Benedict Coleridge recently worked as a policy researcher for Jesuit Refugee Service Europe. He will soon begin graduate study at the University of Oxford.
I recently returned from Brussels, where I researched and wrote a report on the Balkans as a transit route for forced migrants attempting to reach EU borders. I conducted field research in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and in Croatia.
It was interesting to observe developments in Australian border control policy from afar. Observers in Brussels were incredulous when Australia excised its mainland from its migration zone: 'Can that even be done?', I was asked.
Now that I've returned it's intriguing to observe the way commentators and politicians are situating the Australian policy debate vis-a-vis the international context. Many have explored the differences between Australian and European border control regimes and some have looked to Europe for policy models for a new Australian approach to border control. For example, Maria O'Sullivan of Monash University argued that in designing a regional solution to irregular migration flows, Australia should look to the EU's Dublin Convention for inspiration.
The Dublin Convention is a legal mechanism through which EU member states can return irregular migrants and asylum seekers to the countries at which they first entered EU territory. The EU also has a set of re-admission agreements with neighbouring non-EU countries that allow it to return their nationals (and third-party nationals) who have crossed EU borders without proper documentation.
Australia too could initiate a regional system in the mould of the Dublin Convention. It could have readmission agreements with neighbouring countries of transit like Indonesia and Malaysia that would allow Australia to return irregular migrants to those countries when apprehended. Australia, like the EU, would need to provide technical and material assistance to the countries included in these arrangements.
The problem is that in practice, the EU's Dublin Convention is a dysfunctional system that often fails to ensure proper protection for asylum seekers and refugees, and leaves forced migrants stranded in difficult, poor and often dangerous environments with little hope of having their asylum claims processed properly.
I interviewed asylum seekers in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a country that has a re-admission agreement with the EU. Asylum seekers in Macedonia live in appalling conditions while waiting for their claims to be processed. They suffer a poor diet, lack of proper medical care and filthy surroundings. Moreover, no protection status has been granted to any asylum seekers in the past two years, so for many the only option is to abscond prior to their application process being resolved.
Maria O'Sullivan emphasised that the EU has a level of uniformity of human rights standards derived from binding treaties (a legal framework absent in Australia's region). And indeed these standards have been enforced in the case of Greece, a country to which no transfers of asylum seekers may now be made by other EU member states due to the general collapse of Greece's asylum system.
But even where there are common standards enshrined in law, these don't always translate into common practice. Croatia's asylum system functions very differently from Germany's or Denmark's. I conducted field research in Croatia, which included visits to Croatian reception centres. Asylum seekers in Croatia live in temporary accommodation and receive inadequate legal advice and psychological support services. Croatian reception centres lack proper security measures and in recent months have experienced frequent outbreaks of violence. Croatian authorities are trying to remedy these problems, but the point remains that, despite its shared legal framework, European countries do not offer equal standards of protection to asylum seekers.
Maria O'Sullivan also makes the argument that the PNG arrangement 'involves transferring vulnerable asylum seekers to a poor nation when there are no common regional standards in place to ensure those people – human beings with rights – are protected.'
But the same thing can occur under the Dublin Convention. The EU relies on countries on its periphery to share the burden of mixed migration flows. It has re-admission agreements with Algeria and Morocco (countries with very poor human rights standards) and as already mentioned, with Macedonia.
And although transfers of third-country nationals from the EU to these peripheral countries are rare, when they do occur it is disastrous for the migrant involved. Migrants end up being stuck in appalling conditions, unable to return to an EU country with any prospect of success in achieving legal status there and certainly unable to return to their country of origin. They are stuck in limbo in a difficult and alien place.
Even within the EU 28 there is a lack of equal burden sharing. It's a well aired grievance that countries like Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland transfer many more asylum seekers than they receive and countries like Greece, Italy and Poland receive many more than they transfer.
None of this is to say that countries can manage forced migration flows without regional co-operation — they can't. But as we think through how a regional agreement might work, the weaknesses of the European model should prompt caution.