The Australian experience of hard-line border policies is not one the UK wants to repeat

The government’s Rwanda scheme is an attempt to mirror Australia’s immigration policies, which have had disastrous consequences.

In his speech announcing the UK scheme, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that its purpose was to stop “vile people smugglers” by breaking their business model and preventing a “watery graveyard” in the channel.  He also used the word “illegal” thirteen times to describe asylum seekers arriving by boat, compared to unspecified “safe and legal routes”.

This language reveals the government is attempting to dehumanise and delegitimise refugees, labelling boat arrivals as “illegal”and using the threat of deportation to deter asylum seekers.

This rhetoric has been used before.


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In Australia, the government has taken the same approach with dire consequences for human life and the country’s international reputation.

Australia has been refusing asylum to people arriving by boat for a decade. Instead of towing them back home to their country of origin or seeking resettlement agreements with regional partners, or sending vulnerable people to offshore detention, it has pursued a policy of refusing to accept asylum applications.

The Gillard government in Australia, in a similar move to the current UK Rwanda policy in 2011, reached a deal to forcibly resettle 800 refugees in immigration detention in exchange for 4,000 refugees awaiting resettlement to Malaysia.

This was done to try and remove more people from offshore detention during a period of higher migration flows.

Human rights activists heavily criticised Australia’s policy at the time. They rightly pointed out the fact that asylum seekers from Malaysia didn’t have the legal right to live or work in Australia, putting their well-being at risk.

Like the UK’s Rwanda policy, the ‘Malaysia Solution’ quickly ran into legal problems, with the High Court of Australia ruling that the policy was illegal as those resettled were offered no protection from further prosecution by the Malaysian government.

The Rudd government in Australia then introduced a new policy in 2013 dictating that no asylum seeker who arrived by boat and who was found to be a refugee would be resettled in Australia, defining them as “illegal arrivals”.

Prime Minister Rudd used the phrase “breaking the business model of people-smugglers to save lives on the seas” as an excuse for policies that were not allowed under international law.

Since 2014, Australian governments have moved away from offshore detention and instead forcibly returned people who arrive by boat to their home country. This often occurs in secretive circumstances under the guise of “on water matters”.

Outside of winning votes from a traditionally conservative voting public at home, Australia’s policies have been a disaster in terms of human and diplomacy.

Men, women, and children have suffered immense suffering. 18 people have died in prison since 2012, including six suicides and two deaths from medical conditions.

Many have experienced significant mental health problems due to indefinite and prolonged detention under harsh conditions, exposure to violence, and abuse. Detention in countries with poor human right records has also resulted in poor mental health outcomes.

The situation was so dire that the Australian government had to medically evacuate all detained on Nauru or Manus Island to the mainland by 2019.

Secondly, Australia’s policy on indefinite detention, and its desire to seek resettlement deals with neighbours, led to a souring of relationships with regional partners and the international community.

These policies have led Australia to violate its international law promises and obligations, including the ratification of international treaties on human rights and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This led to the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner publicly criticising Australia’s policies in 2019.

Australia’s relations with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea also deteriorated.

Tensions rose after the Royal Australian Navy’s boat turn backs led to an increase number of asylum seekers being stranded in Indonesia. Additionally, in 2014, Papua New Guineans on Manus Island protested against the detention centre and Australia’s attempts to have refugees resettle on the island, leading to unrest.

The Australian approach did nothing to deter people smugglers and stop boat arrivals.

The number of boats entering Australian waters was unchanged even after indefinite detention became an official policy of the government.

The UK government would be wise to understand that migration flows can only be governed by international events and not national policy. The surge in boat arrivals in Australia a decade ago was largely due the conflicts in Iraq/Afghanistan that caused mass displacement events.

If the UK is to be considered a responsible global citizen, then it must comply with international law. This begins with the establishment of timely refugee processing routes for all asylum seekers, regardless how they arrived.

The UK, like Australia, has a proud tradition of helping people in need. However, both countries have lost the way.

Australia’s draconian asylum seeker policy has failed, leading only to human suffering and the alienation of Australia on the world stage.

Just like in Australia, the UK scheme is toying with the lives of vulnerable people, is in contravention of obligations under international law, and threatens to diminish the UK’s standing abroad.

These are the reasons why the scheme should be scrapped.