EU Leaders Finally Grasping Wisdom Behind Australia’s Border Rules

The outcome from the European Union’s “emergency summit” on refugees and irregular migrants makes for curious reading. Emerging from more than 10 hours of talks in the early hours last Friday in Brussels, European leaders claimed to have averted a continent-wide migration crisis.The solution? Once among the most self-righteous critics of Australia’s border protection policies, Europe’s leaders now seem well on their way to adopting as their own large chunks of Australia’s border protection approach.To start with, European leaders are finally beginning to acknowledge that they have a serious problem with illegal migration — and that their inhabitants are none too happy about it. Previously in a form of denial about the scale of the challenge they face, in Brussels European leaders stated their determination to “prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015”, an implicit acknowledgment that Europe had lost control of its borders.Europe is also beginning to recognise it has become a soft touch for people-smugglers, and that this is fuelling further people movements. In language familiar to Australian ears, Europe’s leaders acknowledged they needed to “definitively break the business model of the smugglers” and so save lives by eliminating the “incentive to embark on perilous journeys”.Next up, Europe’s leaders agreed to build “controlled centres” across Europe to provide for “rapid and secure processing” of asylum claims — with genuine refugees resettled but other irregular migrants returned.Though euphemistically put, what the EU is talking about is migrant detention centres. But they also went one step further, calling for the consideration of “regional disembarkation platforms” in countries outside Europe, predominantly in northern Africa in places such as Libya and Tunisia, where refugee claims could be assessed without creating a “pull factor” towards Europe.In all but name, Europe’s leaders have landed upon their equivalent of ­Australia’s offshore processing centres.Concern over uncontrolled and irregular migration has become a major — perhaps the major — political force in Europe. But large chunks of Europe’s political elite have until now failed to grasp this reality or concede the legitimacy of public concern over uncontrolled borders. The result has been a growing populist backlash across Europe.In Italy, a new government has emerged that has made restoring control over borders and people movements its highest priority. In Austria, Hungary and Poland, governments are demanding a more hard-headed European response to unregulated people flows. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel — Europe’s longest serving and most senior leader — is fighting for her political life, under pressure from the demands of her Bavarian coalition partner for a tougher line on migration. And in Britain, of course, growing public anxiety about the level of migration drove much of the support for Brexit.In the US, similar public ­anxiety about migration is driving politics.Though the temptation to indulge in schadenfreude is strong, we should welcome Europe’s overdue recognition of reality and its adoption of border protection and migration policies that are familiar to Australia. And we should use it to seek to modernise the global rules that underpin the system, most importantly the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.The convention played a critical role in helping resettle displaced populations in Europe after World War II. But it was not designed for today’s world of mass people movements, mass travel and mass communications.There is an almost endless supply of people seeking to leave their countries and resettle in the West, and these days — unlike in 1951 — there is the means to reach the destination. Some of these are genuine refugees, though a large portion are not fleeing persecution but simply seeking better lives for themselves and their families — and who can blame them?The sheer volume, however, is completely beyond the capacity of European countries or Australia to absorb without fundamentally upsetting the internal balance and social cohesion of these nations. While the humanitarian urge to accept everyone who makes it to your shores might be strong, this can be no basis for policy — as Europe is slowly learning.Whether we seek to modernise the 1951 convention or augment it with other agreements, the time is ripe for a global effort to reach a new set of understandings around people movements.These understandings should continue to provide protection from persecution and a pressure outlet from conflict zones and humanitarian crises. They should seek to improve conditions in so-called source countries, and so tamp down on the push factors that drive much of migration. But they should also be frank in accepting that destination countries have a sovereign right to control their migration intake.Originally published as an opinion column in The Australian on 5 July 2018.

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