Britain, be warned: with ‘stop the boats’ with policies you brutalise migrants – and damage yourselves | Ben Doherty

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The order came directly from the minister for defence and the instruction was explicit. “No personalising or humanising images” were to be taken of those who had come to Australia by boat, seeking asylum. “Don’t humanise the refugees” was the command to government officials recording the new arrivals to Australian soil in 2001.

The imperative was neither safety, nor concern for the welfare or privacy of those seeking asylum; it was political. Those who came by boat seeking sanctuary, the government insisted, were “potential terrorists”, “illegals”, “threats to national security”: the types of people it claimed – falsely – would throw their children overboard. Images that might humanise the desperate men, women and children who had arrived on those leaky boats would belie the government’s assertions.

In 2001 in Australia there was an election to be won, and the conservative government had just implemented an adamantine new asylum policy – one that would mean those who arrived by boat would be sent for offshore processing on the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru and to the remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea to be detained indefinitely. The government had presented the people of Australia with something to fear, and now it could insist that it alone could protect them from it.

Australia’s self-described hardline asylum policies, now being openly and crudely copied by the UK, serve a blunt electoral purpose, but they also do real damage – both to the people unfortunate enough to be caught up in them, and to the countries that choose to enact them. You risk sleepwalking into that tragic scenario. Despite wide criticism of Suella Braverman’s illegal migration bill, Tory MPs are manoeuvring today to make it even harsher.

In the UK, the voters being targeted are the so-called red wall voters. The Australian equivalent then were the “Howard’s battlers” in the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. John Howard won the 2001 election, and the next one, by promising to be tough on “illegal immigration”. A decade later, Tony Abbott built a campaign on a three-word slogan: “Stop the boats”. Politically, the message was simple and resonant. Rishi Sunak has decided that it still is in the UK today.

Politicians who opposed the measures were decried as “soft on borders”. They secretly wanted “unlimited migration”, which was loaded with allusions to crime, terrorism and “illiterate” refugees taking Australian jobs.

Since it was implemented in 2001, Australia’s offshore detention regime – of the exact kind being proposed in the UK’s Rwanda plan – has suffered the indignity of a thousand exposures: from the UN, from courts foreign and domestic, from Senate inquiries and government reports, public service whistleblowers, media investigations, human rights groups and legal challenges.

All of it has been laid bare: the refugees shot, stabbed or murdered by guards; children sent to adult prisons where they were preyed upon; systemic sexual abuse; the repeated suicide attempts; the mass hunger strikes; the seriously ill neglected until it was too late and they died; the public servants who ignored the pleas of doctors to move patients, so again they died.

Australia is living with the legacy of these brutal policies: the broken lives of those detained, and an Australian population reckoning with this having been deliberately done, in their name and with their money. Because, in the Australian example, the cruelty was not a byproduct but the point. The government took a group of people who had committed no crime – it is legal to arrive in a country by any means to seek asylum – and punished them, demonstratively and for a very long time, in order to deter others.

Australia is reckoning with its recent history. A federal election last year saw a surge in the Green vote, and a swathe of independents elected to previously blue-ribbon conservative seats: all on platforms promising more humane treatment of refugees. Offshore processing, however, remains policy for both major parties: government and opposition.

The argument made in favour of Australia’s policies is that they have “stopped the boats” and saved lives at sea. But saving lives at sea does not necessarily mandate that those saved must be punished, month after month, year after year, in indefinite and arbitrary detention.

And the policy never did “stop the boats”. In the 12 months after offshore detention restarted in 2012, more people arrived by sea seeking asylum than at any time in Australian history. Within three months, Australia’s offshore processing centres were completely overwhelmed, and the government had to stop sending people to them. No one has been sent offshore since 2014 – those that remain in the centres have been held there since then.

The arrival of boats to Australian shores was dramatically slowed (though never stopped entirely) largely through the intervention of Australia’s navy, which physically intercepts the boats, forcing their occupants back to the countries they left. Australia’s pushbacks of asylum seeker boats are illegal under international law and “may intentionally put lives at risk”, the UN has said. On occasions, Australian government agents have even paid boat skippers to turn their vessels around, leading to allegations that the government could be implicated in “people trafficking”.

Regardless, Australia’s policies are held up, overtly in the UK debate, as exemplars for the world. This is hardly surprising, since some of their architects, such as the Tory strategist Lynton Crosby – a former electioneer for Howard – and Howard’s foreign minister Alexander Downer, are now working in the UK. The political imperative radiates outwards. As more states choose policies of deterrence over protection, other states feel pressured to do the same: to lock down borders, to build walls, to stop boats.

The ongoing suffering of those still caught within Australia’s offshore regime is especially upsetting because it is unnecessary. It is a catastrophe of conscious political creation, and it carries with it a warning. We have seen a nation damaged and demoralised by policies that may be briefly politically advantageous, but that most voters know deep down to be cruel and ignoble. People will suffer. Think of that before the UK chooses this path.

  • Ben Doherty is a reporter for Guardian Australia, and a former foreign correspondent covering south-east Asia

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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