How Australia Wrote the ‘Stop the Boats’ Screenplay

  • By Tiffanie Turnbull
  • BBC News, Sydney

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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced his “Stop the Boats” policy

The UK government is banking on its new migration law to stem the flow of small boats crossing the English Channel. The policy’s headline-grabbing slogan is identical to that used in Australia a decade ago.

For many Australians, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s promise to “stop the boats” was a moment of déjà vu.

The same words were used a decade ago by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott – to help him win an election.

The situation in Australia was similar to that in Britain now.

Last year, more than 45,000 migrants crossed the English Channel in small boats to get to Britain. In 2013, Australians watched as 20,000 migrants made similarly dangerous journeys from countries including Indonesia, Iran and Sri Lanka. Many died along the way.

And so, during his general election victory at the height of the crisis, right-wing Liberal Party leader Mr Abbott pledged to enforce border rules even more stringently than the outgoing Labor government. As part of its “Operation Sovereign Borders” policy, migrant boats are intercepted and either returned to where they traveled from or those on board are taken to detention centers on overseas islands.

Human rights groups have long criticized Australia’s border policy – but other countries like Denmark have taken inspiration from it.

“Australia absolutely wrote that script – and we’re still writing it,” says Kim Huynh, a lecturer in politics at the Australian National University, whose family fled Vietnam by boat to Australia in the 1970s.

More than just three words

The UK has adopted Australia’s ‘Stop the Boats’ slogan verbatim, but the broader rhetoric – the harsh language – is also strikingly similar.

Australia’s former Home Secretary Peter Dutton has repeatedly suggested that the country has prevented murderers, rapists and pedophiles from seeking asylum by boat. And in 2017 he faced backlash after claiming that many asylum seekers who have traveled to Australia are “fake refugees” trying to “rip off the Australian taxpayer”.

In the UK, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has spoken controversially of her task “to stop the invasion on our south coast”. And – while the number of Albanians arriving in late 2022 fell significantly – she told MPs last week that many of the migrants are young men “from safe countries like Albania” who are “rich enough to give criminal gangs thousands of pounds for the crossing.” to pay”. .

This type of language is finding traction in both Australia and the UK, in part because their populations have – to varying degrees – “island thinking,” says Dr. Huynh. “A lot of critics would say [the rhetoric] works politically because it fuels fears of outsiders.”

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Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott described his border policy as “decent, humane and compassionate”.

And then there’s the political justification – the public marketing. Both countries have emphasized the humanitarian benefits.

Ms Braverman told the Commons last week that the UK government was acting with “determination”, “compassion” and “reasonableness”. In 2014, Mr. Abbott spoke of a policy that saves lives.​

“As long as the boats come, we will continue to have dead people at sea,” he said. “So the most decent, humane and compassionate thing you can do is stop the boats.”

Political similarities?

Britain’s current migration problems are not identical to those Australia faced 10 years ago – and thus the policies touted by Westminster do not accurately reflect those of Tony Abbott’s coalition administration in Canberra. But you can draw comparisons.

  • Australia The policy was to send people arriving by boat to detention centers – in Papua New Guinea and on the Pacific island of Nauru. Migrants were offered return to their home countries and recognized refugees resettlement to another. With no more boats arriving, no one has been sent into the sea since 2014
  • The United Kingdom The government wants to send those who arrive illegally back to their home country if it’s “safe” – or to a third country where asylum applications would be processed in the UK or in that third country. Only people under the age of 18, people who are medically unfit to fly, or who are at risk of serious harm in the country to which they are being deported can delay deportation. So far, Rwanda is the only third country to have agreed to take in migrants – initially processing 200 people a year – but legal challenges mean no one has yet been sent there
  • Australia The policy was, and still is, when boats arrive, to indefinitely detain people who arrive in small boats – even once they have been sent out to sea. Most were only released after their asylum application was settled and they were either deported or put on a waiting list for resettlement in another country
  • In the United Kingdom, under the proposed law, migrants could be detained for as long as the Home Secretary sees a “reasonable prospect of deportation” – with no opportunity to seek bail for at least 28 days. However, once brought to Rwanda for processing, they could come and go

image source, Australian Maritime Safety Authority

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A boat carrying asylum seekers near Christmas Island in 2012

  • The Australian Government policy – although not enshrined in law – is that anyone sent to an offshore processing center will never be resettled to Australia, even if recognized as a refugee
  • people from the away United Kingdom prevented by law from returning to the future or from seeking British citizenship

But arguably the most important aspect of Australian policy in 2013 was the reintroduction of so-called “turnbacks” at sea – previously applied between 2001 and 2003. Defined by the Abbott government as “the safe removal of vessels from Australian waters, with passengers and crew returning to their countries of origin”, boats have been prevented from reaching shore. There has been a dramatic drop in arrivals by sea.

In April 2022, the British government dropped plans to return small boats in the Channel to France after the Royal Navy refused to conduct the operations. The military conducted trials of practices similar to those used by the Australian Armed Forces, but declared them “inappropriate”.

The UK on March 10 announced it would give Paris almost £500million over three years – to fund additional police patrols on beaches and a new detention center in northern France.

Did Australia’s policy work?

While Operation Sovereign Borders remains controversial, both major parties in Australia – the Liberal Right and the Labor Party – still support the policies behind it. They argue that the country’s success lies in the policy mix working together to deter asylum seekers.

But there are those who believe offshore processing has had little – if any – impact.

It was reintroduced by Labor in 2012 and facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru quickly filled up.

“Two months later, the government said, ‘We’ve already brought in more people than we can ever accommodate offshore, so we’re going to start releasing some people into the community in Australia,'” he told refugee rights expert Madeline Gleeson .

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Photo from 2012 showing the reception center for asylum seekers on the island of Manus, Papua New Guinea

And so the Labor government did a fresh start – emptying the centers and bringing migrants into Australia before trying again. This time he added a pledge that anyone seeking asylum in Australia by boat would never be settled here, even if they turned out to be a refugee.

That didn’t seem to slow the number of boats either, Ms Gleeson says.

When the Liberal-National coalition came to power in late 2013, they turned their attention to boat returns – something Labor had opposed – and the number of migrant boat arrivals fell dramatically.

The measures have “restored integrity to Australia’s borders,” said Home Secretary Peter Dutton in 2015 – but at a cost. The best estimate puts the cost at A$1bn (£552.4m, US$658.7m) per year. There are also the compensation bills the government has paid for the mistreatment of asylum seekers at offshore processing facilities.

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A “Welcome Refugees” rally in Sydney on September 29, 2013

“And then there’s an award for the heart and soul of Australia,” says Dr. Huynh.

Australia’s treatment of people in offshore detention, particularly children, has been internationally condemned – the UN says it amounts to torture.

The country is also accused of violating international law by breaching its obligations to refugees and asylum-seekers.

Would similar measures work in the UK?

UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman has acknowledged that the latest plans are “pushing the boundaries of international law”. And Australia’s former foreign secretary and diplomat Alexander Downer – who advised the UK government on border policy – has admitted the country would need to change its laws and strip back human rights protections to apply the policy effectively.

Ultimately, Ms Gleeson said, the UK will likely find it harder to implement its proposed measures than Australia did. The UK is also a “completely different place” to Australia, she adds.

Australia also has agreements with several countries from which migrants travel, but France has made it clear that such an agreement with the UK is unlikely.

Then there is scale. Even in the peak year of 2013, the total number of boat arrivals in Australia was less than half the current UK year – and they overwhelmed the country’s processing system.

“If it was too much for us, how [is the UK] will have the capacity to do that?” says Ms. Gleeson.

And perhaps most critically, she says, although Australia is a signatory to international treaties, it does not have a legally binding human rights framework, akin to Britain’s human rights law or the European Convention on Human Rights. “So I think there’s going to be a real legal issue.”

Additional reporting by Paul Kerley


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