The language employed by génocidaires has spilled over into the anti-immigration debate. When commenting on the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, The Sun columnist Katie Hopkins recently referred to asylum seekers as "cockroaches", ‘”feral humans”, “vermin” and “a virus”. The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein rightly condemned Hopkins, and called for action to curb incitement of hatred towards migrants and respect for international law. An eminent lawyer is writing to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate whether these comments are an incitement to commit crimes against humanity.

This inflammatory language foments the idea that Europe is being overrun by undesirables. Dehumanising language is not new in the migration discourse and is also commonly observed in Australia. While the terminology employed is less extreme, in the Australian context there have been concerted dehumanisation campaigns against asylum seekers, specifically those arriving by boats. By repeatedly labelling asylum seekers “illegals”, political leaders have induced the populace into accepting and even advocating for their maltreatment as essential to, variously, save boat people from drowning, stop queue jumpers, smash people smuggling and ensure our borders are secure. Similar language in Europe may be laying the groundwork for restrictive asylum policies based on the Australian model.

Hopkins’ remarks were buttressed by numerous references to Australia’s asylum seeker policies. Extolling our “can-do brains, tiny hearts and balls of steel”, Hopkins declared:

It’s time to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.

In the face of staunch international criticism, the Australian government has persisted with the now infamous policies of offshore processing, third-country settlement and boat turn backs. Most recently the tiny hearts and can-do brains of Canberra spent $4.1 million to develop a telemovie designed to deter asylum seekers from coming to Australia. The movie is scheduled to screen in countries including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, where 17,000 civilians were reportedly killed last year alone.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 42,323 Syrians arrived on Italian shores by sea last year, making Syria the largest source nation for Mediterranean crossings. The unrest in Syria has reportedly killed some 200,000 civilians and created more than 3.9 million refugees, most of whom reside in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, in various states of uncertainty.

Would the Australian approach work in the European context? In a vexed debate that weighs national security and partisan political outcomes against the lives of asylum seekers, what does “work” even mean?

If Europe were to ‘get Australian’, and ‘force migrants back to their shores’, this would entail the direct return and potential refoulement of asylum seekers including those from Syria. In the context of the scale and severity of the crisis in Syria, such a proposition sounds unfathomable, however Australia has recently done the same in relation to Sri Lankan and Vietnamese asylum seekers. Australia has also conducted a number of tow backs to transit countries, most notably Indonesia.

For most seeking to reach Europe by boat the final transit country is Libya. Italy has previously sought to turn back boats to Libya in accordance with bilateral agreements between the two nations that were entered prior to the 2011 revolution. However, the European Court of Human Rights held that such returns would be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.[1] Given the present situation in Libya, a nation which Human Rights Watch recently described as lacking any semblance of law and order in most areas, it is unlikely Australian-style returns would be legally permissible in the foreseeable future.

The fate of asylum seekers who are returned without having their claims adequately assessed is not a consideration under Australia’s policies. The United Nations has recently declared that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has contravened the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture, including the protections against refoulement, however this condemnation has not led to a policy change. 

While Australia is not party to any regional human rights system, Europe’s human rights framework does not allow for obligations owed to asylum seekers to be shirked so easily. The European Commission recently stated that as the EU seeks to protect refugees from refoulement, “the Australian model can never be a model for us”.

Much of Katie Hopkins’ column is vile sensationalism designed to provoke rather than offer solutions, humanitarian or otherwise. However, it is troubling that her extreme suggestions are, at least in part, inspired by Australia. That a person with such radical views is holding Australia up on a pedestal should be cause for serious reflection about the nation we want to be and how we want to be perceived. Notwithstanding, European adoption of the ‘Australian Solution’ would likely fail given the more robust human rights protection afforded by the European Convention on Human Rights.

 

Michael Simmons is a Solicitor and Registered Migration Agent who represents asylum seekers and refugees. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own. 

 

[1] Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy , Application no. 27765/09, Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights, 23 February 2012.