Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Australia Uses Tough Measures To Keep Migrants Out


And as Soraya suggests, Europe's sudden open arms approach may not last. And as a New York Times editorial put it on Friday, some European officials may be tempted to adopt the hard-line approach Australia has used to stem a similar tide of migrants that would be unconscionable. But as Michael Sullivan reports, Australia has found it works.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to power in 2013, promising to stop the boats carrying migrants from the Middle East, from South Asia and elsewhere, and he pretty much has. Operation Sovereign Borders - as the Times pointed out - a ruthlessly effective effort to keep boatloads of migrants, many of them refugees, from reaching Australia's shores. And it's ongoing.


PETER DUTTON: I have an important message for people who are thinking of traveling to Australia illegally by boat.

SULLIVAN: That's Peter Dutton, Australia's minister for immigration and border protection.


DUTTON: Do not believe the lies of people smugglers. The Australian government will continue to implement tough measures to protect our borders and is committed to ending the criminal activity of people smuggling. The way to Australia is closed.

SULLIVAN: The Australia navy makes sure of it, turning boats back to the point of origin, usually Indonesia, sometimes resorting to highly unusual - some say illegal - measures to keep the migrants from reaching Australian waters. In June, reportedly paying an Indonesian boat captain a boatload of Benjamins - $30,000 in cash - to take his human cargo back to Indonesia - an account Prime Minister Abbott did not dispute in this interview with Australian Radio 3AW host Neil Mitchell.


NEIL MITCHELL: These allegations that Australia paid people smugglers to turn back the boats - did it happen or not?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, Neil, we don't comment on operational matters, but we are determined to ensure that illegal boats don't get to Australia. And we will do whatever is reasonably necessary to protect our country from the effect of this evil and damaging trade.

MITCHELL: But surely we wouldn't pay people smugglers. They're criminals.

ABBOTT: Well, what we do is we stop the boats, by hook or by crook, because that's what we've got to do and that's what was successfully done.

SULLIVAN: Abbott has urged European officials to consider the Australian model, most recently after last week's horrific photos of a dead Syrian child on the Turkish beach. If you want to stop the drownings, he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, you've got to stop the boats.

PHIL ROBERTSON: I don't think anybody should listen to Tony Abbott about anything to do with refugees.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch in Bangkok. And he says he hopes the European Union lets Tony Abbott's calls go to voice mail if he tries to offer the EU advice.

ROBERTSON: Tony Abbott's solution for refugees was perhaps best seen during the Rohingya boat people crisis here in Southeast Asia when the BBC and others found the Rohingya starving in these crammed boats. And Tony Abbott said he didn't really think he saw anything wrong by trying to push them back.

SULLIVAN: And Robertson says they'll be coming back now that the monsoon is almost over. Rohingya from Myanmar, Bangladeshis and others fleeing persecution - or economic refugees - will get on smugglers' boat and take their chances. The refugee crisis - a worldwide problem, he says, that needs a coordinated solution. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.