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Conservative approaches to migration policy reform and the Australian experience

Themistoklis Asthenidis: You are known to have taken a hard stance against illegal migration. Under your premiership, Australia adopted a stricter border control system, effectively intercepting vessels carrying migrants and refugees before reaching the country’s coasts. Is the solution as simple as stricter border control, or are there any other key elements of the Australian migration policy reform?

TONY ABBOTT: Australia had a relatively modest influx of boat people under the Howard Government but it had been largely stopped by 2002 through offshore processing (so that people arriving by boat didn’t initially come to Australia), temporary protection visas for people found to be refugees (so that people arriving by boat could not expect permanent residency in Australia) and – on four occasions – turning boats back to Indonesia from whence they’d come. 

These policies were denounced by the human rights lobby as cruel and even illegal and were promptly abolished by the new Labor Government in 2008. Within a couple of months, the illegal boats started again. And why wouldn’t they, if making it to Australia meant a new life in a country that was generous to newcomers?  

From 2008 till 2013, there were nearly 1,000 illegal boats, more than 50,000 illegal arrivals by boat, and more than 1,000 known drownings. Under these circumstances, stopping the boats became an absolute moral imperative because the only way to stop the deaths was to stop the boats. 

In the peak month alone, July 2013, there were almost 5,000 illegal arrivals by boat. In response, the former Labor Government belatedly re-opened Howard-era offshore processing centres on Nauru and at Manus Island – and the numbers dropped to 1,500 arrivals the following month – but it refused to countenance boat turn backs or temporary visas for people arriving illegally by boat.

My position was that Australia would: first, work with the Indonesian government to stop illegal boats leaving in the first place; second, prevent boats from landing in Australia wherever possible; third, process offshore anyone coming to Australia illegally by boat; and fourth, deny permanent residency to anyone coming illegally by boat. In other words, they wouldn’t leave, they wouldn’t land and they certainly wouldn’t stay.

On coming to office in September 2013, my government added some refinements to the Howard-era policies: first, under Operation Sovereign Borders, there was an integrated chain of command under a senior military officer; second, there was a news black-out on operational matters because media attention tended to become propaganda for people smugglers; and third, and most important, we provided unsinkable life rafts when people smugglers scuttled their boats so that their customers could return to Indonesia rather than be taken aboard Australian ships. 

Under Operation Sovereign Borders, the Royal Australian Navy and Australian Border Force have intercepted and turned around almost 30 people smuggling boats. By Easter 2014, people smuggling had virtually stopped and there have now been no illegal arrivals by boat for over two years. There has been some media hostility from Indonesia which resents the presence of would-be illegal travellers to Australia but the number of people entering Indonesia hoping subsequently to get to Australia has also dropped dramatically.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Massive and uncontrolled flow of migrants and refugees from Syria, North Africa and the Middle East has revealed Europe’s inability to enforce an effective migration policy response. Where do you attribute this failure to implement such policies? What are the critical steps European nations and the EU as a whole must take in order to safeguard EU and national borders? 

TONY ABBOTT: Europe has made two fundamental mistakes: first, it has confused the duty to help people in trouble with an obligation to give people permanent residency; and second, it keeps describing as “asylum seekers” people who are actually illegal migrants. An asylum seeker is someone seeking sanctuary from imminent danger. Anyone who has moved beyond a place of refuge seeking a better life is a would-be economic migrant. 

Themistoklis Asthenidis: What is your opinion on the agreement between the EU and Turkey on readmission of failed asylum seekers? Can it be an effective solution in tackling migrant flows? 

TONY ABBOTT: Obviously, it’s easier for would-be illegal migrants to cross the Aegean Sea (or even the Mediterranean) than to navigate the 200 miles between Java and Christmas Island. There’s also the land border between Turkey and Europe. In the end, the only way to stop people coming illegally is to make it physically impossible, either through a naval screen or a closed border. A tough policy is the only truly compassionate one because as long as people think “if you can get here you, can stay here” the people smugglers will stay in business and the drownings will continue. 

Themistoklis Asthenidis: During the Second Annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture in October 2015, you spoke of  “a misguided altruism” that Europe shows towards migrants and refugees. On the other hand Germany’s Chancellor speaks of the responsibility of Western nations, and follows a more welcoming approach to migration.   Are nations with stricter immigration laws less ethical or altruistic, and how far does our duty to help extend? 

TONY ABBOTT: Any response that makes a problem worse is not a moral one. Europe’s “responsibility” is to support countries and people where they are first seeking safety – not to admit ever growing numbers of outsiders seeking a better life.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Going back to that same speech at the Second Annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture, you mentioned that the “love your neighbor” imperative is “leading much of Europe into catastrophic error”.  Is Europe weakening it self through migration? 

TONY ABBOTT: I’m a supporter of migration but migration has to be in a country’s national interest or it will never have popular support. That’s why governments – and not people smugglers – have to control who comes under any rational migration arrangements. As well, there has to be a clear expectation of migrants that they will “join the team”.

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Can mass-migration and respective social unrest play a role in shifting European political landscape?

TONY ABBOTT: If people think that their government has lost control of the country or is failing to govern in their nation’s best interests they will seek a better government. Why wouldn’t they? 

Themistoklis Asthenidis: Can there be any permanent solution to migration? Is the solution to the refugee crisis more foreign/humanitarian aid? Can there be a more effective methodical and rational approach than patrolling borders?

TONY ABBOTT: There has to be an effective response to what could easily become the peaceful invasion of Europe. People need to understand that there is no right to leave one country to enter another except to avoid imminent danger. People also need to understand that our duty to people in danger is to keep them safe as far as we can; not to give them permanent residence.