How Europe's far right fell in love with Aus­tralia's im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy

The Guardian Australia - - Front Page - Sasha Po­lakow-Su­ran­sky

In Oc­to­ber 2015, six weeks af­ter Tony Ab­bott was de­posed as Aus­tralia’s prime min­is­ter in a fit of in­tra­party back­stab­bing, he ar­rived in Lon­don to give the Mar­garet Thatcher memo­rial lec­ture at Guild­hall. Stand­ing be­fore an au­di­ence of Con­ser­va­tive party lu­mi­nar­ies, he praised the Iron Lady be­fore launch­ing into a spir­ited de­fence of Aus­tralia’s con­tro­ver­sial im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy. Ac­cord­ing to Ab­bott, his gov­ern­ment’s harsh mea­sures – forcibly turn­ing around refugee boats to pre­vent them land­ing, and send­ing asy­lum seek­ers to de­ten­tion camps on re­mote Pa­cific is­lands – had ended the ar­rival of un­wanted mi­grants in Aus­tralia.

Af­ter a sum­mer when more than a mil­lion asy­lum seek­ers had streamed into Europe, Ab­bott lec­tured the as­sem­bled Tories about the per­ils of lov­ing one’s neigh­bour as one­self, call­ing it a “whole­some in­stinct [that is] lead­ing much of Europe into cat­a­strophic er­ror”. Due to “mis­guided al­tru­ism”, Europe was weak­en­ing it­self, ar­gued Ab­bott, and the only way to re­verse the tide, he in­sisted, was em­u­lat­ing Aus­tralia’s pol­icy.

Whether those turned away died in another coun­try’s waters or back in the coun­tries they ini­tially fled did not fig­ure in his equa­tion. By re­mov­ing im­ages of boats cap­siz­ing off Aus­tralia’s shores from lo­cal tele­vi­sion and en­sur­ing that more mi­grants seek­ing asy­lum did not ar­rive in the coun­try, his work was done. Nor was he both­ered by the fact that the off­shore camps in Nauru and Pa­pua New Guinea were still op­er­at­ing, at a cost of bil­lions of dol­lars.

The core of Ab­bott’s ar­gu­ment was that refugees seek­ing asy­lum were sim­ply try­ing to cheat the sys­tem by trav­el­ling to wealth­ier western coun­tries. “In Europe, as with Aus­tralia,” he said, “peo­ple claim­ing asy­lum – in­vari­ably – have crossed not one bor­der but many; and are no longer flee­ing in fear but are con­tract­ing in hope with peo­ple smug­glers. How­ever des­per­ate, al­most by def­i­ni­tion, they are eco­nomic mi­grants,” – even though many asy­lum seek­ers ar­riv­ing in Europe and Aus­tralia have passed through coun­tries that are un­safe or do not of­fer asy­lum be­cause they are not party to the UN refugee con­ven­tion.

“Our moral obli­ga­tion is to re­ceive peo­ple flee­ing for their lives. It’s not to pro­vide per­ma­nent res­i­dency to any­one and ev­ery­one who would rather live in a pros­per­ous western coun­try,” said Ab­bott. He de­nounced the EU and Nato res­cue mis­sions in the Mediter­ranean as too kind. For Ab­bott, res­cu­ing mi­grants on cap­siz­ing boats was “a fa­cil­i­ta­tor [for mi­gra­tion] rather than a de­ter-


But as the rest of his speech made plain, the real al­lure of Aus­tralia’s off­shoring pol­icy was ide­o­log­i­cal, not sim­ply lo­gis­ti­cal. For Ab­bott, the seas sur­round­ing Aus­tralia and Europe were fronts in a new bat­tle, in which des­per­ate asy­lum seek­ers ap­peared as an in­vad­ing horde threat­en­ing western civil­i­sa­tion it­self: “It will gnaw at our con­sciences – yet it is the only way to pre­vent a tide of hu­man­ity surg­ing through Europe and quite pos­si­bly chang­ing it for ever.” An anony­mous Tory min­is­ter la­belled the speech “fascis­tic”. Nigel Farage called Ab­bott “heroic”.

Al­though it rarely makes the news, Aus­tralia’s im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy has be­come a bea­con for Europe’s far right. From France to Holland and Den­mark, politi­cians point to the Aus­tralian model as the so­lu­tion for Europe’s refugee cri­sis, and they are not talk­ing about the points sys­tem that Aus­tralia uses to de­ter­mine the ed­u­ca­tional and skill lev­els of po­ten­tial im­mi­grants. The real at­trac­tion, es­pe­cially since the mas­sive refugee in­flux of 2015, is off­shoring.

Rather than as­sess the asy­lum claims of peo­ple ar­riv­ing by boat or res­cu­ing them at sea, the Aus­tralian navy in­ter­cepts asy­lum seek­ers, tow­ing them back or putting them into small sealed pods and send­ing them off in the di­rec­tion of In­done­sia. Those who reach Aus­tralian ter­ri­tory are sent to de­ten­tion camps on Nauru or Manus Is­land in Pa­pua New Guinea. Both camps are paid for by the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment and run by pri­vate con­trac­tors. The in­mates can claim asy­lum there – but not in Aus­tralia – while they re­main in mis­er­able con­di­tions of con­fine­ment de­signed to de­ter oth­ers from at­tempt­ing the same jour­ney. If peo­ple seek­ing asy­lum are never al­lowed to reach Aus­tralian shores, so the logic goes, they will never have a le­git­i­mate claim to refugee sta­tus in the coun­try or ac­cess to its le­gal pro­tec­tions and wel­fare ben­e­fits.

For far-right lead­ers promis­ing to stop the hordes from storm­ing Europe, the model has un­de­ni­able appeal. A month be­fore Ab­bott’s speech, just af­ter the corpse of three­year-old Syr­ian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turk­ish beach, Nigel Farage, then leader of the UK In­de­pen­dence party (Ukip), an­nounced that “if the Euro­pean Union had the right pol­icy, peo­ple would know they would not be ac­cepted by com­ing across the wa­ter, just as the Aus­tralians dealt with this prob­lem, and that would stop the drown­ings from hap­pen­ing”.

Dou­glas Car­swell, Ukip’s only mem­ber of par­lia­ment at the time, ar­gued: “There are lessons to learn from Aus­tralia. It’s come up with some­thing that works.”

Ukip is not the only party on the Euro­pean right look­ing to Aus­tralia for in­spi­ra­tion. In France, Yo­hann Faviere, one of the Front Na­tional’s lo­cal lead­ers, thinks it is the only vi­able model. “When they find a boat in the sea, they send the mi­grants back,” he says ad­mir­ingly of the Aus­tralians. He is both­ered by the drown­ings, but adamant that Europe should not be in the busi­ness of res­cu­ing refugees. “The boats found in the Med need to be sent back to where they came from.”

Frits Bolkestein, the for­mer leader of Holland’s cen­tre-right VVD party, who gave Geert Wilders his first po­lit­i­cal job, agrees that Aus­tralia has the an­swer to Europe’s cur­rent prob­lems. “The bet­ter we treat them, the more they come,” he says. “If you don’t want them to come, you should not treat them all that well, which is what the Aus­tralians do.” Bolkestein in­sists that Aus­tralianstyle con­trols are the only so­lu­tion as more and more of the world’s poor, whether they are refugees or not, seek to move to Europe. “Look at the United Na­tions’ sta­tis­tics about African na­tal­ity,” he says. “It’s most dis­turb­ing. Coun­tries like Cen­tral African Repub­lic, it’s a failed state, and they go on pro­duc­ing chil­dren. Do we want them to come here? No, we don’t, so what do we do? Aus­tralian so­lu­tion.”

When pressed on whether this would ac­tu­ally solve the prob­lem of asy­lum seek­ers com­ing to Europe, he con­cedes that it wouldn’t. “We are trained in the west to think that ev­ery prob­lem has a so­lu­tion,” he says. “There’s no so­lu­tion to this, un­less we adopt very nasty mea­sures.” And nasty mea­sures have be­come an Aus­tralian spe­cialty.

For Euro­pean cul­ture war­riors, Aus­tralia’s appeal is that it is an ad­vanced western democ­racy that has man­aged to morally and legally out­source the pro­cess­ing and re­set­tle­ment of refugees to poor is­land na­tions in the Pa­cific, where they are ware­housed far from the pry­ing eyes of the me­dia and a pop­u­la­tion that might show them sym­pa­thy.

The politi­cians who de­mand what Bolkestein calls “nasty mea­sures” in­vari­ably jus­tify them by in­vok­ing the spec­tre of an im­mi­nent civil­i­sa­tional threat. What is ac­tu­ally a le­gal and lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lem has been trans­formed into a kul­turkampf by politi­cians who know that fo­ment­ing fear wins votes. Af­ter all, the refugee is­sue would not res­onate so pow­er­fully with­out the man­u­fac­tured alarm that Euro­pean civil­i­sa­tion it­self might be de­stroyed by Mus­lim usurpers.

Many of those pro­mot­ing the idea that the ar­rival of refugees from the Mid­dle East and Africa presages the “sui­cide of Europe” have been in­spired by the apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sion of a 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, which de­picts the shores of France be­ing over­run by boats full of “scraggy branches, brown and black” and “flesh­less Gandhi-arms”. (“The Third World had started to over­flow its banks … and the west was its sewer.”) The new right’s lead­ing lights, from Marine Le Pen to Steve Ban­non, hail the book’s au­thor, Jean Ra­s­pail, as a prophet. At the peak of the refugee cri­sis in Septem­ber 2015, Le Pen warned of the “hun­dreds of thou­sands of mi­grants who will come to­mor­row” and urged the French to read Ra­s­pail’s work.

In the novel, the ar­rival by sea of 800,000 peo­ple causes a clash be­tween the self-ap­pointed de­fend­ers of French civil­i­sa­tion and the rad­i­cals, in­tel­lec­tu­als and hip­pies who wel­come the new­com­ers. Al­though Ra­s­pail’s imag­ined in­vaders were Hin­dus flee­ing In­dia, the image of the brown masses de­scend­ing upon the west has been con­ve­niently taken up by the an­tiMus­lim right to sat­isfy cur­rent po­lit­i­cal tastes. When the boats fi­nally reach France, Ra­s­pail de­scribes the land­ing as a “peace­ful as­sault on the western world”. One of the book’s he­roes is the cap­tain of a Greek ship who rams flail­ing refugees in the wa­ter. A naval cap­tain ad­vises the French pres­i­dent: “We have to make a choice. Ei­ther we open our doors to these peo­ple and take them in. Or we tor­pedo ev­ery one of their boats, at night, when it’s too dark to see their faces as we kill them.”

Apart from the for­mer leader of Ger­many’s anti-im­mi­grant Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many party, Frauke Petry, who has openly called for Ger­man po­lice to shoot asy­lum seek­ers il­le­gally cross­ing the bor­der, few western politi­cians have ad­vo­cated vi­o­lence to force mi­grants away. But the appeal of the Aus­tralian model for the Euro­pean far right is the ab­so­lute com­mit­ment to keep­ing refugees out at all costs – it is not about “managing” mi­grants, but de­fend­ing the na­tion from them. The pol­icy pre­scrip­tion that Ab­bott brought to Lon­don was a sim­ple one: turn boats back, deny en­try at bor­ders and build camps abroad. Some force would be nec­es­sary, he ad­mit­ted – and a lot of money.

Be­tween 2013 and 2016, the gov­ern­ment spent around A$9.6bn (£5.6bn) on in­ter­cept­ing mi­grant boats, trans­port­ing asy­lum seek­ers, and pay­ing for­eign gov­ern­ments to de­tain them over­seas, thus ab­solv­ing Aus­tralia of le­gal re­spon­si­bil­ity for their liv­ing con­di­tions and of any obli­ga­tion to grant them refugee sta­tus in Aus­tralia if their asy­lum claim is found to be gen­uine. The to­tal cost is ap­prox­i­mately A $400,000 (£236,000) per de­tained asy­lum seeker per year. The pub­lic has gen­er­ally gone along with it, as have both po­lit­i­cal par­ties, pre­fer­ring to spend those ex­or­bi­tant sums to keep the prob­lem out of sight and out of mind, rather than al­low refugees a chance to start over in Aus­tralia and share the fruits of its gen­er­ous wel­fare state – which wel­comes close to 200,000 im­mi­grants with visas each year.

Aus­tralia was one of the first coun­tries to sign the 1951 UN refugee con­ven­tion – and it wel­comed the so­called “boat peo­ple” flee­ing South Viet­nam in 1976. But the course of its im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy changed abruptly in 2001. On 26 Au­gust that year, a dis­tress call went out from a ves­sel car­ry­ing more than 400 asy­lum seek­ers in the waters be­tween In­done­sia and Christ­mas Is­land, an Aus­tralian ter­ri­tory 1,000 miles north-west of the main­land. A Nor­we­gian freighter, the MV Tampa, re­sponded. Al­though Aus­tralia had is­sued the ini­tial call for res­cue as­sis­tance, the con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment led by prime min­is­ter John Howard saw a po­lit­i­cal open­ing; that even­ing, he in­tro­duced the Bor­der Pro­tec­tion Bill of 2001 and threat­ened to pros­e­cute the Tampa’s cap­tain if he en­tered Aus­tralian waters.

Ju­lian Burn­side, one of the coun­try’s best-known lawyers, chal­lenged the gov­ern­ment in court as the cri­sis deep­ened. A judge ruled in his fa­vor at 2.15pm on 11 Septem­ber 2001, Mel­bourne time – about eight hours be­fore the first plane crashed into the World Trade Cen­ter in Man­hat­tan. He lost a few days later on appeal. “All of a sud­den, the dis­course changed, and you didn’t have ter­ror­ists any­more; you had Mus­lim ter­ror­ists, and you didn’t have boat peo­ple any­more, you had Mus­lim boat peo­ple,” Burn­side re­calls.

In ad­di­tion to be­ing Mus­lim, the peo­ple com­ing in boats were la­belled as “il­le­gal”, rather than as asy­lum seek­ers with rights granted by the UN con­ven­tion, con­di­tion­ing the pub­lic to see them as crim­i­nal and de­serv­ing of de­ten­tion and pun­ish­ment. The lan­guage was de­lib­er­ate. If all asy­lum seek­ers are il­le­gal, and hence crim­i­nals, then dra­co­nian poli­cies are eas­ier to jus­tify. If it’s a “war” against peo­ple smug­glers, then mil­i­tary de­ploy­ments are ac­cept­able, as is the rhetoric of na­tional se­cu­rity threats.

Within two days days of 9/11, then de­fence min­is­ter Peter Reith linked asy­lum and ter­ror­ism by warn­ing that boats could “be a pipe­line for ter­ror­ists to come in and use your coun­try as a stag­ing post for ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties”. Never mind that the coun­try’s top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial called the risk “ex­tremely re­mote” and de­nied there was any ev­i­dence that ter­ror­ists were seek­ing to get to Aus­tralia by boat.

One of the pub­lic ser­vants most re­spon­si­ble for shap­ing pub­lic at­ti­tudes to­ward asy­lum seek­ers was Philip Rud­dock, a short, grey-haired politi­cian who rep­re­sented Syd­ney’s sub­urbs in par­lia­ment for more than 40 years, and served as im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter from 1996-2003 un­der prime min­is­ter John Howard. Rud­dock is proud of his role in trans­form­ing the na­tional dis­cus­sion about asy­lum seek­ers. “I am prob­a­bly more re­spon­si­ble for con­di­tion­ing the Aus­tralian de­bate than any other pub­lic of­fi­cial,” he tells me. “We take the view that they should wait where they are first safe and take a place in the queue.”

Con­jur­ing an imag­i­nary “queue” was a clever way to con­flate two dif­fer­ent sorts of refugees in the mind of the pub­lic: those who man­age to reach UN camps and pa­tiently wait for years to be re­set­tled, and those who flee their home­lands and at­tempt to claim asy­lum upon ar­rival in Aus­tralia. But there is no such queue, be­cause coun­tries are not obliged to take in refugees as­signed for re­set­tle­ment by the UN; if they do, it is purely good will. Sig­na­to­ries to the UN refugee con­ven­tion are, how­ever, obliged to as­sess the claims of asy­lum seek­ers reach­ing their shores. Aus­tralia is a so­ci­ety ob­sessed with rules and fair­ness, and the queue-jump­ing ar­gu­ment res­onates per­fectly with a pop­u­la­tion primed to think in terms of or­derly reg­u­la­tions, most of whom have never faced state-spon­sored vi­o­lence or war crimes. By this logic, whether or not you have had your hand chopped off doesn’t mat­ter if you broke the “rules” to get to Aus­tralia.

In ad­di­tion to plant­ing the no­tion of a “queue” in the pub­lic mind, Rud­dock’s in­no­va­tion was to move the prob­lem off­shore, away from the view of jour­nal­ists, cit­i­zens and the re­view of Aus­tralian courts. When chal­lenged about the abil­ity of all the world’s refugees to safely find their way to a UN-ad­min­is­tered camp and pa­tiently wait for re­set­tle­ment, Rud­dock is de­fen­sive. “Your view is that those who’ve got no money and can’t pay a smug­gler and who have to wait in a refugee camp – even if their claims of per­se­cu­tion are far more heinous – should take sec­ond place to some­body who’s got the money to pay,” he as­serts, as­sum­ing that no one seek­ing to pay a smug­gler might face per­se­cu­tion or have a le­git­i­mate claim.

I ask Rud­dock what Aus­tralia owes asy­lum seek­ers with le­git­i­mate claims, if any­thing. “They’re en­ti­tled not to be re­turned to per­se­cu­tion, and as far as we’re con­cerned, we’re not pre­pared to have them here, and we have ar­ranged that they can be else­where where they are safe.” To Rud­dock and oth­ers who in­voke the queue-jump­ing ar­gu­ment, what­ever hor­rors peo­ple are flee­ing are sec­ondary to the sin of pay­ing a smug­gler.

Not ev­ery­one can safely wait in refugee camps in­def­i­nitely as Rud­dock in­sists. Mo­ham­mad Baqiri fled the Urōzgān prov­ince of Afghanistan in the late 1990s as eth­nic Hazaras came un­der at­tack from the Tal­iban. He was seven years old. It took a week for his boat to reach Aus­tralian waters; dur­ing the jour­ney, two women died, and a baby lost con­scious­ness for six hours. Fi­nally, they ar­rived in Aus­tralia – or thought they had. Af­ter three hours of chaos, dur­ing which sev­eral peo­ple jumped into the wa­ter, the navy res­cued the pas­sen­gers. They were taken to a de­ten­tion cen­tre on Christ­mas Is­land. “The clothes that we were res­cued in, that’s what we had with us. For over a month, that’s what we were wear­ing,” he re­calls. Then they were told that to have their claims pro­cessed, they would be taken to Nauru. “We had no idea where Nauru was.”

When the plane landed, Baqiri couldn’t be­lieve how small the is­land was. He re­mem­bers the mos­qui­toes the most – and see­ing de­tainees suf­fer­ing from malaria. They were liv­ing in army tents. “There was no plumb­ing,” he re­calls. Once on Nauru, he says, there was pres­sure to “stay here for ever or go back to your coun­try”.

The list of abuses at Nauru is long and al­most al­ways con­tested by Aus­tralian of­fi­cials. Health work­ers and in­mates have doc­u­mented and re­ported dozens of cases of rape of fe­male in­mates, guards de­mand­ing sex­ual favours, de­nial of med­i­cal care and count­less in­ci­dents of self­harm. One asy­lum seeker poured gaso­line on him­self and burned him­self to death. Oth­ers have sewn their lips to­gether in protest.

Baqiri was lucky. Af­ter spend­ing three years on Nauru, his fam­ily sud­denly re­ceived news that their ap­pli­ca­tions had been ap­proved, and that they would be sent to Aus­tralia with visas valid for three years. Rud­dock over­saw Aus­tralia’s im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy dur­ing the years Baqiri was locked up on Nauru. In 2003, he stepped down as im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter and be­came at­tor­ney gen­eral. Four years later, the La­bor party came to power and sought to re­verse many of his poli­cies.

For five years, be­tween 2007 and 2012, the La­bor gov­ern­ments of Kevin Rudd and Ju­lia Gil­lard ended off­shore de­ten­tion, but in 2012, with num­bers of boat ar­rivals ris­ing, a com­mis­sion rec­om­mended re­open­ing the Nauru and Manus Is­land camps. More than 51,000 asy­lum seek­ers ar­rived in Aus­tralia by sea be­tween 2009 and 2013. It was a time of me­dia frenzy and a “boil­ing point” within the im­mi­gra­tion depart­ment. The right ac­cused La­bor of en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple smug­glers to re­sume their work by re­mov­ing the de­ter­rent of off­shore de­ten­tion. Bring­ing back con­trol of the bor­der was the po­lit­i­cal mantra of the day, and La­bor was ea­ger to look tough. In 2011, the gov­ern­ment struck a deal with Malaysia to send 800 asy­lum seek­ers who had ar­rived in Aus­tralia by boat to Malaysia, in ex­change for 4,000 peo­ple al­ready cer­ti­fied as refugees by the Malaysian gov­ern­ment. Hu­man rights lawyers suc­cess­fully chal­lenged the gov­ern­ment on the grounds that Malaysia was not party to the UN refugee con­ven­tion and couldn’t guar­an­tee le­gal pro­tec­tion. Their vic­tory buried the deal, pulled the rug from un­der the La­bor party as elec­tions ap­proached, and led to La­bor re-open­ing the de­ten­tion camps, where the con­di­tions of con­fine­ment and prospects for re­set­tle­ment would be­come even worse.

The Villa­wood de­ten­tion cen­tre on the western out­skirts of Syd­ney is a far cry from the mos­quito-in­fested de­ten­tion camps of Nauru. Apart from the se­cu­rity pres­ence, xray ma­chines and heavy iron doors, Villa­wood’s pub­lic ar­eas re­sem­ble those you’d find in a pri­mary school or chil­dren’s hospi­tal. Vis­i­tors bring food and drinks and sit on brightly coloured faux-leather benches along­side the de­tainees. But among these men (and a few women), there are sev­eral who have come from a much darker place.

One state­less Ro­hingya man, who

had been brought to Villa­wood from Nauru for med­i­cal treat­ment, tells me that he had fled Myan­mar’s Rakhine state in 2007, go­ing first to Thai­land and then Malaysia. He tried to work, but po­lice ar­rested il­le­gal em­ploy­ees and de­manded bribes from them – mostly money, but some­times their shoes.

He would have stayed in Malaysia, he says, if he had been able to work with­out the threat of ar­rest hang­ing over his head. “I had to come here,” he adds. But by the time he ar­rived on Christ­mas Is­land, it had been “ex­cised” from Aus­tralia’s “mi­gra­tion zone”, ef­fec­tively mak­ing it not part of Aus­tralia for any­one seek­ing asy­lum. He was im­me­di­ately flown to Nauru, where he still has no right to work, and the Nau­ruan po­lice, he claims, con­stantly ask him for bribes. “I have no al­ter­na­tive coun­try,” he says. “Not Aus­tralia, not Myan­mar, only Nauru.”

At Villa­wood, I also met two Syr­ian refugees, Ahmed and Mar­wan, who had the mis­for­tune of ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralian waters dur­ing another abrupt shift in the coun­try’s im­mi­gra­tion rules. Ahmed, now in his 40s, is a univer­sity-ed­u­cated ac­coun­tant who worked in Syria be­fore vi­o­lence forced him to flee. He headed to Aus­tralia, where he has rel­a­tives who are cit­i­zens, plan­ning to send for his wife and chil­dren later. He and Mar­wan claimed they were in­spired by Aus­tralia’s crit­i­cisms of the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment for vi­o­lat­ing hu­man rights.

While they were at sea on a small boat from In­done­sia to Christ­mas Is­land, Aus­tralia’s gov­ern­ment changed the im­mi­gra­tion rules. Hence­forth, any­one ar­riv­ing by boat with­out a visa any­where on Aus­tralian ter­ri­tory – not just Christ­mas Is­land – would be barred from ever be­ing re­set­tled in Aus­tralia. The Syrians were sent to Manus Is­land un­der the new law.

Af­ter peo­ple are sent off shore, Aus­tralia wipes its hands and claims that be­cause no one is shoot­ing or tor­tur­ing them, it has com­mit­ted no sin. But the safety of asy­lum seek­ers is not a fore­gone con­clu­sion. The lo­cal is­lan­ders were not thrilled about their ar­rival. In Fe­bru­ary 2014, Reza Barati, a 23-year-old Ira­nian de­tainee, was killed dur­ing a riot when asy­lum seek­ers al­legedly tried to es­cape from the de­ten­tion cen­tre on Manus Is­land and lo­cal res­i­dents and po­lice stormed the fa­cil­ity.

Ahmed and Mar­wan knew him. A month later, another riot swept through the camp where Barati was killed and pri­vate se­cu­rity per­son­nel put it down; sev­eral asy­lum seek­ers were beaten by the guards. Ahmed was as­saulted by a guard and later had a heart at­tack. He was flown to Bris­bane, more than 1,500 miles away, at tax­pay­ers’ ex­pense, for treat­ment and placed on sui­cide watch af­ter threat­en­ing to kill him­self if re­turned to de­ten­tion. “Manus was like a hell,” he tells me. “I was starv­ing there. I saw death there. We were at­tacked by the lo­cals.”

“There was no hu­man­ity,” says Mar­wan. “I was there when the Ira­nian died,” he adds. He is fu­ri­ous at Aus­tralia at this point. “Give me one month to go to any em­bassy,” he says, ex­as­per­ated. “Let me have a chance!” he ex­claims. “If we do some­thing wrong, put me in the jail … You have the choice to refuse me, but you don’t have the choice to put me in Pa­pua New Guinea third world. I ran away from war!”

For his part, Rud­dock, the ar­chi­tect of off­shoring, is sat­is­fied that once ar­rivals are de­tained off­shore, the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment no longer has any re­spon­si­bil­ity or ju­ris­dic­tion over them. “We’ve sat­is­fied our­selves that if a per­son is a refugee, they will not be re­turned to per­se­cu­tion,” he says, and if they are in­ter­cepted by the Royal Aus­tralian Navy and sent to a third coun­try, Aus­tralia has no fur­ther obli­ga­tion to process them. “If the sit­u­a­tion changes back home, and it’s safe for them to re­turn, you can re­turn them,” he adds.

The risk, hu­man rights lawyers are quick to point out, is re­foule­ment – the le­gal term for forc­ing an asy­lum seeker back into dan­ger, which is pro­hib­ited by the UN refugee con­ven­tion. Rud­dock is him­self a savvy lawyer, and he knows how to find ways around in­ter­na­tional le­gal con­cepts. “The obli­ga­tion is non­re­foule­ment,” he ar­gues. “It is not an obli­ga­tion to give peo­ple per­ma­nent res­i­dency … And it doesn’t mean you have to give your fam­ily and all your off­spring an en­ti­tle­ment to come,” hence the idea of tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion, which has now been em­braced by the Euro­pean right. Rud­dock puts it bluntly: “Be­cause you can’t re­foule them, then don’t give them any­thing more than you have to.”

But he is not much con­cerned about ver­i­fy­ing the safety of the sit­u­a­tion they’re re­turn­ing to. “There’s no obli­ga­tion to ver­ify,” he tells me. “We can’t send our of­fi­cials in to see whether or not you’re abus­ing your na­tion­als,” he says. In other words, some­one could be sent back to a place that isn’t safe at all.

When Aus­tralia sends asy­lum seek­ers home, it is framed as vol­un­tary, but in fact is far from it. “We are re­turn­ing refugees to refugeep­ro­duc­ing coun­tries,” ar­gues hu­man rights lawyer Daniel Webb. Aus­tralia is es­sen­tially telling le­git­i­mate asy­lum seek­ers to pick their poi­son – hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions at home, or on Nauru and Manus Is­land. “The more you un­der­stand about the con­di­tions in which we are keep­ing peo­ple,” he says, “the more you un­der­stand that it is not a vol­un­tary choice.”

“It’s like stand­ing on the edge of a cliff and hold­ing a gun to some­one’s head and say­ing: ‘Jump, or I’ll shoot you,’” Webb says. “And then when they jump, say­ing: ‘Well, I’m not re­spon­si­ble for your death be­cause you chose to jump.’”

Søren Espersen, the deputy leader of the na­tivist Dan­ish Peo­ple’s party, which be­came the coun­try’s sec­ond largest party in 2015, has a very clear vi­sion of how Den­mark – and the rest of Europe – could im­ple­ment the Aus­tralian model. “We should pre­pare them for go­ing home,” he says of the refugees in Europe. Espersen told me in April 2016 that the war in Syria would soon be over. “No war lasts for ever, and of course, there will be a time and then they must go back,” he says. He be­lieves two years of pro­vi­sional asy­lum would be fair. “Tell them from the be­gin­ning … You have no fu­ture in Den­mark.” It must be clear that “we don’t want to in­te­grate them”.

“We help them and ev­ery­thing, but the idea is that they should go back home,” Espersen tells me. “Maybe the ed­u­ca­tion for the chil­dren here should be more English than Dan­ish, so that they can also use that when they get home.” Those sent home do not al­ways get a chance to use their English skills.

Den­mark’s get-tough pol­icy has been deadly for some whose asy­lum claims were de­nied. Two Afghan broth­ers, Vahid and Abol­fazl Vaziri, who came to Den­mark af­ter flee­ing Afghanistan with their fam­ily in 2006, were sent home in June 2015, when Dan­ish au­thor­i­ties barged into their asy­lum cen­ter, forced them to pack, gave them ap­prox­i­mately $3,500 in cash and flew them back to Kabul. They were robbed soon af­ter ar­riv­ing, and Abol­fazl dis­ap­peared al­most im­me­di­ately. Vahid searched for him in vain. Two months later, a group of Pash­tuns showed him his brother’s body. He fled the coun­try once again, fol­low­ing the same path he had as a child, head­ing for Europe.

Espersen and his DPP col­leagues would pre­fer that asy­lum seek­ers like the Vaziris never reach Europe in the first place. To mimic Aus­tralia, they pro­pose fund­ing and staffing “Dan­ish-driven refugee camps where they will be pro­vided for, but the idea is that they should re­turn”, ar­gues Espersen. And if they end up on Nauru or in Den­mark’s equiv­a­lent of it, even bet­ter.

Espersen has stud­ied Aus­tralia’s Pa­cific so­lu­tion in de­tail, so I pushed him: where would your Nauru be? “Morocco is a very good ex­am­ple of a coun­try that would pos­si­bly do it for an amount of money,” he claims. And Dan­ish staff could run the camps. “We would run the things our­selves and pay the Moroc­can au­thor­ity a fee. We would also make it pos­si­ble for their lo­cal gro­cers or butch­ers to come and de­liver goods … There will be ex­cel­lent ser­vice, I can as­sure you.” In the Dan­ish right’s off­shore par­adise, there would be ed­u­ca­tion, too. No­body will be “liv­ing in ratholes”, he prom­ises.

But the goal is not good ser­vice; it’s stop­ping out­siders, even those in need of asy­lum, from com­ing and shar­ing in the wealth of the Dan­ish wel­fare state. Espersen openly ques­tions many Syr­ian refugees’ claims and whether they need asy­lum at all. “Why don’t you want to go home to your coun­try and help [with] re­build­ing it?” he asks – as if there’s an op­por­tu­nity await­ing them to­mor­row in the Aleppo con­struc­tion trade. Espersen imag­ines a world in which refugees are mostly fake and face no dan­ger. The rapes, sui­cide at­tempts, beat­ings and ri­ots that have char­ac­terised Aus­tralia’s ex­per­i­ment with off­shore de­ten­tion are not ap­peal­ing to him; the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic logic is.

There is a rea­son that today’s far-right lead­ers in Europe rarely point to Canada, a coun­try where the prime min­is­ter per­son­ally wel­comes refugees at the air­port, as a model for their de­sired im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies. Canada also has a highly reg­u­lated im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem fo­cused on skills and ed­u­ca­tion and a lim­ited num­ber of refugee re­set­tle­ment cases per year. But its poli­cies, un­like Aus­tralia’s, have not been driven by a post-9/11 pub­lic panic about Is­lam, and its lead­ing politi­cians have rarely stoked such sen­ti­ments for po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage.

An Aus­tralian-style so­lu­tion to Europe’s cri­sis can be seen tak­ing shape in the form of EU deals with Turkey to send back mi­grants ar­riv­ing in Greece, and a more ag­gres­sive form of off­shoring, as Espersen ad­vo­cates, could be on the hori­zon, es­pe­cially if par­ties like his gain enough power or in­flu­ence.

The EU has ear­marked around $2bn in the past two years to ad­dress the driv­ers of mi­gra­tion. But de­vel­op­ment aid de­signed to cre­ate jobs for young men who might oth­er­wise head north has been cou­pled with poli­cies that are be­gin­ning to re­sem­ble the force­ful tac­tics de­ployed by Aus­tralia. Whereas Aus­tralia turned back boats at sea, the EU is pay­ing African na­tions to in­ter­cept mi­grants on land and send them home or de­tain them in­def­i­nitely in dan­ger­ous places. It has paid Niger huge sums and pledged more than $600m – in­clud­ing mil­i­tary train­ing and equip­ment – to shut down smug­gling routes.

The fi­nal stop for those who man­age to avoid the crack­down in Niger – by tak­ing in­creas­ingly per­ilous al­ter­na­tive routes – is Libya, also the re­cip­i­ent of Euro­pean fund­ing in­tended to de­ter mi­gra­tion. For those who make it that far, the sit­u­a­tion is grim. Mi­grants have be­come “a com­mod­ity to be cap­tured, sold, traded and lever­aged … they are hunted down by mili­tias loyal to Libya’s UNbacked gov­ern­ment, caged in over­crowded pris­ons, and sold on open mar­kets”, as the jour­nal­ist Peter Tinti has doc­u­mented. Rape and tor­ture are com­mon­place and some­times streamed live on­line to pres­sure fam­i­lies into pay­ing ran­soms. Those who are not auc­tioned off or abused for ran­som are of­ten de­tained in­def­i­nitely in hor­ren­dous con­di­tions at the mercy of crime syn­di­cates and mili­tias who some­times “rent” de­tainees as in­den­tured ser­vants or sell them to smug­glers.

Libya of­fers a wor­ry­ing picture of what the fu­ture might hold if politi­cians like Espersen and Le Pen get their way, or if these sorts of out­sourced so­lu­tions come to be seen as palat­able by main­stream par­ties. Libyan mili­tias are al­ready us­ing force to stop Euro­pean NGOs from res­cu­ing stranded mi­grants at sea, of­ten with Ital­ian help. The EU has de­clared it a goal to “sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce mi­gra­tory flows by en­abling the Libyan coast guard to ‘res­cue’ a higher num­ber of mi­grants and bring them back to Libya be­fore they reach EU ships or EU ter­ri­tory”, a eu­phemism for what the pol­icy an­a­lyst Mat­tia Toaldo calls “lightly con­cealed out­sourc­ing” of Europe’s ef­forts to force peo­ple back to where they came from.

As with Aus­tralia and its off­shore cen­tres, what hap­pens in Libya stays in Libya while Europe washes its hands of re­spon­si­bil­ity. If the flow of mi­grants surges again dur­ing the next war or cli­mate cri­sis, the clam­our for off­shoring will only grow louder. And if the Aus­tralian model is adopted more fully in Europe, then there will be no hope for le­git­i­mate refugees to claim asy­lum through le­gal chan­nels, and more of them will seek il­le­gal paths to Europe.

The far right’s goal is to make Euro­pean so­cial ben­e­fits the ex­clu­sive prop­erty of na­tive-born cit­i­zens, a hard-earned jack­pot to be pro­tected from the grasp­ing hands of sup­pos­edly un­de­serv­ing new ar­rivals. But the model of a na­tivist nanny state sur­rounded by North African Guan­tá­namos is a dead end that will only end up sul­ly­ing Europe morally while fun­nel­ing money to un­savoury and of­ten crim­i­nal groups in Africa – and it is un­likely to keep mi­grants away the next time a ma­jor mil­i­tary or en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis arises. Jean Ra­s­pail is now 92. His phone num­ber is blocked and he lives in a small apart­ment dec­o­rated with books and travel mem­o­ra­bilia. The man whose fic­tional dystopia in­spired the poli­cies now un­fold­ing from the Mediter­ranean to the South Pa­cific gen­er­ally shuns vis­i­tors, but when I showed up at his door May 2016, he was ea­ger to talk about his 44-year-old novel, given new fame by Steve Ban­non’s en­dorse­ment.

In an oft-over­looked pas­sage of Camp of the Saints, Ra­s­pail lav­ishes praise on an imag­ined Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment: “Set off by them­selves in their re­mote cor­ner of the planet, the Aus­tralians have the dis­tinc­tion of be­long­ing to the white race,” he wrote, laud­ing them as “cham­pi­ons of the western world stuck away in the farflung hin­ter­lands of Asia.” Their re­solve in keep­ing refugees out is, in his nar­ra­tor’s view, due to the “model sever­ity of the Aus­tralian Im­mi­gra­tion Act, en­cour­ag­ing, as it does, the en­try of Greeks, Ital­ians, Spa­niards, English, French – in short, all those white of skin and Chris­tian of soul, while re­lent­lessly ex­clud­ing any trace of yel­low, black or brown”.

More than four decades later, re­clin­ing in his of­fice, he shifts his fo­cus from the novel to now. “We are en­cum­bered through­out ex-Chris­tian Europe by the phe­nom­e­non of com­pas­sion,” he tells me, hint­ing at the log­i­cal end­point of the poli­cies his ideas have un­leashed. “Com­pas­sion is fab­u­lous … but it is ob­vi­ous that with­out the use of force, we will never stop the in­va­sion.” Main image: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Go Back to Where You Came From: The Back­lash Against Im­mi­gra­tion and the Fate of Western Democ­racy by Sasha Po­lakow-Su­ran­sky is pub­lished by Hurst on 16 Oc­to­ber. To or­der a copy for £17.99, go to­book­shop.the­ or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p amp;p over £10, on­line or­ders only. Phone or­ders min p amp;p of £1.99.


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Mi­grants, many from Eritrea, jump into the wa­ter from a crowded wooden boat as they are helped by mem­bers of an NGO dur­ing a res­cue op­er­a­tion in the Mediter­ranean sea about 13 miles north of Sabratha in Libya, Au­gust 2016. Pho­to­graph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

The Aus­tralian-run Manus Is­land de­ten­tion cen­tre in Pa­pua New Guinea in Fe­bru­ary 2017. Pho­to­graph: Reuters

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