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.