Skip to main content

Don't go there, Europe

Another boat, carrying hundreds of people, sinks. The second in a week. Though none of them really want to welcome or deal with these migrants, politicians recognise they have to do something. Existing policies were supposed to deter people from trying to make this fatal crossing, but they've failed. So solemn statements are issued, emergency sessions scheduled, while people scramble to figure out what needs to be done.

It's April 2015, in Europe. But it could be the end of June 2012, in Australia, the month we cracked once and for all. Two boats sank off Christmas Island, and the spectre of more drownings forced action. We had detention centres. We had frozen asylum applications from war-torn, repressive countries. This was supposed to make a difference, but apparently it didn't, because - in the Coalition's vile phrase - there was still "sugar on the table". Back to 'offshore processing': taking these people, putting them somewhere else, to be locked up in poor conditions in another country, safely away from our attention. For an absurd couple of months there was wrangling over exactly which overseas detention centre we should send them to. But since then, this brutal, gotta-be-cruel-to-be-kind logic has well and truly taken hold. A year later we decided that no asylum seeker who comes by boat to Australia will ever be allowed to live here. Now, nobody who comes to Indonesia and registers with the UN High Commission for Refugees there - that is, the people who join the 'queue', who don't attempt the dangerous crossing - will be allowed to either. There is seemingly no cruelty that can't be justified like this, as wiping that last speck of sugar off the table. We can't "succumb to the cries of the human rights lawyers". All in the name of saving lives.

This could be Europe's future. Last year, an Italian-run naval operation called Mare Nostrum, which ran search-and-rescue missions and saved migrants at risk of drowning on the crossing to Europe from north Africa, came to an end. The EU elected not to replace it. In its place they established Triton, a much smaller mission designed only to secure European borders, not rescue migrants at sea. This, leaders said, was the compassionate move: patrols set up to save migrants made the journey less risky, more attractive, and so meant that more people would attempt the crossing and more would drown. This is an extraordinary place to start: some must drown, to save the others. And once you're on this treadmill, there's no limit to how far you can go. Ask the UN's special rapporteur on torture.

There's no evidence that any of this works. In Australia, the Abbott government proudly claims to have saved lives by stopping the boats. It admits, when pressed, that it has stopped the boats reaching Australia - but not stopped them leaving. The journey is still being made, and the lives risked. In Europe, according to Roberta Metsola, a Maltese MEP, the number of attempted crossings hasn't changed since Mare Nostrum ended - only the number of drownings has. When somebody bothered to ask, it turned out that neither people smugglers nor migrants had even heard of Mare Nostrum. Of course not. People keep coming, sugar or no sugar, because they're driven to flee by truly desperate circumstances.

But that was never really the point. The Rudd government in 2013 launched a publicity campaign, to make sure that potential asylum seekers knew just how poorly they'd be treated. (To save their lives, see!) It featured this ad. Written in English, published in Australian newspapers where no potential refugee could ever read it, its existence revealed what everyone had been too decent to say: for all the talk of stopping drownings, this was about being tough, about stopping these people coming to our country. Behind the cover of compassion, politicians have spent the last fifteen years blowing, extremely effectively, a xenophobic dog-whistle.

Europe can be better than that. There are at least a few politicians here who seem to be genuinely concerned about the issue. Many, though, are still clinging to the need for deterrence. The proposals that have been produced so far are not all promising: the (eerily familiar) emphasis on a rapid 'return programme' to get migrants out of Europe, and on demonising people smugglers, do nothing to help save lives. Thursday's European Council summit is a crossroads for European policy to migrants by sea: it can choose to actually save lives and be compassionate, or to talk tough about the need for deterrence, and hide its cruelty behind crocodile tears about deaths at sea. Australia chose wrong.