals by boat. As journalist James Button wrote recently in the Australian magazine The Monthly, “Most Australians, including migrants, accept the brutal bargain: you have to be invited, there’s a right way and a wrong way.” The “wrong way” apparently deserves no sympathy. It doesn’t help that there are still very few nonwhite mainstream journalists in Australia, which means the perspectives of the growing number of non-Anglo residents are not getting the media attention they deserve.
Australian activists opposed to these policies have spent decades campaigning against them, including attempts to refer Australia to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over the country’s abuse of refugees in detention. Human-rights lawyer Madeline Gleeson, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales Law School in Sydney, told me that there were “persuasive grounds for arguing that certain conduct of Australian officers could engage their individual criminal responsibility,” but prosecution in an international court faces major obstacles, such as whether such a court could even be convinced to hear a case about abuses committed by a Western, democratic nation.
It’s now impossible to deny that Australian refugee policy is inspiring some of the most draconian asylum directives in the EU and beyond. How did a nation with such a positive international reputation become a global leader in harming asylum seekers?
For most of its existence as a settler-colonial nation, Australia had an official White Australia policy, preferring migrants with a British background. This began to change in the 1950s, and by the late 1970s, Australia was welcoming tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the chaos in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. But in the early 1990s, the Labor government introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers, who mostly came from Cambodia at the time (survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, the numbers were modest; they didn’t surge until the early 2000s, partly due to the “war on terror” under more conservative Prime Minister John Howard). The prime minister at the time, Paul Keating, said recently, “To be honest, it was not a great human rights issue for [the] cabinet at the time”—because they feared an avalanche of asylum claims from global conflict zones and troubled countries in the region, including China. It was the beginning of a process that has become increasingly harsh.
The scale of Australia’s detention network is difficult to fathom. With a population of around 25 million, and a land mass not much smaller than that of the United States, Australia has room for many more refugees and a need for skilled newcomers. But the country has long had a fear of the outsider (this sentiment may be partially rooted in the fact that Australia, established as a British colony in 1788, committed genocide against its first inhabitants, the Aborigines). Whereas once it was the Chinese and Vietnamese arrivals who were viewed with suspicion, today many Australians are convinced that brown, black, and Muslim refugees deserve the harshest treatment imaginable.
The cost of maintaining Australia’s detention camps is astronomical. The latest figures, released in early 2018, show that in the 2016-17 fiscal year, Australia spent $4.06 billion on “border protection.” This included “offshore management” of over $1 billion. The annual cost for each refugee housed in detention was $346,178.
Australia spent $10 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year (and millions more on other, similar projects) on overseas advertising directed at citizens in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The message was clear: Do not come to Australia by boat, because the path is completely blocked. The world’s surging refugee population—the largest since World War II, at more than 68 million—has done nothing to soften Australia’s resolve (aside from a small effort to welcome 12,000 refugees from war-torn Syria and Iraq). On the other hand, when white South African farmers faced threats earlier this year, the Australian government said they “deserve special treatment” and could be fast-tracked into the country.
In 2013, the Australian Parliament passed legislation removing the country’s mainland from its migration zone, allowing the government to send all arriving asylum seekers to PNG and Nauru. The point of offshoring refugees was that the Australian government could claim that any abuses or problems there were the responsibility of the countries in which they occurred, client states such as PNG and Nauru. It was a blatant lie, but it allowed multinationals that run those facilities to make a fortune (I attempted unsuccessfully to get a response from the company currently running the Manus Island facility, Paladin Solutions PNG). The offshoring in these poor and corrupt countries consigns the people imprisoned there to a legal black hole, in locations akin to Guantánamo Bay or even so-called “black sites” where journalists are rarely allowed access.
Operation Sovereign Borders was the name given in 2013 to the Australian government’s program to deter refugees at sea; it included paying Indonesian people-smugglers to turn boats around. Since 2013, the Australian Navy has turned back at least 31 boats carrying 771 people. Despite the fact that many asylum seekers were found by Australia to have legitimate claims, this had little effect on their treatment at the hands of officials, who often delayed decisions about their fate for years. The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection ignored my repeated requests for comment.
European support for Australia’s refugee policies goes way beyond rhetoric. I’ve spent years investigating this issue and found evidence that officials from both individual European nations as well as the EU are secretly meeting senior Australian officials to understand how to adopt Australia’s policies on a continent-wide scale.
A former senior official at the UN, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed to me that in 2016 Australia’s Ambassador for People Smuggling and Human Trafficking, Andrew Goledzinowski, undertook a tour of Europe, trying to convince governments and the UN of the virtues of Australia’s offshore processing model. Goledzinowski is now Australia’s High Commissioner to Malaysia. The Australian government refused to comment on the inner workings of its refugee strategy.
“I am certain that this tour was part of a much broader and longer-term Australian effort to export and legitimize its approach to the refugee issue,” the UN official said. “In that respect, looking at the trajectory of EU asylum policy, it has been pretty successful. The interceptions by Libyan coast guards [of refugees fleeing to Europe who are then sent back to horrific conditions in Libya] are essentially an arms-length version of Operation Sovereign Borders.”
In early 2017, Australian media reported that at least six European countries were asking Australia for advice in managing the refugee crisis. A spokesperson for Peter Dutton, who was then Australia’s immigration minister (he’s now home affairs minister), told the press then that “a number of European nations and the European Union have sought advice from the Australian Government on Operation Sovereign Borders. The minister has personally had discussions with several of his European counterparts.”
Last year the EU openly embraced Australian-style border-protection policies, while still denying it was doing so. When Italy announced it was sending its Mediterranean navy into Libyan waters to intercept refugees and send them back to Libya, along with plans to train the Libyan coast guard to manage the job on its own within three years, refugee rights were ignored.
The Libyan coast guard is underfunded and has been accused of abuses, including firing on refugee boats, but the EU and Italy are committed to boosting Libya’s role as gatekeeper of new arrivals, even though the country is engulfed in civil war and asylum seekers have experienced rape, torture, and enslavement. Amnesty International has accused the EU of complicity in mistreatment—including torture—of refugees by paying Libyan officials to work with people-smugglers and militia groups.
Despite these problems, Italy and the EU plan to spend 44 million euros between now and 2020 to help Libya build a vast search-and-rescue enterprise at sea, according to documents obtained by Reuters in late 2017. And French President Emmanuel Macron said last year he wanted to build refugee-processing centers in Libya to assess applicants before they come to Europe (France currently processes some refugees in a small outpost in Niger).
The EU already gives huge amounts of money and aid to Libya and Niger—two nations that have been cited by Amnesty International and other human-rights groups for numerous violations in their treatment of refugees—to effectively keep Europe-bound refugees in Africa. The EU, which has for years been quietly militarizing its response to border security, plans to spend billions to create an EU army.
When I asked the European Commission about contacts with Australia on its immigration policies, it claimed there had been none. But commission officials also told me that they had “enormous concerns” about security in Libya and were therefore focused on “strengthening our cooperation with neighboring countries to intervene before migrants embark on perilous journeys to Europe and to prevent deaths at sea by ensuring that migrants find a refuge in partner countries and by opening legal ways to Europe through resettlement.”
Critics of European policies have been increasingly marginalized. Jeff Crisp, former head of policy development and evaluation at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told me that the EU strategy was “smarter than that of Australia. While Canberra employs its own military personnel to implement Operation Sovereign Borders, the EU has contracted out the dirty work to the Libyan coast guard and associated militia groups. And while the Libyan slavery scandal threatened to expose the failings of EU refugee policy, it is now being used by Brussels to suggest that the best solution to the refugee issue is to send them all back to their countries of origin.”
It was perhaps imaginable that Australia would become an inspiration for all the wrong reasons. And with Trump in the White House, Washington could follow suit. Author Polakow-Suransky argues that the Trump administration could “attempt an Australian-style policy on a mass scale and pay off poor Central American countries to stop the flow of migrants or detain them.” In fact, Washington is already paying Mexico to keep migrants away from the US border and has helped militarize the Mexican-Guatemalan border to stop the refugee flow. Private contractors are currently reaping financial rewards from the Trump era’s harsh border policies.
Australia is one of the most successful multicultural nations on earth, and yet its legacy is now tainted by extreme efforts to dehumanize the most desperate people alive. The world is watching and learning.