Australia imported US policies

At the height of the Tampa crisis, Australia turned to a US bureaucrat and asked for advice

Ben Doherty – The Guardian – 6 May 2018

In August 2001, at the height of the Tampa crisis – 433 rescued asylum seekers on board a freight ship seeking landfall in Australia – the Australian government made a call to an American bureaucrat, then in Geneva, and asked him to the embassy.

Years earlier, the bureaucrat had been a key architect of America’s policies towards boat-borne asylum seekers seeking protection in the US, and it was this experience Australia wished to mine.

“This particular US policymaker was summoned to the Australian embassy in Geneva,” Dr Daniel Ghezelbash, senior lecturer at Macquarie law school, told a Sydney audience last month, “and was basically in crisis talks for two days providing detailed policy advice, which was the blueprint for the ‘Pacific solution’ and, by extension, the current Operation Sovereign Borders.”

Over several days of talks, a new Australian policy was born: the “Pacific solution”.

“It appears this advice was very influential in shaping the response of the Australian government,” Ghezelbash said. “There is no public record of exactly what was said.”

But the outcomes were apparent: offshore processing centres were established in PNG and Nauru, and asylum seekers entering Australian waters now – as a matter of public policy – found themselves removed from the country.

Asylum seekers protest against their detention by Australia at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea last year
Asylum seekers protest against their detention by Australia at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea last year. Photograph: Reuters

A final legal sophistry made it possible: parts of Australia were now excised from its own migration zone (before ultimately the whole country was).

In his new book, Refuge Lost: Asylum Law in an Interdependent World, Ghezelbash examines the propensity of states to borrow and adapt policies from other nations to suit their own political ends. Hardline policies towards asylum seekers, he argues, can “spread like wildfire” between countries seeking to burnish their deterrent credentials, and anxious to keep asylum seekers from seeking protection on their shores.

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