Alexander Downer is the wrong choice to review the UK’s border force – Australia’s record is nothing to emulate

When it comes to harsh border policies, Australia has become an unexpected and unfortunate role model. And so it was again this week, when former Australian foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer was appointed to lead the review of the UK’s border force.

Om duidelik te wees, this is a political move aimed at boosting Boris Johnson’s government’s chances of re-election. The fanfare with which the appointment was announced seems to indicate that the government believes that being seen to emulate Australia will give it a boost at the polls.

Maar, as they say, it takes two to tango. While the UK wants to copy, Australian politicians have been trying to export Australia’s push-back and offshore processing policies for years to validate their own harsh stance. Britain has been one of the main targets of such efforts, which now seem to finally be paying off with Downer’s appointment.

Downer comes from one of Australia’s most prominent political dynasties. His grandfather was one of the founding fathers of the Australian commonwealth, and his father was the minister for immigration from 1958 aan 1963. Downer led Australia’s conservative Liberal party for a brief period in 1994-95, holding the record for the shortest-serving Liberal leader in the party’s history. He resigned after a series of gaffes that thwarted his chances of becoming prime minister and led to him becoming the first Liberal leader to fail to lead the party to an election. Downer nevertheless went on to become Australia’s longest serving foreign affairs minister from 1996 aan 2007 and followed in his father’s footsteps to become Australia’s high commissioner to the UK from 2014 aan 2018.

As foreign affairs minister, Downer played a pivotal role in negotiating the so-called “Pacific Solution”. The policy involved pushing back asylum seeker boats attempting to reach Australia, and detaining asylum seekers in offshore camps. Downer led the negotiations with Nauru and Papua New Guinea and secured their agreement to host the processing centres. The policy was operated from 2001 en 2007 and laid the groundwork for Australia’s current offshore processing and boat push-back policies that were reintroduced in 2012/13 and continue to this day.

In an opinion piece published last year, Downer threw his full support behind UK home secretary Priti Patel’s proposal to carry out push-back operations in the English Channel, stating “from my experience as Australia’s former minister for foreign affairs, I know that a ‘push-back’ policy can work”. This proposal appears to have been further developed in a verslag doen released on Wednesday by the Policy Exchange thinktank, which Downer chairs. The report sets out two proposals, a “Plan A” which involves co-operation with France to accept the return of migrants intercepted in the Channel, and a “Plan B”, which could be carried out unilaterally and would involve transferring migrants attempting to cross the Channel by boat for processing to offshore locations. Possible suggested locations include UK offshore territories and military bases, and also Australia’s long standing partner Nauru. Met ander woorde, migrants trying to get into the UK by boat will be sent away, for the short term at least.

But the Australian approach should not be held up as a model to emulate. Claims that it has been a success by politicians such as Downer should be approached with scepticism and ignore the significant harm and costs that flowed from the policies.

Offshore processing in Australia has been cruel, costly and ineffective. It has inflicted devastating physical and psychological damage to asylum seekers, and created endemic social problems in the communities of Nauru and Manus Island which have hosted Australia’s offshore camps. More importantly, the policy has misluk in its objective of deterring boat migration and saving lives at sea. This has all come at an exorbitant financial cost. The cost of holding each person on Nauru is currently more than $4m n jaar, or over $11,000 per person per day.

Rather than saving lives, Australia’s boat push-back operations have endangered the asylum seekers and led to numerous deaths. Operations can be chaotic, with asylum seekers panicking and jumping in the water, or inadvertently capsizing vessels. There have also been voorvalle where asylum seekers have deliberately damaged their vessel to prevent their return, resulting in significant loss of life. Others have lost their lives after their vessels have been towed outside of Australian territorial waters and left adrift at sea.

Naval officers involved in border policing operations in Australia have reported significant trauma arising from their experiences, including developing post-traumatic stress disorder after having to pull the bodies of deceased asylum seekers from the ocean.

Australia’s offshore processing and boat-pushback policies have also been repeatedly condemned by the UN as violating international law.

If Downer’s appointment results in these policies being exported to the UK, it would greatly undermine the international refugee protection regime. It will fuel the competition we see around the world with states implementing progressively harsher border control policies to keep asylum seekers away.

As I document in my book Refuge Lost, the logical end point of this race to the bottom is the end of the hard one institution of asylum, with individuals in immediate danger unable to cross borders to access safety.

The protections set out in the Refugee Convention and other human rights treaties are only words. Their effectiveness in the real world is shaped by the actions of states. Implementing international law into practice requires leadership – it needs states to step up and lead by example to persuade other states abide by their obligations.

The UK has traditionally been one of the states that has taken on this leadership role and led by example when it comes to refugee protection. But being harsh on borders can be a vote winner – John Howard turned the 2001 Australian elections around by implementing the “Pacific Solution”. As the election looms in the UK, there’s no doubt Johnson is trying the same tricks and he’s using Downer to help him.

But it’s a dangerous game. We are at a crucial tipping point. If Downer leads the UK down the same path as Australia and other states that have taken measures block and deter asylum seekers, it could potentially be inflicting a mortal wound on the universal principle of asylum and the international refugee protection regime more broadly.

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