How gunboats can beat the refugees

European leaders want to copy Australia's policy for keeping out asylum-seekers: armed force, mass e

The best way to understand how those big-hearted Aussies regard refugees is to think of pollution. Like oil slicks, other countries' refuse drifts on the oceans without a thought for national boundaries. The job of government is to prevent the incoming tide contaminating the pristine coastline. It's a national emergency. The armed forces must be mobilised to detoxify the seas. After Kyoto, companies and states have developed a market in which a polluter who is exceeding his quota can buy the right to pollute from a seller who is undershooting his. Canberra has devised an equally market-friendly solution to human pollutants. It is paying the developing world to take asylum-seekers who would otherwise foul its land.

The military and fiscal innovations are justified by the assertion that refugees are filth. No behaviour is beneath them - including infanticide. Just two days after calling an election in October last year, John Howard, the right-wing Liberal prime minister, and his immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, broke the scarcely credible news that Iraqis on the run from Saddam Hussein were throwing their children into the ocean off Christmas Island. They hoped that a warship sent to intercept their boat would pick the children out of the water. If the gamble failed, and the Australian navy couldn't or wouldn't reach the drowning and take them to the Lucky Country, then the tots would be shark food.

"I regard this as one of the most disturbing practices I've come across," Ruddock declared. "It was clearly planned and premeditated", with "the intention of putting us under duress". Howard said that such monsters were unworthy to be Australians.

The news was scarcely credible because it wasn't true. All that had happened was that a boat had capsized and tipped its passengers into the water. Canberra circulated fuzzy pictures of children in the sea and invented the story of the murderous parents. Formidable efforts were made to cover Howard's back. The refugees were held incommunicado on Christmas Island. Military censorship required officers who knew the truth to keep quiet or face the consequences. A few eventually salvaged the Royal Australian Navy's honour by telling the press that no children were chucked over the side.

Exposure of the lie didn't damage Howard in the opinion of many Australians. Every pollster and pundit said his inept administration was heading towards certain defeat. Mendacity and racism turned the poll numbers around and delivered victory. Nor did Australians appear over-bothered by the arguments that: 1) about 80 per cent of the asylum-seekers it was receiving before the clampdown were undoubtedly genuine; and 2) the numbers reaching their borders were tiny by the standards of western Europe, let alone the developing world.

Everyone from the United Nations to Human Rights Watch has condemned Australia. Local journalists have developed a Serbian resentment of biased foreign broadcasters who show gunboats confronting rickety and overladen vessels while never once acknowledging that the real victims are the Australians.

In the European Union, Howard's brutal methods have aroused quiet admiration. They have been dignified with technocratic euphemisms - "the Pacific solution", "control of secondary movement". At the time of going to press, Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, was dropping large hints to the delegates of member countries meeting in Geneva that perhaps he would allow "the Pacific solution" to go global. Human Rights Watch and the London-based Refugee Council believe the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention has never been in greater danger. And all because John Howard, the fourth-rate leader of a second-division country, conned his gormless electorate into giving him a third term.

The convention set out the difference between immigrants and asylum-seekers. Immigration is a gift bestowed by governments, while asylum is a right upheld by the courts. In theory, anyone can ask for asylum. A paranoid Canadian dentist could arrive at Heathrow and claim to be a victim of the secret police. He would not be granted refugee status, but he would be allowed to make his case. All that matters is whether his fear of persecution is well founded.

The convention has nullified the efforts of successive governments to close Britain's borders. Virtually every asylum-seeker who gets here is an "illegal immigrant" because it is impossible for the most genuine of refugees to travel legally. They can't enter Britain without a visa, and asylum- seekers aren't given visas. It's catch-22. But the catch has a catch. If a refugee reaches Britain, it doesn't matter whether he's travelled on false papers or paid smugglers to get him to the Channel Tunnel. He's on British soil, and the only question the British authorities can assess is whether he's a real dissident or a fake. The convention takes no account of states being overwhelmed with refugees or, in the case of the developed world, politicians' itch to play the tough guy in election years. For all the manly poses struck in the past decade, no Labour or Tory leader has ever said: "Vote for me and I'll cut the number of refugees admitted to X thousand or Y hundred." The convention has prevented them from playing the best race card in the pack.

The use of the Australian navy to push refugee boats back towards Indonesia is only the appetiser to the Pacific solution. The first specks of Australian territory most boats reach are Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, south of Java. According to last year's amendment to the Australian migration act, they are no longer Australian for asylum purposes. Last month, parts of the Australian coastline were declared to be outside Australia. If this carries on, Howard will leave his continent smaller than Wales. Asylum-seekers in non-Australian Australia have no right to a lawyer and no right to claim asylum. Many are expelled to Papua New Guinea or Nauru, an island that phosphate mining reduced to a slag heap in the middle of the Pacific. The governments of both countries have taken Howard's gold to act as depositories for the human flotsam. Selling your country as a modern Botany Bay for the transported victims of tyrants could well be an exciting 21st-century business opportunity for poor nations with few other assets to trade in the global market.

Australia says that, together with the UNHCR, it decides who is a genuine refugee and then finds a home for them, either in Australia or elsewhere. All we are trying to do by stopping the boat people, says Howard, is prevent "queue-jumping". The justification fails on two counts. Australia offers sanctuary to tiny numbers of approved refugees: 12,000 in 2000; 8,000 in 2001. If there is no place, they have to wait, preferably close to the borders of their persecuting state, and not make a "secondary movement" on to Australia. Even if they are accepted they can be caught by the secondary movement rule. Suppose a refugee fled via Iran to Australia without permission. If the authorities decide that he spent more than seven days in Iran and could have obtained either sanctuary from the Iranian government or protection from the UNHCR, he will never receive Australian citizenship, or be allowed to bring his family to his new home. Indeed, he won't have a new home, as his Australian visa will be temporary and the refugee will have to prove he still has a fear of persecution each time it is renewed.

The Pacific solution mandates the use of guns, pelf and bureaucratic cunning to keep asylum-seekers in the third world. A recent report by Human Rights Watch documents its appeal to Europe. Think of it. Blair would be able to have pictures of the Royal Navy confronting the people smugglers. Like Howard, he could announce tough quotas of approved refugees that Britain would take from camps. It may never be possible to enforce these strictly, but they would be better than nothing. It would be much better than nothing, if Blair could go on to say that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach, which would rarely be Britain unless France went pear-shaped. He would look masterful. He would be in control.

This may not be fantasy. In the spring, the EU agreed that armed guards should protect land and sea borders and international airports by organising mass expulsions. These are likely to lead to unaccountable border police exercising controls operating across the union. The EU has also mused about building camps outside its borders. A Cabinet Office memo leaked in the summer discussed sending gunships to the Mediterranean to push back boats carrying refugees. At the EU Seville summit in June, Blair allied with the far right and argued, unsuccessfully, for sanctions against poor countries that refused to take back asylum-seekers.

Ruddock, the Australian immigration minister, toured Europe in August. He had an attentive audience. Britain and Ireland, he said, had shown a "good deal of interest" in his "border management strategies".

It doesn't look as if the UNHCR can hold the line. At a meeting last December, Australia argued that other states should follow its lead. Not one developed nation demurred. The current executive committee meeting in Geneva is hearing that the UNHCR is prepared to draw up rules on secondary movement. If countries threaten to act unilaterally, the UN must in the end either accommodate the rich nations, which supply what funds the impoverished organisation receives, or give up. Human rights activists in Geneva are being told by UNHCR officials that they should tone down their criticisms of Australia. The Home Office representatives praised Howard's way with unwelcome strangers.

I can already hear new Labour voices crying that they are realists rather than barbarians. Unless governments get tough, neo-fascism will flourish and the Tories or even the BNP will triumph in Blighty. The flaws in this argument are practical as well as moral. Australia has one refugee for every 1,138 citizens, Germany one for 456, Pakistan one for 75 and Iran one for 36. Third world countries can't cope. Iran sent tens of thousands back into Taliban-occupied Afghanistan in the late 1990s; Indonesia is refusing to accept boats diverted into its waters by the valiant seadogs of the Royal Australian Navy.

As with the arguments about pollution, so with the arguments about refugees. Why should the poor world carry a refugee burden that the rich world won't accept? If both close their borders, where on earth are these people meant to go?

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