Former Australian Minister ALEXANDER DOWNER says UK should turn migrant boats around
Your Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has been widely ridiculed on both sides of the Channel for suggesting that boats carrying migrants be physically “pushed” back to French shores.
Yet from my experience as a former Australian foreign minister, I know that a policy of ‘pushback’ can work.
To solve a migration crisis, we must break the economic model of criminal gangs of human traffickers.
From my experience as a former Australian Foreign Minister, I know that a policy of ‘pushback’ can work.
Rohingya migrants returned from Australia to Indonesia in 2015
And the only way to do this is to convince would-be migrants – who are of course the paying clients of the smugglers – that they are unlikely to reach British shores.
On a calm summer day, it is very likely that a boat that is not challenged will cross the smooth and relatively short stretch of the English Channel. Instinct is, of course, to try.
But if you introduce obstacles that greatly increase the prospect of failure, the economic equation changes. Migrants will stop paying for boat seats, and traffickers will stop buying and equipping boats.
At the turn of the millennium, boats carrying large numbers of economic migrants began to arrive in Australian waters from Indonesia.
It was problematic on several levels.
A group of migrants are brought to Dover, Kent, following a small boat incident in the English Channel this week
First, it was a dangerous sea voyage and the migrants were under serious threat not only by the elements, but also by the traffickers who operated the boats – criminals who cared little for their safety and who would exploit them.
Second, newcomers made fun of our asylum and immigration systems by getting ahead of the roughly 20,000 refugees we admit each year through orderly settlement programs.
We therefore opted for direct action. We sent patrol boats to intercept the ships operated by the traffickers, we put them on board and took command.
Security checks and routine repairs were carried out, then the migrants’ boats were refueled and returned to Indonesia.
Australian Navy ships patrolled the waters to make sure they did not roll over.
We have also provided the Indonesian authorities with the precise coordinates of the boats so that they can follow their progress and be available in case of emergency.
Sri Lankan asylum seekers bound for Australia and New Zealand arrested en route
As word spread throughout Indonesia that we were determined to eradicate trafficking, it quickly drove the numbers down. I see no reason why this cannot be done in the Channel.
The French ministers have already opposed the proposal of your Minister of the Interior, but it was foreseeable.
What the UK government needs to clarify is that its laws are being broken and the problem is in France. Under international law, there is no reason for migrants leaving a safe country like France to seek asylum in another country.
I have heard some media commentators talk about migrants “fleeing France”, which is ridiculous. I was on vacation in the Dordogne recently, and it was very civilized too.
None of the hundreds of men, women and children arriving on the beaches of the south coast – more than 14,000 so far this year – were at risk of persecution in France; nor would face recriminations if forced to return.
Let’s be honest; these migrant trips are a very profitable criminal racketeering run by unscrupulous gangs.
Rohingya migrants rest on boat off Indonesian coast after Australian authorities turn them back
As Minister of Foreign Affairs, my job was to appease the Indonesians, who were initially furious with our policy of “push back”. But they calmed down and tacitly accepted our reasons for acting the way we did – to stop a life-threatening criminal enterprise and the abuse of our immigration system.
No self-respecting country could do otherwise.
When a subsequent Australian Labor government abandoned our policy of interception, citing human rights concerns, the financial incentive for traffickers was re-established and the boats reappeared.
It was only when several boats sank, killing hundreds – including one tragedy in particular in December 2010 where 50 migrants died – that the policy was reapplied. It has remained in force since.
My advice to Miss Patel would be to introduce the policy of “pushback” without fanfare and to keep the French informed only when needed.
The vast majority of those crossing the Channel are young men who are economic migrants, so they respond to economic forces.
To detractors who already argue that it is dangerous to board ships in the English Channel and turn them around, I say that it is less risky than allowing this dismal trade in human cargo to continue.
Some border service and immigration officers would need specific training and I’m sure the Australian government would be happy to help.
Our policy was controversial when it was introduced 20 years ago. But now it is widely accepted that if you are a country determined to remain open to genuine refugees and legal immigrants, then your borders must be protected.
- Alexander Downer is Chairman of Policy Exchange and Executive Chairman of the International School for Government at King’s College London.