Australia’s hard line on asylum seekers echoes around the world

Stop the boats? Italy’s new deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, head of the right-wing Lega, has vowed to “defend” the EU’s southern flanks from migrants and showed his intent by banning a shipload of rescued asylum seekers from Italy’s ports this month.

“Italy no longer wants to be complicit in the business of illegal immigration, so they will have to find other ports to go to,” Matteo Salvini said.

Salvini has long cited Australia’s migration system as a global ideal. And now he is the latest world leader to follow prime minister John Howard’s border control line that defined Australian politics for a generation: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

Howard called his 2001 election policy “an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders”.

And Trump echoed the sentiment, tweeting on Tuesday: “If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country!”

Why does the world suddenly seem to be paying attention to our example? Are we responsible? If so, why did it take Europe and the US a decade-and-a-half to catch on? Or are we just a convenient case study for some of those who would have adopted these policies anyway, and there’s something bigger going on?

‘You are worse than I am’

A leaked transcript of the January 2017 phone conversation between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull suggests the US President took a cue on border control and national security directly from Australia.

Turnbull said he’d spoken to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and another White House immigration adviser and “we reflected on how our policies have helped to inform your approach. We are very much of the same mind”.

He was referring to Trump’s contentious ban on taking refugees from a list of Muslim-majority countries, which Turnbull said was “exactly what we have done with the [Australian] program to bring in 12,000 Syrian refugees”.

Then the conversation took a turn for the worse, as Turnbull tried to persuade Trump to accept refugees from our detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

A Central American child who is travelling with a caravan of migrants sleeps at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, in April.

A Central American child who is travelling with a caravan of migrants sleeps at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, in April.

Photo: AP

Trump called out the hypocrisy in claiming the US should take people that Australia refused.

Turnbull replied with a summary of Australia’s deterrence policy to stop people smugglers by “depriving them of the product … if you try to come to Australia by boat, even if we think you are the best person in the world … we will not let you in”.

And Trump interjected: “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”

Here we are, 18 months later, with children in cages in Texas.

In April US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy ending the Obama-era pragmatism that kept families who crossed the border out of detention.

That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.

Donald Trump to Malcolm Turnbull

And – as in Australia – there were signs that cruelty works as a deterrent. As news of the US mistreatment of children spread, would-be migrants in Central America told The New York Times they were reconsidering their plans (though they also said it would make them more likely to seek help from people smugglers).

But of course Trump hardly needed persuading when it came to tougher border laws. Rather than picking up on a bright idea from Australia, Trump’s current political views have been there all along – and shaped into policy by lifelong right-wing immigration opponents such as senior White House advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.

On the day Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, he complained that Mexico was not “sending the best … they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists … they’re sending us not the right people”.

Graffiti adorns metal bars marking the United States border where it meets the Pacific Ocean.

Graffiti adorns metal bars marking the United States border where it meets the Pacific Ocean.

Photo: AP

He complained, “we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening, and it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast”.

And he has not credited Australia alone for his views on migration policy, though in February at the White House he told Turnbull that Australia’s merit-based system has “been very successful and we’re hoping to follow in your footsteps”.

On his first address to Congress in February 2017 he claimed he had been made President by “one simple but very crucial demand: that America must put its own citizens first”.

He decried the “current system of lower-skilled immigration” and promised a merit-based system “like Canada, Australia and many others”.

Trump’s rhetoric, including a repeated emphasis on the supposed link between immigrants and crime, has been stronger and more consistent than the occasional attempt by Australian politicians to taint asylum seekers as terrorists.

But Trump, right from the start, put crime at the centre of his objections to immigrants. There was the “Mexican rapists” line in 2015. There have been his repeated references to MS-13, a criminal street gang that originated in Los Angeles and is behind violence, drug activity and murders across the country: Trump claims a tough border protection policy is vital to cracking down on the gang whose members are mostly illegal aliens, according to authorities.

Trump on Europe

Trump’s infamous tweet in February 2017 took his story about the dangers of immigration to Europe.

“You look what’s happening last night in Sweden … they took in large numbers [of immigrants]. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

The theme emerged again on Tuesday.

“The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” Trump tweeted.

A poster of the far-right Alternative for Germany reads "Burqa? We prefer bikinis" near the Reichstag building in Berlin.

A poster of the far-right Alternative for Germany reads “Burqa? We prefer bikinis” near the Reichstag building in Berlin.

Photo: AP

“Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture! We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!”

German crime is at near-record lows, and though violent crime in particular is higher than in 2014, and the rise has been partly linked to immigration, it has fallen significantly in the past year.

But Trump – perhaps recalling his less-than-friendly encounter with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the recent G7 summit – had put his finger on a sore point.

In Europe, hostility to immigration is on the rise, with right-wing populist parties gaining electoral ground and even entering government. Last year the National Front candidate reached the second round of France’s presidential vote, and the Alternative for Germany captured an unprecedented slice of the popular vote in Germany’s parliamentary elections, causing Merkel a major and lasting political headache.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant Lega, is now a key player in Italy's government.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant Lega, is now a key player in Italy’s government.

Photo: Bloomberg

This year the right-wing, anti-migrant Lega party took power in Italy, in partnership with the politically ambiguous populists of the Five Star Movement.

A poll in 2017 found a majority of respondents in every European country apart from Finland were either “worried” or “very worried” about immigration.

It is a fallout from the migration crisis of 2015, which shocked the continent as a wave of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan came across the Mediterranean, mobilised by the worsening wars and declining conditions in Middle Eastern refugee camps.

A migrant family gathers with a few hundred others waiting for a train to Germany at the Keleti train station in Budapest, September 2015.

A migrant family gathers with a few hundred others waiting for a train to Germany at the Keleti train station in Budapest, September 2015.

Photo: New York Times

This wave has been blamed on Merkel’s decision in September 2015 for Germany to suspend the “Dublin protocol” under which asylum seekers must be processed in the EU country where they first arrive.

But the context is important. It was days since the image of the dead body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach had shocked the world, and Hungary was busing thousands of asylum seekers north and west from Budapest.

The alternative to taking them in was to deploy water cannons and tear gas at the German or Austrian border. Austria’s then foreign minister Sebastian Kurz complained “the western Balkan countries are overrun, overwhelmed and have been left to their own devices … We have to help them.”

Just a year later Kurz was complaining that the EU “cannot act like a human trafficker”. In an interview with Politico in 2016, he said the EU should apply “the Australian model”, which he said meant “stop illegal migrants at the external border”.

And last year Kurz was elected Austria’s chancellor, having campaigned on a promise to “stop illegal immigration”.

A new Axis

In a rather unfortunate choice of words, Kurz called this month for his country, Italy and Germany to form an “axis of the willing” against illegal migration.


But despite the historical resonance, the idea is catching on. Kurz used his first visit to Germany as chancellor in January to pledge “increased cooperation” with Germany on “stronger borders”, a sentiment that Merkel approved.Merkel’s shaky alliance with her conservative, Bavarian coalition partner is on the rocks over migration policy – they want to toughen up in response to the rise of the AfD.

Indeed, across Europe anti-migrant parties are hitting new highs.

In Sweden the populist Democrats are now in front in the polls ahead of the September election, polling 29 per cent, more than double their best ever election result. The country’s other major parties have ruled out a coalition with the party, which until quite recently was an explicitly white-supremacist, neo-Nazi movement.

But centrist blocking tactics did not work in Italy, where Salvini’s Lega campaigned under the slogan “Italians first” (note: Italians, not just Italy), and is moving quickly to crack down on asylum seeker intake and also on the domestic Roma population.

In June 2015, Lega leader Matteo Salvini said “setting limits to immigration is a sign of civilisation … my model is England, Australia”.  A year earlier he had noted with approval that “Australia uses its navy to repel the boats”.

“The far-right and populist parties have been around in a number of European countries for quite a while,” says Jonathan Portes, former economist for the UK Cabinet Office, now a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London teaching the politics of immigration.

But for most of them, the focus on immigration is new. Lega, for example, up until recently was much more concerned about Italy’s north subsidising its south. Viktor Orban in Hungary didn’t come to power on a particularly anti-immigrant platform, but it was his main focus on his recent re-election.

“What they have in common is taking advantage of the refugee crisis in 2015,” he says. “Immigration turned out to be a perfect issue for some populist parties because it’s a way of crystallising the dissatisfaction of people who feel either economically or socially left behind or excluded.”

Another “perfect” issue was linking Muslim populations to Islamist terrorism.

The irony is that populists are coming to power on a promise to stop a migration crisis that appears to have ended more than a year ago, under previous administrations.

May saw less than half the number of irregular border crossings into Europe compared with a year before. The number of crossings in 2017 was 60 per cent fewer than in 2016.

In the central Mediterranean – Italy’s concern – less than a fifth the number of asylum seekers arrived this year compared with May 2017. And the number of African migrants reaching Italy had fallen almost 90 per cent year on year from 2016 to 2017.

(Migrants are still dying in the Mediterranean, but this is usually not what the populists complain about).

Dodging the question

Portes is dismissive of the idea that Australia has inspired Europe’s new direction on immigration or border control, despite the regular use of the phrase “Australian-style points system” in political discourse.

Leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel Farage with the infamous "Breaking Point" poster during the Brexit campaign.

Leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel Farage with the infamous “Breaking Point” poster during the Brexit campaign.

Photo: AP

“The ‘points-based system’ is a great catchphrase in the UK and has been for at least a decade,” he says. “When I was in government I remember the then immigration minister Liam Byrne announce we would have an Australian-style points system … [a colleague] said ‘the focus groups love it’.

“But the fact is nobody, including Nigel Farage, has any idea how the Australian system works.”

The phrase is just used as a proxy for immigration systems common to almost any country that manages its immigration intake, Portes says.

“Saying you want an Australian-style points system is just a way of dodging all the real questions about what your system actually looks like. And if you asked any of the people who witter on about it what the difference is between the Australian and Canadian points systems, they won’t have a clue.”

When it comes to the border policy side, offshore processing has been considered in Britain since at least the mid-2000s, Portes says – again, before Australia became a role model.

“You can understand why policymakers are attracted to it, they think ‘look Australia did it and it worked, it stopped arrivals, it provided a deterrent’.

“It appears to be reasonably effective and not quite as inhumane as actually shooting people … But I think trying to replicate it in the EU context would prove a lot harder.”

One explanation for Australia “getting there first” on immigration and border issues is that we got there first on populism.

Rae Wear, a leading political scientist at the University of Queensland, has argued that populism “was a permanent feature of John Howard’s government” used to sideline One Nation, wedge the opposition and reconcile the rival neo-liberal and social conservative sides of his party. Tellingly, Howard has professed himself “delighted” with Brexit, and praised Trump for articulating resentment against an “avalanche of political correctness”.

Finding an ‘attractive storyteller’

All politics works in cycles. If Australia led the way into this obsession with migration, will we lead the way out?

If so, there are very few signs of it.

Australia’s policy on asylum seekers and refugees seems entrenched. There is no widespread push to bring the people from Manus Island and Nauru to Australia, and Nauru still hosts around 140 children, according to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. An Essential poll last year found only 25 per cent of people felt Australia’s policies were “too tough”.

On immigration generally, the latest Lowy poll found a majority of Australians thought the total number of migrants coming to Australia each year was too high: more than in 2017 or 2014.

No politician seems capable of breaking the populist political mould.

Former foreign minister Gareth Evans says economic and security anxiety are manifesting as cultural anxiety, with “immigrants seen as taking jobs, asylum seekers as taking welfare, and Muslims as threatening jobs”.

In a recent essay he blames the current crop of mainstream politicians for lacking “that instinctive ability to connect” – decrying them as reactive prisoners of the media cycle.

What Australia needs is an “attractive storyteller” in politics, Evans says.

But he doesn’t come up with any candidates.

Nick Miller

Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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