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Europe's road to Manus Island

Here - below the fold - is a piece I wrote about what Manus Island should teach people in Europe. It's shockingly easy to imagine how EU policy-makers, despite their protestations to the contrary, could end up overseeing an asylum regime even more callous than Australia's. They are already on the path, and it's hard to get off.

The piece is slightly dated, because I wrote it a week and a half ago and have been trying to shop it to editors who are variously budgetless or too busy to answer emails. Sad! And now it's too late - because this is not topical any more, even though more than 400 people are still living in a detention facility whose conditions are being made deliberately intolerable - so I haven't updated it, because it'd be effort that nobody's paying me for, but instead I'll add one extra thought.

I'm reading Sasha Polakow-Suransky's new book, Go Back to Where You Came From, which gives a rare insight (for people not on the far right) into how anti-immigration political movements talk, plan and mobilise. I'll probably write something more about the book, but here's something that leapt out:
Soren Espersen of the Danish People's Party has clearly studied Australia's Pacific Solution in detail, so I push him: Where would your Nauru be? "Morocco is a very good examle of a country that would possibly do it for an amount of money," he claims. And Danish staff could run the camps. "We would do it ourselves. 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."
I point out that it sounds quite different from Australia's notorious centres where hunger strikes, suicides and attacks by hostile local islanders have become the norm. "That's not our style. We don't do it like that here," Espersen insists. "We would not treat refugees in that way. We would do it completely differently. There will be excellent service, I can assure you."
Should we believe him? It doesn't really matter, because even if that's how things start it's impossible to imagine an anti-refugee Danish government continuing to take care that people in its Moroccan processing centre - far away from Denmark - are looked after. And when they want to let things deteriorate, there's a ready-made logic of deterrence to justify it.

Polakow-Suransky concludes: "The rapes, suicide attempts, beatings, and riots that have characterised Australia's experiment with offshore detention are not appealing to him; the economic and political logic is." What I'm arguing here is that the economic and political logic lead inexorably to the beatings and brutality. I wrote something similar two and a half years ago, and people said that boat turnbacks couldn't happen because of the European Court of Human Rights. It is now EU policy to support the Turkish and Libyan coastguards in intercepting boats to prevent them reaching Europe. There's no special awfulness of Australians or magic safeguard of European-ness: we just have to realise where we're headed.


Australia has caught the world’s attention this week for the latest scandal of its perennially harsh refugee policy. Six hundred men being held on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea have barricaded themselves inside their detention centre, fearing what might happen to them if they leave, and the Australian government has cut off their supplies of food, water and electricity. It’s a standoff so horrifying that it’s almost comforting – Australia’s brutality is worth noting, and condemning, but it’s surely so extreme that Europe need not fear its migrant policy will land it in similar circumstances.

That, unfortunately, would be too hasty a conclusion. For some time, far-right figures from Geert Wilders to Nigel Farage to the Identitarians have held up Australia’s approach as a model for Europe, but the similarities run much deeper than that. Most of the key planks of the EU’s policy in the Mediterranean are based on the same logic that’s driven Australia’s two decades of escalation, and it’s alarmingly easy to see how Europe could follow it down the same path.

If you put aside the increasingly horrifying specifics, Australia’s policy since at least 2001 – and arguably since the early 1990s – has had a consistent aim: to reduce the flow of boats by eliminating the benefits asylum seekers could gain by arriving in Australia. If reaching the country became less attractive, more people would be inclined to await resettlement in Indonesia or in refugee camps. So, to begin with, asylum seekers were mandatorily detained while their claims were processed; then those detention centres were moved offshore to Christmas Island, and then to other countries, Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Those who had their asylum claims approved would be granted only temporary residence rights in Australia or, since 2013, none at all – anyone who arrived by boat is banned from settling in the country under any circumstances. The navy is deployed to turn boats around, so that trying to make the journey to Australia only leaves you back where you started. The measures used have steadily increased in severity, but the deterrent logic and the goal of stopping the boats – either to save lives or to ensure national security, depending on who you ask – has been constant.

EU leaders, for the most part, have not been so interested in the aggressive rhetoric associated with driving back maritime migrants, but they have largely bought into the same logic. After a spate of drownings in April 2015, the Commission released a ten-point plan which focused on disrupting the people-smuggling trade and making the sea journey less attractive by immediately returning migrants to the country they’d travelled from. That plan became the basis of the deal with Turkey, under which migrants who arrive in Greece are deported back to Turkey and refugees who stay in Turkey are resettled in the EU. It’s the familiar Australian idea: eliminate the ‘pull factor’, get rid of any benefit to be gained from making the journey, and the boats will stop.

The Turkey deal is, of course, a far cry from cutting off supplies to a centre full of refugees. The details of what the Australian government has done in the last week reveal a stunning degree of callousness. In April last year, the Papua New Guinea government declared the Manus Island centre unconstitutional, and ordered it to be closed. October 31st was the closure date, but refugees refused to move out, fearing for their safety from violence in the local community and unwilling to relocate to facilities that the UNHCR says are still under construction. So officials simply left, and cut the power, setting the scene for an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the detention centre.

How did things come to this? Senior government figures seem, quite simply, not to care. Foreign minister Julie Bishop this week simply lied about the availability of alternative safe accommodation for them. Immigration minister Peter Dutton routinely insists that conditions in the detention centres are fine, and recently said that once they’re released refugees will “start to tell a very different story”. An offer from New Zealand to settle some of them has been repeatedly turned down.

None of this is just because Australians are an unusually cruel people. The political conditions for this kind of indifference to migrants’ suffering perpetuate themselves over time. Even if it started as a genuine effort to reduce the number of boats and so save some lives – and there’s plenty of room for scepticism on that front – offshore processing rapidly became a way for the government to offload its responsibilities onto much poorer countries. The Australian government routinely denies that it is responsible for the detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, even though it pays for their operation and has Australian Border Force officials overseeing most important decisions. Journalists have difficulty getting visas to visit either centre, and anyone who has worked in them and speaks out about conditions faces harsh legal sanctions. When migrants are suffering away from the eyes of voters, things degenerate quickly.

The fact is that once you’re containing migrants in inhospitable conditions in a poor country, it’s a lot easier to wash your hands of the matter than it is to take the difficult steps needed to make sure the people there are treated acceptably. So for all that nobody is planning a Manus-style siege, there’s plenty to worry about in European leaders’ plans. French President Emmanuel Macron has talked of creating ‘hotspot’ processing centres in Libya so that fewer people take “crazy risks” in attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Germany’s interior ministry last year floated the idea of refugee processing in north Africa, for similar reasons. The EU is helping to train the Libyan coastguard to stop migrant boats heading for Europe, and ploughing money into border security measures in African countries on the route to Libya.

All of these are measures which might save some lives in the Mediterranean, but which will certainly have the effect of quarantining the chaos and suffering away from the attention of European publics. Those are precisely the conditions in which Australia has allowed its offshore detention centres to reach the point that a former army doctor described conditions in the Nauru camp as “worse than Afghanistan”. Libya has no functioning government, and its coastguard reportedly demands ransoms from people it ‘rescues’ on a regular basis. If the EU succeeds in opening processing centres in the country and containing more migrants there, the scope for deterioration, from an already horrific status quo, is if anything even greater than what Australia has overseen.

Nobody in the ranks of EU policymakers is planning to turn European policy into an imitation of Australia’s. But nobody in the Australian government in the early 2000s was planning for what the country's refugee policy has now become. They may not capitulate to the full suite of far-right demands on migrants, but if they aren’t careful, Europe’s leaders will find themselves laying the table for them nonetheless.