Exporting the 'Pacific solution'


Opponents of the government’s ‘Pacific Solution’, where asylum seekers are detained offshore while claims are processed on the mainland, characterize the policy as a tragedy or a farce.

The Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, Aladdin Sisalem who, with his cat Honey, cost $250,000 a month to detain on PNG’s Manus Island is offered as proof of the policy failure. But as the election campaign showed, support for the policy makes good political sense. Boats no longer hover near Australian shores and a potentially explosive issue has fizzled out.

None of this has been lost on European leaders. In early October, EU justice ministers announced the establishment of immigration ‘transit camps’ in five African nations. Michael Howard, UK Conservative Party leader, said his government would jettison the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and implement a points-based system – as in Australia.

Labour immediately accused the Conservatives of lurching to the far right. But such views are widely held by the Labour government and Opposition. During a TV interview, Oliver Letwin, Conservative Party chairman, was asked if his government would introduce an annual refugee quota. ‘The Australian system’ was his reply. ‘Yes the Australian system,’ the reporter Jonathan Dimbleby continued, ‘Does that include a cap on the numbers of people who are given asylum in any particular year?’

Letwin replied: ‘It doesn’t include a cap in the sense that if people appear in this country and seek asylum we have to find refuge for them, we accept that. But ‘ His hesitation shows why the ‘Australian system’ is becoming so popular. Europe’s aim is to stop people (read asylum seekers) ‘appearing’ in the first place. ‘It’s not so much about Fortress Europe and shutting the gates,’ says Liza Schuster, from Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. ‘It’s about being selective.’

One week after the EU lifted its embargo on Libya, Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, visited Tripoli to discuss ways of stopping the two million who Italian officials claim are waiting to cross the Mediterranean and enter Europe.

What the government wants, says Italian immigration expert, Umberto Melotti, is to evade NGO-pressure over its mainland detention centers. ‘It’s also a question of money. Camps in other Mediterranean countries, especially in Libya, will cost a lot less. In the end there is only the cost of sending them back to where they came from.’

Former colonial power Italy is Libya’s number one trading partner and investor in its undeveloped resources sector. A recently signed joint venture between Libya’s state oil company and the Italian Agip-Eni sees Libyan gas exported through a 600 km pipeline, via Sicily, then onto Italy. Offshore predicted that the gas would be onstream the same month officials visited Libya to discuss Italy’s immigration problem.

The Mediterranean route is now a distant fourth for unauthorized arrivals. More popular are eastern routes, via Albania and Switzerland. The most recent (2002) figures available to Amnesty International Italy show the two largest nationalities for asylum claims are Sri Lankan and Iraqi, not African.

‘Maybe Libya has been chosen because it is not a signing party to the Geneva Convention,’ says Francesco Messineo from Amnesty International Italy. ‘What we know and are worried about is Libya’s human rights record with regard to immigration policies. More than 350 Eritreans are jailed at present in Libya and their rights are not respected, and some other asylum seekers have been returned to Eritrea. This constitutes refoulement, which is prohibited by international law and puts their safety at risk.’

Germany’s Interior Minister, Otto Schily, said the centers in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania would stop unnecessary deaths. More than 5,000 people drowned trying to reach Italy in the last decade, according to the UNHCR. Yet the one million euro project ($1.7 million AUD) has divided the EU. Germany, Britain, Italy and Austria are supportive, while Spain, Sweden and France remain unconvinced.

Asylum seekers intercepted in international waters will be barred from claiming EU protection, but free to seek asylum in any of the five African nations. Those found in EU waters will be treated in accordance with its procedures, but Liza Schuster says this is a ‘murky area legally’.

In May, the House of Lords released a damning report on British attempts to establish immigrant reception centers in the EU ‘buffer zone’ of Ukraine, Albania and Belorussia. Beverley Hughes, the UK Immigration Minister, said she was working with ‘EU partners to develop pilot schemes’ to assess asylum claims closer to their origin.

The UNHCR had originally proposed a project that established EU-based centers for failed asylum seekers. Immediate responses were, according to the House of Lords, ‘lukewarm’.

Lawyers questioned a plan that would transfer state responsibility to the EU thereby implying a ‘collective responsibility’ difficult to prove in international law.

Dick Oosting, director of Amnesty International EU, says the notion of the EU having a ‘collective responsibility’ for detainees in extra-territorial centres raises ‘serious legal problems’. ‘The European Union does not have a legal personality and is not bound by international treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Convention,’ he says.

In the wake of EU-wide asylum policy, states are free to adopt their own procedures, provided they conform to the Convention. (During the recent EU meeting, however, the justice ministers signaled their determination to set up EU-wide asylum procedures by 2010).

Caroline Intrand, from CIMADE, a French NGO that monitors conditions in the country’s ‘holding centres’ says the lack of common policy is behind Europe’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers. ‘Detention, or camps, or exclusion,’ Intrand says, are used as ‘tools of migration management in Europe because there is no real immigration policy’.

Europe’s desire to outsource responsibility for asylum seekers is nothing new, however. In 1998, high-level EU ministers visited Ankara and Istanbul to seek Turkey’s cooperation to deal with immigrants crossing its territory from south Asia and the Middle East.

What is new about the recent EU plan is the way asylum seekers will be sent to another location to be processed, or detained. The ‘Pacific Solution’ is the obvious prototype. ‘Certainly developments in Australia were watched very closely,’ Liza Shuster says. ‘The ”Pacific Solution” was referred to approvingly by both Tony Blair and David Blunkett when they first mooted the idea of external camps.’

Even though the EU plan proponents have not directly mentioned Australia, its example has been forgotten. ‘Unfortunately, the ‘Pacific Solution’ affected all subsequent attitudes of governments around the world with regard to asylum law and practice,’ says Amnesty International’s Francesco Messineo.

A boat called Cap Anamur with more than thirty African asylum seekers was stranded off the Sicilian coast earlier this year. For three weeks, Italian authorities denied it permission to land. Not unlike the Tampa standoff that eased the Coalition government into power three years ago, Messineo says this incident marked a turning point in his country’s asylum policy. ‘This event was a symbol of all EU and Italian mistakes, with regard to asylum protection and access to fair procedure.’

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