Australia’s tough stance on illegal immigration came to a head with the October closure of its Manus Island offshore detention center and the subsequent refusal of many of the occupants to leave.
Australia began its offshore processing system of illegal asylum seekers in response to the large numbers of boat arrivals to the country, many of which were operated by Indonesian smugglers on unseaworthy vessels. Ostensibly to reduce the number of deaths at sea and to maintain border security, the government refused to take in asylum seekers who arrived by sea, opting to take refugees from UNHCR registered camps instead.
Under Operation Sovereign Borders and the “Pacific Solution,” the Navy began to turn back boats or apprehend the migrants who were sent to detention centers in neighboring countries such as Papua New Guinea until alternative resettlement options could be arranged. The scheme has been rife with scandals since its inception, with human rights abuses for which neither the Australian government nor the host countries want to be held accountable. The detainees have been stuck in limbo for years, with few actually being resettled. But the Australian government maintains that the policy has been a successful deterrent against human smuggling.
A Global People Smuggling Crisis
Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders and the associated offshore processing centers were successful in that they stopped asylum seekers from arriving by sea almost immediately. After just one year, boat arrivals plunged from over 300 boats (carrying 50,000 people) to only one.
“We have destroyed the people smugglers’ product. Their product was ‘pay the money, hop on the boat, you’ll settle in Australia,'” said Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, “We’ve taken the sugar off the table. We’ve upturned the table and we’ve said to people that you aren’t coming here.”
The Australian government claims to have solved its people smuggling problem, but the industry flourishes elsewhere across the globe.
Since German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed in any numbers, millions have flooded into Europe. Not only has this resulted in significant cultural change over the continent, but it has created a booming human smuggling industry between North Africa and Mediterranean countries, notably Italy and Greece. Since Greece began returning migrants who had crossed the Aegean Sea back to Turkey, numbers have curtailed. However, smuggling into Italy has increased. There, migrants are actively supported by NGOs, who work with people smugglers to bring them from Libya to Italy. With this kind of encouragement, thousands have died at sea after smugglers put them on unseaworthy boats, and Europe is struggling to cope with the numbers who do arrive.
With many of the migrants simply inventing new identities to try and claim refugee status, the sad irony is that legitimate refugees are being forced to compete with criminals and those who can afford to pay smugglers, or who are willing to turn to extremist groups to help get them into Europe.
The Mexico-U.S. border also sees thousands of illegal crossings every year. Human smugglers are charging extortionate fees to transport migrants across the border, putting the migrants at risk of death or apprehension at best, while at worst, drug cartels have been known to kidnap, blackmail, coerce, abuse and enslave desperate migrants. Virtually every migrant who crosses the Mexico-U.S. border does so in the hands of people smugglers unwilling to risk going against the cartels, according to Customs and Border Protection spokesman Mike Friel.
322 illegal migrants died while being smuggled over the border in 2016, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. But the real problem with illegal immigration is that there is no way to track how many people are victimized in the process and how many go on to live lives of exploitation and slavery in the U.S. While not every smuggled immigrant will end up as the victim of exploitation, they are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, says the State Department:
“People who are smuggled can be extremely vulnerable to human trafficking, abuse, and other crimes, as they are illegally present in the country of destination and often owe large debts to their smugglers… Some smuggled persons may be subjected to sex or labor trafficking while in transit or at their destination, and these individuals are trafficking victims.
With over 33,000 unaccompanied children apprehended by Border Security from October 2016-June 2017, one wonders what fate those children were destined for upon arrival in the U.S.
Not a Solution
Should Europe and the U.S. copy Australia’s “harsh but effective” policy? While the policy has been successful in stopping “boat people” entering Australia, it has failed in every other respect. The Manus Island detention center and the Pacific Solution policy, in general, have faced strident opposition from both domestic and international sources. The centers have been criticized as inhumane, and the U.N. has said that the system is seriously harming Australia’s human rights record. It’s certainly true that the centers are a breeding ground for criminality, mental illness, and physical abuse. Many of the detainees are depressed and even suicidal after years of imprisonment and an uncertain future. The most concerning reports are those which concern large scale child abuse in the Nauru Island center.
The few hundred people in the detention centers have become the collateral damage of an immigration policy, but what now is to happen to them? With 70% of the detainees found to be refugees, Australia is trying to field them out to other countries, including 1,250 to the U.S. in a deal that President Trump called “dumb.” However, few have been resettled so far. The truth is that Australia has created a moral dilemma and humanitarian crisis that nobody knows how to solve, and for which nobody is willing to take responsibility.