Meanwhile, the European Union has also moved to outsource its refugee policy under deal agreed to with Turkey last year. In an effort to decrease the numbers of mainly Syrian migrants making the risky journey across the Mediterranean into Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel negotiated an arrangement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In addition to taking aid from the EU, Turkey agreed to allow irregular migrants to be sent back to Turkey from Europe. The EU, in turn, agreed to take one Syrian refugee for every refugee returned to Turkey, on the premise that it is encouraging migrants not to jump the queue.
The European approach to refugees is less hard-nosed than the Australian one—at least some refugees are to be allowed to resettle in Europe—but it fundamentally accomplishes the same thing. It physically moves the focus of migration policy into other states.
These ideas have been gaining steam in Europe for some time. The U.K. championed a policy of extraterritorial refugee processing as far back as 2003. But some would like the current regime to go much further. Merkel has said the EU needs similar deals with North African states. Hungary’s populist prime minister, Viktor Orban put it in vivid terms, proposing last year that Libya create a “giant refugee city.”
The problem with Orban’s plan, of course, is that Libya is in the midst of a civil war. The EU’s agreement with Turkey is premised on the idea that Turkey is a “safe third country” where individuals can reside without fear of persecution. For Syrians in particular, that premise has been heavily challenged, with cases of abuse reportedly conducted by Turkish security forces. With Turkey at least a pretense is possible; that’s not true for Libya.
Australia’s policy, too, has been widely condemned. Conditions in the camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and in Nauru are poor, resulting in high rates of suicide for residents.
Nor is this a cheap solution. It reportedly costs some $300,000 a year for Australia to house someone in its overseas facilities, with a total bill for border policies coming to nearly $8 billion over the past three years.
The European Union gives Turkey some $6 billion under its agreement, while fewer than 1,000 people have been returned from Greece to Turkey since the agreement was made.
Nonetheless, proponents of offshoring plans see a humanitarian logic at work. Australia argues that its plan sharply deters asylum-seekers from trying to make the risky passage to Australia by boat. Similarly, the EU’s agreement with Turkey has been accompanied by a fall-off in attempted crossings of the Mediterranean, although other dynamics may have also reduced the pressure on that migration route.
For its part, the U.S. also operates a small program under which Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S. can be housed in Costa Rica while they await determination of their status. The rationale is to reduce the incentive to make the challenging journey to the U.S., especially for children.