Italy’s refusal to let a migrant rescue ship dock feels alarmingly familiar to many.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, has provoked outrage across Europe with his refusal to let the Aquarius, a rescue ship carrying hundreds of migrants, dock in an Italian port. The Spanish government has had to step in to give the boat a safe harbour.
Mr Salvini’s move has been described as unprecedented. But for watchers of Australian politics, it is alarmingly familiar. During a tumultuous Australian election in 2001, a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, rescued more than 400 distressed asylum seekers in international waters. John Howard, the then-prime minister, refused the captain permission to enter Australian waters, and ordered special forces to seize the vessel when he did so anyway.
The “Tampa affair” stands out as a moment when Canberra explicitly adopted the view that Australia could no longer afford to observe humanitarian norms. Within a few months, the first elements of the Pacific solution, which involved forcing boats back to Indonesia and detaining asylum seekers in Nauru, an island nation 750 miles offshore, were in place.
There are worrying signs — beyond the eerie Aquarius-Tampa parallel — that the EU is heading down a similar path. Last year, the French president Emmanuel Macron floated the idea of keeping migrants away from Europe by creating “hotspots” to handle asylum requests in north Africa. The German interior ministry has also mooted the advantages of eliminating “the prospect of reaching the European coast”.
The temptations of such a policy for European politicians are clear. A steady stream of refugees to Europe has fed the rise of populist parties, including Mr Salvini’s League and Alternative for Germany. Meanwhile, Australia’s policy has largely achieved its objective: to “stop the boats”. European leaders are drawn to the humanitarian defence for this hardline approach: that stopping the boats means fewer drownings.
They should resist. Australia’s refugee policy has become notorious for its brutality. The Nauru detention centre has seen hunger strikes, suicides and hundreds of accusations of abuse. A separate centre on Manus Island last year had its water and power cut off. Amnesty International has called the policy a “human rights catastrophe”.
Few in the EU would defend the extreme brutality of Australia’s system — but in 2001 not many Australians would have either. The logic of deterrence naturally escalates: Australia introduced mandatory detention of “unlawful non-citizens” in 1992 and, ever since, has been gradually stepping up the degree of hostility needed to, in the words of several past and present immigration ministers, “take the sugar off the table”.
Escalation can happen for two reasons. The welfare of refugees receives less attention when they are processed offshore, far from the eyes of journalists or the public. When abuses are noticed, they are defended as life-saving deterrence. In 2015, then-prime minister Tony Abbott called a report highlighting abuses of children in offshore detention “a transparent stitch-up”. A few months later he said he would not “succumb to the cries of the human rights lawyers”.
The turning back of the Aquarius could have several consequences. It might reinvigorate EU efforts to share the burden of processing refugees and address Italian and Greek complaints about how much they have borne alone. It could also spur a serious attempt at a regional solution, working with North African states.
The other, darker scenario is that Europe will opt for an Australian solution, turning back boats and warehousing refugees in poorer neighbouring countries. Mr Salvini’s rhetoric is prompting outrage, but it is the plans of the EU’s more high-minded leaders that pose the real threat to the bloc’s self-image as a human rights champion.
This article was first published by The Financial Times on the 19th of June 2018. The writer, Fergus Peace, is refugees and migration reporter at Apolitical