The European Commission said yesterday (4 May) that it had no intention of adopting Australia’s model of turning back boats with immigrants. The reaction was prompted by a statement made by Australia’s right-wing premier, Tony Abbott, who said his country and the EU were in talks over the issue.
“My understanding is that there has been some contact at official level between Australian people and Europeans,” Abbott said, when asked if Europe had sought advice on how to deal with the issue.
“Obviously, Operation Sovereign Borders is an object lesson in how to do the right thing by everyone,” he added, referring to Canberra’s military-led response to boat people.
“To do the right thing by our people and ultimately do the right thing by poor, misguided people who for all sorts of reasons want a better life but very often end up dead if they succumb to the lure of the people-smugglers.
“There is a lesson in what’s happened here in Australia for other countries,” said Abbot. “Quite obviously there is a lesson here.”
But Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said in Brussels that she was “not aware” of any European-Australian contacts on asylum seekers.
Bertaud stated that “the European Union applies the principle of non-refoulement”, or no forced return under international law.
“We have no intention of changing this. So of course the Australian model can never be a model for us,” Bertaud added.
Abbott’s conservative government introduced Operation Sovereign Borders after coming to power in September 2013, aiming to turn back vessels carrying asylum seekers before they reach Australia.
Coupled with placing migrants in offshore processing camps on the Pacific islands of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and resettling them there, it has proved to be an effective deterrent.
Australia has gone nearly 18 months with virtually no asylum-seeker boat arrivals, and no reported deaths at sea, although human rights advocates say it violates Australia’s international obligations.
Before this, vessels were arriving almost daily, and scores of asylum seekers were drowning en route.
Abbott made the comments while flagging some Aus$500 million (€350 million) in savings due to the policy, largely through the closure of immigration detention centres, and less demand for charter flights used to take migrants back to their home countries.
“The great thing about Operation Sovereign Borders is that, in stopping the boats, we have stopped the deaths,” Abbott added.
“If you want to keep life safe, you’ve got to keep the boats stopped.”
Another 5,800 migrants desperate to reach Europe were rescued this weekend as they tried to cross the Mediterranean, more than 2,150 of them on Sunday, the Italian coastguard reported.
The number rescued was one of the highest recorded in recent years, raising fears that the tide of people risking their lives to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East has not been slowed by recent drownings. Some 1,750 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean to Europe this year, 30 times more than during the same period in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.
EU leaders are now seeking UN Security Council approval for military action against smugglers in chaos-ridden Libya, where many of the boats sail from.