For many years, Australia has been turning away boats filled with migrants. From a remove, this looks cold–hearted — a nation built by immigrants showing no compassion for others who want a better life. But it is precisely because Australia is an immigrant nation that it understands the situation: if you let the boats land, more people come. People traffickers will be encouraged, migrants will be swindled, and their bodies will wash up on your shores. Any country serious about immigration needs a more effective and robust approach.
Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister of Australia, made that point clearly this week on a trip to London. Delivering the Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Guildhall, Abbott, who left office in September, explained what so few European policy-makers seem able to grasp. Yes, the rich world has a moral duty to help people fleeing for their lives. But that duty requires tough action — as well as targeted help — to prevent a genuine flow of refugees developing into an uncontrolled flood of migrants.
It was one of Abbott’s predecessors, John Howard, who in 2001 faced the decision of what to do about a Norwegian freighter which had entered Australian waters with many Afghan asylum-seekers on board. He turned the boat away on the grounds that, while they may have begun their journey as refugees, they had transmuted into economic migrants. It is not possible to make a surface journey from Afghanistan to Australia without passing through the territory of several safe countries on the way. The ship had called at several ports in countries that were not at war and where the Afghans would not have faced persecution. Why had they not disembarked before reaching Australia?
The answer, of course, is that they believed Australia would offer them the best chance of a more prosperous life.