Ghezelbash: Australia’s current asylum seeker deterrence policies were drawn directly from the US government’s play book. The United States began intercepting asylum seekers boats from Haiti in 1981. The program was expanded over the years to target other nationals including boats departing from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and China. At times, intercepted asylum seekers have been summarily returned to their country of departure. But since the mid-1990s, the US government has carried out preliminary screening for asylum claims at sea. In practice, the vast majority of migrants are screened-out and returned to their country of departure. Those lucky enough to meet the ‘credible fear’ threshold are transferred to Guantanamo Bay for the processing of their asylum claims. Guantanamo has a special legal status. The US exercises de facto sovereignty over the territory, but it’s technically part of Cuba. The government has used this loophole to deny asylum seekers the legal protections they would receive if held on the US mainland. It’s this characterisation of Guantanamo as a rights-free zone which led the US government to later use Guantanamo as the location for holding enemy combatants.
Australia’s current border protection policies can be traced back to the Tampa incident. In August 2001, the Howard Government prevented the Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa, from disembarking 433 rescued asylum seekers at Australia’s territory of Christmas Island. The ship was stormed by Australian special forces. The asylum seekers and crew were held at sea while the Australian government scrambled to find an alternative to letting them enter Australia. In moments like this where a solution is required urgently, policymakers often look abroad for inspiration. So, we looked to the US experience. A senior US policymaker involved in establishing the US offshore processing policy confirmed in an interview with me that he was summoned to provide detailed policy advice to Australian officials as the Tampa incident unfolded. And so the ‘Pacific Solution’ was born. We did not have a territory equivalent to the legal black hole of Guantanamo Bay. So we had to rely on the support of other countries. We entered into an agreement with Nauru to take some of the asylum seekers aboard the Tampa, and to also accept future asylum seekers who tried to reach Australia by boat. A similar agreement was reached with Papua New Guinea. The rationale was the same as in the US. The asylum seekers sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea would be denied the legal protections they would have access to in Australia. The offshore processing policy was combined with push-backs at sea. After a short hiatus starting in 2007, offshore processing was re-introduced by the Rudd Government in 2012, and push-backs by the Abbott government 2013.
One interesting difference between the US and Australian approaches has been the degree to which they promote their activities abroad. The US has generally gone about its interdiction and offshore processing policy quietly. To this day, most US citizens are completely unaware that there is a migrant processing centre on Guantanamo Bay. Australia has adopted a very different path, with constant efforts to promote and justify its policies abroad. In 2002, our then-Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, went as far as to publish a book titled ‘Interpreting the Refugees Convention: An Australian Contribution’. Similarly, shortly after being deposed as Prime Minister in 2015, Tony Abbott embarked on a tour of Europe where he called on leaders to adopt Australia’s border control policies to stop the tide of migrants making their way to Europe. So that is the reason the policies are referred to as the ‘Australian model’, rather than the ‘US model’.