On more than one occasion in the debate about how to stem the flow of migration, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, has cited the Australian model as one worth emulating.

He mentioned it again in August when the fate of the migrants picked up in the Mediterranean by Italian Coast Guard ship Diciotto was being discussed publically. On that occasion Salvini pointed out that «Thanks to the No Way model, none of those who are rescued at sea get to set foot on Australian soil», going on to suggest that «Italy too should come around to this type of approach».

At that time the leader of Italy’s Lega party was beginning to show the first signs of impatience with the limits of the “government contract” agreed a few months previously with the other Deputy Prime Minister, Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in order to bring an end to the post electoral impasse. Di Maio responded immediately to his counterpart’s suggestion stating that the Australian model was not in the government contract and that the agreed policy objective on this front was solely to “stop the migrant boats from setting sail, a different concept altogether.”

Today, with the polls putting Lega party as the country’s leading political party and M5S losing consensus, various Italian newspapers predict the collapse of the government. Salvini is ready to crank up the rhetoric on various issues, including the migrant question, and there is a possibility he will pull the plug on the coalition if he is not satisfied. It’s worth asking therefore whether the draconian Australia model could be put into practice in Italy.

The No Way approach cited so frequently by Salvini, is nothing more than the media transposition of Canberra’s migration policy, a publicity campaign created in 2013 by Australia’s then immigration minister that at its height saw a television commercial translated into 12 languages speaking in intimidating tones to dissuade those considering an illegal attempt to reach Australian by sea.

In reality the migration laws of both conservative and progressive governments, which since the turn of the millennium have been vigorous and no less cynical in their regulation of the flow of irregular asylum seekers, go by the name of the Pacific Solution and Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB), introduced respectively in 2001 and 2013.

Over the years the combination of the two laws has seen the transfer of all of the boat people to offshore detention centres and a total elimination of asylum boat arrivals on Australia’s shores.

The Pacific Solution came into force two weeks before the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. It was introduced by the government of conservative Prime Minister John Howard, who was facing serious challenges on the eve of federal elections. Howard, thanks to the emphasis of his campaign on security, managed to claw back his advantage over the Labour party in the weeks following September 11 and was confirmed as Prime Minister in November 2001.

The legislation establishes that anyone attempting to enter Australia illegally via sea be arrested and transferred to one of the detention centres located on Manus island in Papua New Guinea (a site that officially closed one year ago), the island nation of Nauru and Christmas Island (an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean). All applicants – be they adults or children – who are not granted political refugee status are rejected or deported. The migrants intercepted on board a clandestine vessel automatically lose their right to enter the country forever even if they possess the requisites to obtain refugee status, and are subjected to a period of indefinite detention while their status is ascertained.

Operation Sovereign Borders, however, was adopted by the Liberal Party in 2013 on the initiative of former immigration minister Scott Morrison, the current prime minister, after almost six years of Labour government (during which the Pacific Solution was suspended for around four years) and establishes an increased involvement of the armed forced in patrolling territorial waters. The law instructs the navy to send illegal vessels back to their port of origin and to assist them to do so if these vessels are incapable of making the voyage.

Furthermore, it introduced an element of secrecy concerning the activities of the detention centres.

The suspension of the Pacific Solution as of 2008 saw an increase in arrivals, which reached 25 thousand, and more than 400 fatalities at sea from 2012 to 2013. With the reintroduction of the Pacific Solution and the adoption of Operation Sovereign Borders, the number of arrivals was cut to zero within a few months.

The detention centre on Manus Island was completely abandoned in November 2018 following its closure in 2017 in light of the ruling by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea that declared it illegal and unconstitutional to hold people for an indefinite period in conditions described as “inhumane”. The Micronesian island had been called Australia’s Guantanamo and Canberra’s pledges to bring development and prosperity in exchange for hosting the centres were never upheld. Hundreds of political refugees originating mainly from Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan were forcibly transferred to prefabricated buildings in the most deprived areas of the island, facing the prospect of having to remain there indefinitely in spite of having been promised resettlement in the United States. The agreement Canberra signed with Barack Obama, in fact, was later torn up. The detention centres were the subject of continuous controversies and condemnation by the United Nations and numerous humanitarian organisations that denounced their systematic rights violations.

According to estimates by the Australian parliament, between 2016 to 2017 alone Canberra spent almost 5 billion Australian dollars (around 3 billion euros) patrolling territorial waters and managing the detention centres on terraferma and offshore.

In November 2017 there were 1301 people held in the centres on terraferma and 652 in the centres on Christmas Island and Nauru. The annual costs of detaining each individual migrant were on average 400,000 Australian dollars (more than 250,000 euros). Of this more than 1000 dollars (650 euro) a day were spent on managing migrant flows, with little more than 30 dollars (around 19 euros) spent on average on the asylum seeker.

Just a glance at the costs for the Australian government in these years is sufficient to make it highly improbable that Italy (or Europe) would want to adopt the No Way model in the future.

Australia’s surveillance operations over the country’s territorial waters cost over a billion Australian dollars (650 million euros) each year, while the operations Mare Nostrum and Triton cost the Italian government and Brussels respectively 9.5 million euros and 2.9 million euros.

While true that Australia has a much larger marine territory to monitor compared with the Mediterranean, it is also true that the overwhelming majority of migrant boats depart from Indonesia or from countries situated in the north of Oceania. Furthermore, Italy (and Europe) deals with a migration flow that numbers at least twenty times that of the flow to Australia.

Operation Sovereign Borders has intercepted 33 boats and a total of 800 migrants since 2013, while data from the Italian interior ministry states that in the first six months of 2018 around 17 thousand migrants landed on Italian shores, a figure that is 80% lower than the previous year. It is difficult to imagine a country in the Mediterranean agreeing to play the role of Nauru or Papua New Guinea in accepting the migrants and detention centres while Italy would still have to comply with the principle of non-refoulement.

As Australia’s ambassador in Rome Greg French recently emphasised, there are far more differences than similarities between the migrant situation in Australia and that of Italy and Europe, «in which the management of the phenomenon is centralized», adding that Salvini’s policies are in no way similar to those of the Australian government… fortunately, some might add.

You will find this article in the eastwest paper magazine at newwstand.