By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – “The biggest mistake you can make is not realising that you made a mistake,” said Bernd Kölmel, German Liberal-Conservative member of the European Parliament (MEP), quoting the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle.
He added: “We’ve made mistakes by taking action, and by not taking action. The real challenge is: how can we see to it that, once again, we have control of our European Union, so we can see who’s coming in?”
Kölmel and other EU decision-makers addressed their comments to a 7 June conference here on immigration policy.
The German MEP advocated an EU-wide legal system whereby illegal immigrants would be “deported properly, so that third countries will accept them. Without that, it’s all just talk.”
Some financial assistance to third countries would be unavoidable and desirable, he said. “It’s a win-win: the EU countries would be relieved of immigration pressure, and payments to third countries would create growth and jobs, so those countries become more stable.”
For Kölmel, quick repatriation would be key. “[For] all these migrants crossing the Mediterranean, we should be able to take them straight back rather than getting entangled in procedures in Europe, with the view of deporting them later. Hopefully no more people would drown in the Mediterranean. So there’s a humanitarian side to this as well.”
Similar views came from Angel Dzhambazki, Bulgarian MEP from his country’s nationalist IMRO party. “We are witnessing great improvements in the way borders are managed,” he said.
Speaking Bulgarian, the translation of his comments echoed the language of US President Donald Trump. “We insisted on building a wall between Bulgaria and Turkey. It helps us enforce our borders much better, and it stops people from entering the EU illegally.”
That “wall” is a three-meter fence topped with razor wire coils.
Dzhambazki pegged the border barrier’s cost at EUR 75 million. But for him, the EU’s internal politics make such costs necessary.
“The integration policies in the EU are not working,” he said. “You can see this just by turning on your TV set. We are hearing every day about terrorist acts committed by people who crossed EU borders recently, or who were born and grew up and lived their entire lives in the EU.”
He also railed against the European Commission’s relocation and resettlement policies: “The idea whereby the Commission should force the EU member states to accept a certain number of illegal migrants is unacceptable and inadmissible.”
Speakers from Denmark and Poland continued among similar lines until the introduction of expert speaker Ashton Robinson, honorary fellow with the University of Melbourne in Australia, who laid out elements of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders. Vilified by migrant-rights campaigners, the programme was adopted by the Australian government after 2013 elections dominated by coverage of a wave of illegal immigration by boat.
“We are a country of migration,” he said. “Currently we take in between 160,000 and 200,000 immigrants every year through legal channels. So migration is generally accepted, and supported by the right and left. But the difficult point for our foreign friends to understand is that it’s precisely because legal migration is strongly supported that we have a high intolerance for irregular migration.”
He said 46,000 irregular migrants arrived in Australia by boat that in 2013 — the highest ever — a number that sustained a quickly growing human-smuggling industry.
The success of Operation Sovereign Borders hinged on its structure: a single point of control through one minister. Under the latter’s direction, a lieutenant general commanded all relevant assets such as navy boats and aircraft.
“All operations and logistics were coordinated through a single point,” Robinson said. “The core of defeating the illegal boat trade is attacking the business model for smugglers: we drive up their costs and disrupt their cash flow.”
Thus, the method for defeating the smugglers’ business model was to ensure that illegal migrants never landed on Australian shores, where they could be processed as refugees. Instead, boats were intercepted on the high seas, with the migrants transported to “offshore processing centres” in Naura and Papua New Guinea, among other places.
“The money is stuck in escrow accounts,” he said, describing how human smugglers usually only receive their funds after they provide proof that their boat unloaded its passengers in Australia, not in a processing centre. “So, their profit falls while their risk remains.” In that way, the processing centres were “a strong and deliberate part of the [irregular migrant] deterrence package.”
Meanwhile, Australia’s offshore processing centres are now being dismantled, with the focus shifting to turning boats back to the countries from which they came.
When human smugglers adopt counter-measures such as scuttling a boat once an Australian patrol vessel appears on the horizon, “We’ll rescue people in the water,” Robinson said. And if a boat can be repaired, Australia’s navy will do that, before escorting the boat back to its origin. “We’ll escort a boat all the way back to Vietnam, if that’s what’s needed,” he observed.
Information assurance is also part of Operation Sovereign Borders. Robinson said smugglers used news reports of arriving boats as proof that their clients had arrived, thus demanding payment. “We saw our own official announcements being used against us by smugglers,” he said. As a result, the Australian navy refuses to release any information on intercepted boats, and allows no journalists to observe its operations.
The outcome? “In 2014, we had 46,000 people [arrive] by boat,” he said. “A year later, we had three. Since that point, we’ve had none.”
As a cri-de-coeur from the almost-respectable right, the conference was an attempt to shift the question of the immigration debate from how to integrate refugees to how to stop them at the border and repatriate them as quickly as possible – thus the featured role given to Mr Robinson, who described in glowing terms the benefits of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders, a policy based on herding refugees and irregular migrants seized on boats onto “offshore processing centres.”
That policy worked for Australia, although it did the country’s international image no favours. But what worked for Australia may not work as well for Europe.
For one thing, Australia’s situation is special. As a big country with a small population that already takes in large numbers of migrants through legal means, it has little ability to affect the areas where the migrants are coming from. So a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy that attacks the business model behind human smuggling makes a degree of sense. Europe, by contrast, is big and rich enough that it should — in theory, at least — have more means to engage directly with the migrant’s home countries, and influence the geopolitical space on its periphery.
In the best of all worlds, a two-handed EU policy would accomplish two goals: on the one hand, securing the borders through a unified, top-down approach with a clear chain of command; and on the other: working more closely with countries of origin to both provide those countries to accept repatriations, and immigrants with better incentives to stay home. Alas, such a strategy would entail a far more unified stance among EU member states than currently exists.