At a time when anti-immigration populists are on the rise in Europe and the United States, Australia is boasting of its own draconian policy, a controversial but effective strategy that has largely deterred migrants from reaching its shores.
Since the ruling Conservatives took a hard line on illegals five years ago, Canberra has drawn both praise and harsh denunciation.
Until then, desperate migrants from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East set sail from Indonesia to land almost daily on the northern coasts of the huge country.
About 1,200 people drowned during these crossings, so the government opted for zero tolerance, justified in its view by the fight against smugglers and the need to dissuade illegal immigrants from risking their lives.
Migrant boats were systematically turned back by Australian Navy ships and the greatest secrecy reigned over these operations on the high seas.
Those who still managed to slip through the cracks were exiled to remote detention camps in the Pacific, in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Even if their asylum request was judged justified, they were not accepted on Australian soil.
This policy has been successful in drastically reducing the number of arrivals, but it has divided public opinion and tarnished the country’s international reputation.
Defenders of human rights, as well as the UN, have crushed a rich country turning its back on vulnerable populations. The information filtering out of the camps reported abuse, cases of depression, suicides.
“A good idea”
But in Europe and the United States, some populist right-wingers have taken Australia as an example.
The boss of the French National Rally (ex-FN) Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigration British nationalist Nigel Farage or the new far-right Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, have at one time or another cited Australia as a model to follow.
Shortly after his inauguration, US President Donald Trump had a stormy phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
But on immigration, the two men have found common ground.
“It’s a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than me,” the White House tenant told his interlocutor, according to the Washington Post.
Analysts argue that if Canberra has succeeded in putting a stop to illegal arrivals, it is a difficult model to emulate.
Australia is an island continent surrounded by dangerous waters and much of the hinterland is inhospitable.
“There is a very big difference. Europe and the United States have land borders and it is very difficult to prevent people from coming,” notes Stephen Castles, specialist in international migration at the University of Sydney. .
“There is no doubt that Australia is held up as an example by the United States and certain European leaders. But de facto, Australia is violating its human rights obligations as a signatory to the conventions of the UN (on refugees),” he told AFP.
Canberra has come under fire from the international community. The UN has denounced a “punitive” policy towards migrants which “erodes their human rights”.
The camp on the island of Manus, in Papua New Guinea, has closed its doors, deemed unconstitutional by the justice of this country. Its 600 occupants had been sent to three transition centers.
Currently, 255 people are detained on Nauru, mostly families, including 22 children, according to the most recent data.
Many migrants have been sent to third countries. Ironically, some left for the United States under an agreement reached with former US President Barack Obama.
The subject no longer makes the headlines in the Australian press.
The Australian government has long argued that zero tolerance for illegal immigrants saves lives and allows it to be more compassionate towards those who arrive through legal channels to seek asylum.
While the borders are hermetic, Mr. Turnbull pointed out last week, the humanitarian and refugee programs are generous.
“The reason for that is that we decide, the Australian government decides on behalf of the Australian people, who come to Australia, not the smugglers.”
Some dispute this generosity. But the Conservative government is not about to change its tune. What Interior Minister Peter Dutton said clearly last weekend, explaining that the smugglers were still active in Indonesia where an estimated number of 14,000 migrants are waiting for a boat.
“It is essential that people realize that the hard-won successes of recent years could be undone by a single gesture of compassion, by the transfer to Australia of 20 people on Manus,” he warned. . “The boats have disappeared and if a single boat manages to reach Australia, the news will spread like wildfire.”
28/06/2018 08:27:31 – Sydney (AFP) – © 2018 AFP