Originally published in The Telegraph
With more than 16,000 arrivals by small boat across the Channel so far this year, and 100,000 in the past five years, it’s no wonder that the Prime Minister has made stopping the boats one of the Government’s five priorities. While Britain’s predicament differs somewhat, I suspect there might be lessons from Australia’s success in almost entirely stopping a large wave of illegal boats.
Small boatloads of would-be migrants, claiming to be asylum seekers, first started coming to Australia through Indonesia in the mid-1990s. At one level: who could blame them? Like Britain, Australia is a magnet of freedom and prosperity, with a generosity that unscrupulous people can exploit.
Both the Keating Labor government and then the Howard Liberal-National government initially put boat arrivals into immigration detention, but court action by activist lawyers invariably meant their swift release into the community and eventual permanent residency. So the Howard government sought to defeat the refugee lobby’s law-fare. First, it detained boat people on Christmas Island and excised that from the Australian immigration zone. But what really worked was sending any who arrived to Nauru, beyond the reach of our judges, while turning boats around so that the people smugglers’ clients ended up back in Java wanting their money returned.
Then the government changed. Despite being elected in 2007 with a commitment to continue boat turn-backs, the green-Left inside the Rudd Labor administration had its way. Turn-backs ceased, and offshore detention and temporary visas were abolished – only for the boats, predictably enough, to start up again. Over the next six years, more than 800 boats came to Australia, with nearly 50,000 people aboard. At least 1,000 are thought to have died in the attempt. At its peak, there were 5,000 arrivals in one month alone.
When I became prime minister in 2013, I knew something had to be done to fix this. What changed? First, offshore processing in Nauru and also in Papua New Guinea resumed. Most significantly, Operation Sovereign Borders commenced. My government built on the Howard formula: boat turn-backs to stop people leaving for Australia in the first place, offshore processing so that those who were picked up at sea never made it to Australia, and temporary visas so that those who did get here couldn’t stay.
Crucially, we added a unified command structure under military leadership for all the agencies involved, a media blackout for individual boat arrivals (because this had served as “shipping news for people smugglers”), and – when boats were scuttled, forcing our navy to pick up their occupants – putting would-be migrants on to unsinkable lifeboats just outside Indonesia’s 12-mile limit with only enough fuel to make it back to Java.
At the beginning, only one of the government’s most senior officials thought that stopping the boats was even achievable. One of them went so far as to claim that it could cause conflict with Indonesia. My response was that if illegal boats were leaving Australia for Indonesia, with only perfunctory efforts made to stop them, the Indonesians would regard us as conniving in an unfriendly act.
When official advice emerged that the turn-backs might be illegal under international law, I demanded we seek better advice. A country that can’t stop people entering without permission is suffering a form of peaceful invasion. That’s why my government was so resolute that, one way or another, the boats had to be stopped.
Stopping the boats was also the only way to stop the deaths. As long as arriving illegally by boat was the ticket to a better life in a better country, my government reasoned, the people smugglers would have a product to sell, with customers prepared to take their chances on the open sea. “Taking the sugar off the table” upset all the usual moralisers, but it was actually the most moral thing to do in the circumstances we faced.
Early in 2014, I knew we’d succeeded when our main newspaper had a full, front-page picture of a big orange lifeboat beached in Java. That was the clearest possible signal to the people smugglers’ customers that the game was up and the way was closed. The Indonesians were furious, of course, but if they’d enforced their own laws, we would never have had a crisis on our borders.