Skip to content


When it comes to tough border policies, Australia has become an unexpected and unfortunate model. And so it was this week, when former Australian Foreign Secretary Alexander Downer was appointed to lead the review of Britain’s Border Force.

To be clear, this is a political move aimed at boosting the re-election chances of Boris Johnson’s government. The fanfare with which the nomination was announced seems to indicate that the government thinks being seen as copying Australia will give it a boost in the polls.

But, as they say, it takes two to tango. While the UK wants to copy, Australian politicians have been trying for years to export Australia’s pushback and offshore treatment policies to validate their own tough stance. Britain has been one of the main targets of these efforts, which finally seem to be bearing fruit with the appointment of Downer.

Downer comes from one of Australia’s most important political dynasties. His grandfather was one of the founding fathers of the Australian Commonwealth and his father served as Minister for Immigration from 1958 to 1963. Downer led Australia’s Conservative Liberal Party for a brief period in 1994-95, holding the record of the shortest Liberal term. leader in the history of the party. He resigned after a series of blunders that thwarted his chances of becoming prime minister and led to him becoming the first Liberal leader not to lead the party to an election. Downer nonetheless became Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister from 1996 to 2007 and followed in his father’s footsteps to serve as Australia’s high commissioner to the UK from 2014 to 2018.

As Foreign Secretary, Downer played a central role in brokering the so-called “peaceful solution”. The policy was to push back boats of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia and to detain asylum seekers in offshore camps. Downer led the negotiations with Nauru and Papua New Guinea and secured their agreement to host the treatment centers. The policy ran from 2001 to 2007 and laid the foundation for Australia’s current offshore treatment and vessel pushback policies which were reintroduced in 2012/13 and continue to this day.

In an opinion piece published last year, Downer gave his full backing to British Home Secretary Priti Patel’s proposal to carry out push-back operations in the English Channel, saying “in my experience in As a former Australian foreign secretary, I know that a ‘push-back policy can work.’ This proposal appears to have been further developed in a report published on Wednesday by the Policy Exchange think tank, chaired by Downer. report presents two proposals, a “Plan A” which would involve cooperation with France to accept the return of migrants intercepted in the Channel, and a “Plan B”, which could be implemented unilaterally and would consist of transferring migrants attempting to cross the English Channel by boat for transport to offshore sites. Possible suggested locations include British offshore territories and military bases, as well as the p long-time partner from Australia, Nauru. In other words, migrants trying to enter the UK by boat will be turned away, at least in the short term.

But the Australian approach should not be held up as a model to be emulated. Claims that this has been a success by politicians such as Downer should be approached with skepticism and ignore the significant damages and costs that have resulted from these policies.

Offshore treatment in Australia has been cruel, expensive and ineffective. It inflicted devastating physical and psychological harm on asylum seekers and created endemic social problems in the communities of Nauru and Manus Island that hosted Australia’s offshore camps. More importantly, the policy has failed in its aim to deter boat migration and save lives at sea. All of this comes at an exorbitant financial cost. The cost of detaining each person in Nauru is currently over $4 million per year, or over $11,000 per person per day.

Rather than saving lives, Australia’s boat pushback operations have endangered asylum seekers and resulted in many deaths. Operations can be chaotic, with asylum seekers panicking and jumping into the water, or inadvertently capsizing. There have also been incidents where asylum seekers deliberately damaged their ship to prevent their return, resulting in significant loss of life. Others lost their lives after their ships were towed outside Australian territorial waters and left adrift at sea.

Navy officers involved in Border Enforcement operations in Australia have reported significant trauma resulting from their experiences, including developing post-traumatic stress disorder after having to remove the bodies of deceased asylum seekers from the ocean.

Australia’s offshore treatment and boat pushback policies have also been repeatedly condemned by the UN as violating international law.

If Downer’s appointment results in these policies being exported to the UK, it would significantly undermine the international refugee protection regime. This will fuel the competition we see around the world with states implementing increasingly tough border control policies to keep asylum seekers away.

As I document in my book Refuge Lost, the logical endpoint of this race to the bottom is an end to the harsh institution of asylum, with individuals in immediate danger unable to cross borders to access safety.

The protections set out in the Refugee Convention and other human rights treaties are just words. Their effectiveness in the real world is shaped by the actions of states. Implementing international law in practice requires leadership – states need to step up and lead by example to persuade other states to meet their obligations.

The United Kingdom has always been one of the states that has assumed this leadership role and set an example in the protection of refugees. But being tough on borders can be a vote winner – John Howard overturned Australia’s 2001 election by implementing the “Pacific Solution”. As the UK election looms, there’s no doubt that Johnson is trying the same tricks and he’s using Downer to help.

But it is a dangerous game. We are at a crucial turning point. If Downer leads the UK down the same path as Australia and other states that have taken steps to block and deter asylum seekers, it could potentially inflict a mortal wound on the universal principle of asylum and the international refugee protection regime more broadly.

Dr Daniel Ghezelbash is Associate Professor at Macquarie Law School and Visiting Scholar at the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Refuge Lost: Asylum Law in an Interdependent World

theguardian Gt

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.