How Australia taught Britain to torture refugees

Standing behind a podium reading “STOP THE BOATS”, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in March launched the Conservative government’s latest piece of anti-refugee legislation. Speaking of his concern for the world’s most vulnerable people—and the country’s allegedly broken border control system, which allows criminal gangs free entry—he said that the only fix is the Illegal Migration Bill, which has now passed the House of Commons.

The bill will force agencies to “detain and swiftly remove” anyone seeking asylum without a visa, making no exemptions for unaccompanied children or victims of slavery or human trafficking. Once it passes the House of Lords, almost any asylum seeker entering Britain by boat will be deemed “illegal” and banned from ever being granted citizenship in the UK.

The home secretary will be obliged to order the detention of asylum seekers and have them deported either to their home country—likely Afghanistan, Iran or Syria—or to Rwanda for processing. (In January, the UK High Court approved Sunak’s plan to deport asylum seekers to the African country.) This comes straight from the play book of Australian Labor former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who famously said, “If you come by boat, you’ll never permanently live in Australia”.

The bill has been bitterly contested. Repeated anti-racist protests across the UK have fought to block it. In March, football commentator Gary Lineker was suspended by the BBC for comparing Tory refugee policy to Germany in the 1930s. He was reinstated after the BBC had to cancel weekend sports coverage because other presenters and commentators refused to work.

The British Labour Party’s response has been to attack the bill for not being draconian enough. “The first thing I’d say is we have to stop small boats”, Labour leader Keir Starmer said on a tour of a factory in March. “Security of our borders is paramount. But this bill ... won’t solve the problem.” Instead, he proposed a “cross-border police unit” to turn back boats more effectively before they reach the UK.

The attack on refugees comes in the context of the most significant upsurge of working-class struggle in Britain since Margaret Thatcher’s rule in the 1980s. For months, the Conservatives have been trying to use racism and scapegoating of refugees to weaken the strikes and to distract from the country’s cost of living crisis.

In his March presser, Sunak made a clear attempt to divert anger away from the rich and the government on to people fleeing persecution and war, saying that the public “are now having to spend nearly six million pounds a day to put up illegal migrants in hotels”. Sunak is one of the wealthiest people in the UK. He recently upgraded his local electricity grid to heat his private swimming pool.

Since Brexit, the Conservatives have made repeated attempts to model British asylum seeker policy on Australia’s. In April, the government confirmed that it would house roughly 500 male asylum seekers on a barge off the coast of Dorset, a county in south-west England. This came shortly after the announcement of a plan to use old army bases and ferries, rather than hotels, for refugee accommodation.

More than 45,000 asylum seekers attempted to cross the English Channel last year. Four from one boat were confirmed to have drowned in a rescue operation during a sitting day of parliament. As the search went on for bodies, Home Secretary Suella Braverman made the case for an Australia-style refugee policy, using our country’s record to support her argument for the Rwanda plan.

“Australia ... has made huge progress in dealing with a very similar challenge; it is a deterrent element of removal that was integral to reducing the number of illegal arrivals”, Tory minister Craig Mackinlay said in the same sitting. “That is why I am a big supporter of the Rwanda scheme, which is an important element of our plan to fix the problem.”

Australian governments have taught the UK how to terrorise refugees so viciously that others are too afraid to seek asylum from war and violence. The Labor and Liberal parties have provided the language, the laws and the confidence for the UK Conservatives to emulate the fortress system of “border control”, establish floating prisons and use impoverished third countries as dumping grounds for workers fleeing violence.

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