Australia is criminalising boat refugees – will the EU follow?

In Australia, disadvantaged boat immigrants are increasingly seen and treated as criminals. Voices are also being raised in support of this kind of policy in Europe. PhD candidate Patrick van Berlo investigated the issue and will share his conclusions at one of the Cleveringa meetings on 23 November.

Refugees unwelcome

Tent camp on Nauru (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Tent camp on Nauru (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Legal expert Patrick van Berlo concludes in his master’s research that Australia has been hardening its immigration policy since 2001. Between 2001 and 2013, the ‘Pacific Solution’ policy was implemented intermittently. This policy consists in not allowing unwanted immigrants, often disadvantaged boat refugees, to enter Australia. Immigrants with better economic prospects, who arrive by plane, are more welcome.


Detention in ‘concentration camps’

Australia’s current policy (‘Operation Sovereign Borders’) goes a step further. The borders with respect to boat immigrants have been strengthened. Asylum seekers are plucked out of the water and locked up in surrounding island states, such as Nauru. This kind of detention can last for years, and takes place under appalling conditions. Some people even compare these prisons, with their lack of hygiene, clean water, food and privacy, to concentration camps. These refugees have no chance of obtaining an Australian residence permit. In specialist jargon, such practices are referred to as ‘crimmigration’, a compound that indicates that immigrants are treated as criminals, with the goal of discouraging new waves of immigration.

No prying eyes

One consequence of this policy is that the traditional borders between Australia and the surrounding island states are slowly disappearing. The policy therefore covers the entire region, but on the periphery of this region, a new border is appearing that has to be closely guarded. Van Berlo experienced this personally: ‘Three weeks before my trip to Nauru, where I wanted to see the detention centres with my own eyes, my visa was cancelled. The powers that be were not keen on foreign prying eyes, including those of organisations such as the UN and Amnesty International.’

A great sense of sovereignty

Van Berlo in Sydney. He was not permitted to visit Nauro.

Van Berlo in Sydney. He was not permitted to visit Nauro.

Van Berlo was forced to complete his research in Australia on his own. There he analysed policy documents and interviewed those involved. According to the PhD candidate, ‘it became apparent to me that Australians have a very strong sense of sovereignty: the feeling of being an island with complete control over who comes and who goes. Boat immigrants who try to enter Australia outside the regular visa mechanisms are infringing on this sovereignty. A large majority of the population agree with this position, so politically speaking, it makes sense to advocate stricter measures.’


Is the EU hardening too?

Van Berlo accidentally stumbled on an article about the Australia-Nauru detention construction. He became fascinated with the subject and also sees parallels with the European situation. ‘The EU is struggling with a large stream of refugees, who also often come by boat,’ says Van Berlo. ‘Some people also advocate stopping these refugees and keeping them on or outside the EU borders. This discussion is also taking place in the Netherlands: many people find the local housing of a large number of refugees problematic. It is a difficult but important topic, on which everyone has an opinion.’

Cleveringa meeting


In his PhD research Van Berlo will be focusing further on the dynamics of crimmigration, the various parties involved, and their role. His research plan has been nominated for the Janneke Fruin-Helb Prize. He will be sharing the results of his master’s research during the’ Cleveringa meeting in Harderwijk on 23 November.


(18 November 2014)

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Last Modified: 18-11-2014