With a significant number of arrivals by small boat across the Channel this year and in the past five years, the Prime Minister has made stopping these boats a government priority. Australia’s experience in successfully deterring illegal boat arrivals could provide valuable lessons for Britain.
Small groups of asylum seekers started coming to Australia by boat in the mid-1990s. The Australian government initially placed these arrivals in immigration detention, but legal action by activist lawyers led to their release into the community. To counter this, the Howard government implemented new measures. They detained boat arrivals on Christmas Island and excised it from the Australian immigration zone. More significantly, they sent those who arrived to Nauru, beyond the jurisdiction of Australian courts. Additionally, they turned boats around, causing people smugglers’ clients to end up back in Indonesia.
However, in 2007, the Rudd Labor administration came into power and ceased the practice of turning boats back. Offshore detention and temporary visas were also abolished. Predictably, boat arrivals increased, with over 800 boats carrying nearly 50,000 people arriving in the following six years. Tragically, at least 1,000 individuals are believed to have died during these attempts.
Upon becoming the Prime Minister in 2013, Tony Abbott recognized the need to address this issue. His government reintroduced offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and implemented Operation Sovereign Borders. This approach built upon the Howard government’s strategy, with boat turn-backs, offshore processing, and temporary visas as key components. The government also established a unified command structure under military leadership, imposed a media blackout on individual boat arrivals, and employed unsinkable lifeboats to transport migrants back to Indonesia’s 12-mile limit.
Despite initial skepticism, the government’s determined efforts proved successful. Abbott recognized that failing to stop illegal boat arrivals constituted a peaceful invasion. Furthermore, preventing these arrivals was crucial in preventing avoidable deaths at sea. By eliminating the incentives for migration by boat, the Australian government disrupted the operations of people smugglers and sent a clear message to potential asylum seekers.
In 2014, the culmination of these efforts was evident when a major Australian newspaper featured a picture of a stranded orange lifeboat on its front page. This signaled to people smugglers’ customers that their options were limited, effectively deterring further attempts. Although this approach faced criticism, it was necessary to address the crisis on Australia’s borders.
Tony Abbott’s tenure as Prime Minister may have ended, but the success of Australia’s strategy in preventing illegal boat arrivals remains a testament to the effectiveness of a comprehensive approach that combines deterrence, offshore processing, and cooperation with neighboring countries.