The differences between the recent crises of boat arrivals in Europe and Australia are far greater than their similarities. There is not a civil war brewing 200km from Australian territory, and neither is the worst refugee crisis in the last half century being unleashed within striking distance.
For the record, over 30,000 asylum seekers have already arrived in Europe this year, not just from Libya and Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Senegal, Tunisia and more. Over 1000 of them have already lost their lives.
Similarly the political obstacles of enacting asylum policy in Australia pale into insignificance when compared to the challenges of reconciling the very different experiences and priorities of the 28 member states in the EU. But neither the scale of the challenge nor the policy constraints should excuse the half-hearted response by the EU to the disaster in the Mediterranean last week.
In at least three ways, the EU can learn from Australia's efforts to stop the boats.
The first lesson is resolve. Australia's asylum policy, in my opinion and that of many others, pushes legal and ethical boundaries. But it is at least (and at last) consistent and predictable. This is an important message to convey to would-be migrants and the smugglers who transport them. At the very least the EU should ensure that its internal regulation on asylum, the Dublin Convention, is implemented properly.
Second, Australia's quota for resettling refugees should be an embarrassment to the EU. Australia resettles more refugees than the entire EU area of over 500 million people. Resettlement may not satisfy the growing demand for entry into the richer countries, and probably would not reduce the number of people seeking asylum in Europe, but at least it demonstrates solidarity with some of the poorer countries of the world which continue to shoulder the burden of the global refugee crisis.
Third, Australia's policy is based on research, not guesswork. It was striking that one of the 22 recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers in Australia was to conduct further research, and the Government has taken this recommendation seriously. This has resulted, for example, in a far more thoughtful and effective approach to combating migrant smuggling than simply apprehending and penalising operatives, as currently proposed by the EU.
Of course there are lessons Australia might also take on board from Europe when reflecting on its own policy. Some examples include respect, rights, and proportionality.
But this misses the point. In one respect the asylum crises in Australia and Europe are comparable as manifestations of an international protection system that is no longer working, and that is failing states and refugees alike. Rather than tailoring national and regional responses, Australia and the EU should be addressing the causes of their boat crises together, rather than the symptoms separately.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Photo Unit.