Few Australians would be aware that the so-called Pacific solution for dealing with unauthorised boat arrivals might have had a model in one element of the United States border program. Quietly, the Americans have been intercepting Haitians and Cubans on the high seas for more than a decade, either bundling them directly home or taking them to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay for processing.
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The Melbourne legal academic Azadeh Dastyari (sister of the NSW Labor secretary, Sam) has researched the US scheme in depth and believes it may even have inspired the Howard government’s offshore processing scheme. She says it reached its height under George Bush senior, when more than 50,000 Haitians were stopped on the high seas and sent back in the early 90s.

”The reason most people don’t know about it is because its happening to very small numbers now, only 40 or so a year,” Dastyari says.

She believes the scheme had only a marginal deterrent effect and that the drop in arrivals usually reflected periods of more stability in Haiti. ”Its push factors rather than pull. Every time there was an incident [in Haiti] the numbers would soar again.”

Britain under Tony Blair also flirted with the idea of ”transit processing centres” external to European Union borders, teaming up with the Danes to float the idea in 2002-2003. It eventually sank under a fierce barrage of European Union criticism.

Around the world, none of the industrialised countries has found a foolproof way to keep desperate people seeking refuge confined within official channels.

In Europe, they drown in the Mediterranean and they drown in rivers.

A recent Greek Council for Refugees report, looking at illegal border-crossers entering from Turkey over the Evros River, made the chilling finding that ”there are high numbers of children found dead either from drowning in the Evros River or from hypothermia. Most of their bodies remain unclaimed”.

Greece is now building a fence across the land section of its border with Turkey and this year has launched a series of crackdowns on migrants and asylum seekers.

Italy tried towing boats back to Africa but was shot down by the European Court of Human Rights, and the courts also stepped in to stop Belgium returning refugees to Greece because Greece was no longer deemed safe for those claiming asylum.

Europe-wide, a pact known as the Dublin Agreement, in which rejected asylum seekers can be sent by one country back to the place where they gained entry to the EU, is under strain.

Arab Spring turmoil has sent tens of thousands into Europe, many entering through Greece and Italy.

Italy’s Immigration Minister, Sonia Viale, complained last year Italy was being left to cope alone with the tide of human misery.

Europe is struggling to come up with a common asylum system it had pledged to bring in this year.

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