Casting about for ways to manage refugee flows, some European policymakers speak of emulating Australia’s use of offshore processing centres. But Australia’s approach to asylum seekers is fiscally irresponsible, morally bankrupt, and increasingly unsustainable politically. It’s no model for Europe.
To start with, the Australian approach is expensive: the country’s taxpayers are spending something on the order of €240,000 per person per year on offshore facilities. That figure doesn’t include the cost of the coast guard’s interdiction operations, the payouts the Australian government may have made to smugglers to turn boats back to Indonesia, and the €38 million it is known to have paid Cambodia to accept a handful of refugees it had sent to Nauru.
Let’s think about those numbers for a minute. Instead of sending those migrants to its offshore facilities, Australia could send each of them to Harvard to receive a four-year undergraduate education. Or each could get a home outright in much of the United Kingdom, or a year-long stay at the Ritz London. Or Australia could buy each of them a Bentley, Ferrari, or Lamborghini.
What’s more, it’s by no means clear what the price tag would look like if the Australian model were scaled up to European proportions—or if it’s even feasible to do so. The migration flows Europe faces are about 20 times greater than those to Australia, which had peak boat arrivals of just over 20,000 people in 2013.
And it’s worth keeping in mind that Australia has made that outlay for arrangements that are only temporary. Nauru has said it expects the refugees it holds to move elsewhere at some point. Papua New Guinea’s government has conceded, in response to a ruling by that country’s supreme court, that its Manus Island facility must be closed as soon as possible.
The point is that this doesn’t look like the best way for Australia – or the EU – to spend its taxpayers’ money. The human cost isn’t as easily quantifiable, but it’s enormous. I’ve been to both Manus Island and Nauru and seen first-hand what offshore “processing” means for the people who are forcibly transferred and held indefinitely in countries where they’d never intended to go.
‘Sinister exercise in cruelty’
Nearly everybody I spoke to reported that after they were transferred to these remote locations they’d developed mental health issues of some kind—high levels of anxiety, trouble sleeping, mood swings, and feelings of listlessness and despondency were most commonly mentioned.
Children as well as adults have regularly considered and even attempted suicide. A 15-year-old girl told me that she’d tried to commit suicide twice while on Nauru. “I’m tired of my life,” she said.
A leaked report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that post-traumatic stress disorder and depression “have reached epidemic proportions” among those held in both locations.
It should be no surprise that Australia’s pursuit of policies that cause severe and lasting harm to refugees and asylum seekers has done significant damage to its international reputation as a rights-respecting country. “The world’s refugee crisis knows no more sinister exercise in cruelty than Australia’s island prisons,” the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote in December, reporting on his visit to Manus Island.
Australian officials attempt to spin sustained abuse as a life-saving measure, claiming that offshore operations are necessary to deter smuggling by boat and thus save lives at sea. Put another way, some 2,000 people are held on remote islands as an example to others. As a refugee on Manus remarked: “The cost of Australia’s border protection policies is a human sacrifice—us. They need us here as a symbol to stop the boats.”
Driving people to breaking point
It doesn’t have to be this way. Safe, legal pathways of migration from transit countries would help many refugees avoid having to take dangerous boat journeys, and wouldn’t punish people for making it to their intended destination. That would be a far better deterrent and a far better approach for EU countries to take.
The EU should end its efforts to outsource responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers to outside countries—the opportunistic, flawed deal with Turkey and problematic cooperation with Libyan authorities—and focus instead on initiatives to improve conditions for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Libya and elsewhere.
Access to work and education for refugees in those countries would make an enormous and immediate difference. EU support, diplomatic and financial, can help that happen.
Australian policies have left lives in limbo, driving people to the breaking point. Europe should take a different path.
Michael Garcia Bochenek is Human Rights Watch’s senior counsel on children’s rights. This article was first published in Euobserver.com.