The idea has prompted comparisons with Australia, which implemented a similar policy for six months beginning in September 2001, and then again 12 years later after a sharp increase in boat arrivals.
How does Australia’s policy work?
Boats carrying migrants en route to Australia are turned or towed back “where it is safe to do so”, regardless of which country they are fleeing.
If necessary, people suspected to have departed from Indonesia are removed from their vessel, provided with lifeboats and towed back within reach of Indonesian territorial waters. In some cases they are handed over to the navies of other countries, such as Sri Lanka.
In at least one instance, according to Amnesty International, Australian officials paid the crew of a boat to return its passengers to Indonesia, a finding which, if true, might implicate the government in people smuggling. Australian officials from the immigration minister down have strongly denied the claims, which are currently the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.
This week Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, confirmed that 25 vessels, carrying a total of 698 people, have been turned back since the policy was implemented in September 2013.
Is the policy effective?
That depends what you’re asking. There is no evidence that fewer people are being persecuted because of Australia’s harsh border policy. Migrants – including many Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar – continue to head to south-east Asia at near-record levels.
In May 2015, around 8,000 people were left stranded on boats because countries in the region, including Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, refused to let them land, and in some instances towed their vessels back to sea.
Amnesty International reported that asylum seekers on board some of the vessels fought each other to death over dwindling food and water supplies, amid UN warnings the boats would become “floating coffins”. Most were eventually accepted by countries in the region, but few have been permanently resettled.
Despite the Australian government’s boasts, the boats have not stopped. Attempts to reach Australia by asylum seekers (who, it is worth pointing out, are overwhelmingly found to be refugees) have indeed slowed, but as noted above, continue to occur. At least two have managed to reach Australian waters.
But the turn-back strategy – along with policies such as forcing asylum seekers to live in detention centres across the Pacific in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and guaranteeing they will never be resettled in Australia – has seen the number of boats attempting to arrive in Australia plummet.
It stands to reason that the number of migrants dying in Australian waters has also fallen: around 1,100 people are thought to have died making the journey between 2009 and 2013.
Could it be easily copied by the EU?
The former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, used last year’s Margaret Thatcher lecture to sing the praises of his country’s immigration policy, commending it to European leaders.
But there are key differences between the Australian and European contexts. Australia’s stream of vessels originate mostly in Indonesia, which is regarded as a transit country for asylum seekers from other places such as Iran, Afghanistan or Syria. Those leaving Libya are likely to be people fleeing immediate risk, since the country has been gripped by civil war for nearly two years. Even in more peaceful times, migrants in Libya have few rights and sometimes find themselves trapped in conditions tantamount to slave labour – making the sea their least-worst escape route.
As Paul Barrett, a former secretary of Australia’s defence department, describes it: “When we turn back boats to Indonesia, objectionable as that policy is, we know the Indonesians aren’t going to shoot them when they come back.
“Whereas if you turn around boats that are fleeing from Libya and send them straight back to Libya you’re injecting them straight back into the danger where they’ve fled.”
Indonesia has never supported Australia’s boat turn-back measures, but it does have an effective navy capable of intercepting towed or turned-back boats that run into trouble in its waters.
This would not be possible in Libya. The country’s coastguard has just three operational vessels along its entire western seaboard, where the majority of people-smuggling takes place. These vessels are each under the control of separate factions, due to the fragmented nature of post-Gadaffi Libya, and are already unable to deal with the flow of migrants in its current form.
Which Libyan partners could work with the EU?
There aren’t any obvious options. The country is currently split between four main factions – the elected government, which has been forced out of the capital, Tripoli; a rebel alliance, which now controls the capital; a new UN-backed coalition, which was meant to unify the two warring factions, but which has been rejected by both; and a local affiliate of Islamic State, which has seized parts of the central Libyan coastline. Within their different jurisdictions, there are smaller militias that wield influence on a local level.
Cameron has suggested returning migrants to Libya despite apparently being aware of these complexities: for months, his government has briefed journalists on the possibility that the UK might send ground troops to Libya to defeat Isis.
On a local level, it is unclear who could receive the migrants once they return to shore. Harbour-masters are often in the pay of smugglers, who also have connections with the country’s many militias. International institutions have largely left the war-torn country, meaning that migrants would likely be kept captive by local militias, or forced by to the traffickers or into exploitative labour.
Are push-backs legal?
Under the UN refugee convention, it is not permissible to turn back a boat if doing so would expose those aboard to potential persecution. Australia claims in some cases to carry out a fast-tracked “enhanced screening” process to determine whether asylum seekers intercepted at sea are at any risk if returned.
Nonetheless, the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law has argued the chances Australia is breaching the non-refoulement principle of the refugee convention are “significant”.
The UN opposes Australia’s actions, saying asylum seekers intercepted at sea should not be returned against their will to source and transit countries without proper on-land processing.
Its high commission on refugees has argued that refugees “must be swiftly and individually screened, in a process which they understand and in which they are able to explain their needs. Such screening is best carried out on land, given safety concerns and other limitations of doing so at sea.”
Australia is also potentially in breach of another international legal instrument, the law of the sea, which prohibits turning back unseaworthy boats, or boarding vessels outside its territorial waters if they are registered to another country.
Source: The Guardian