How Australia wrote the ‘stop the boats’ playbook

The UK government is banking on its new migration bill to stem the flow of small boats crossing the English Channel. The policy’s headline-grabbing slogan is identical to that used in Australia a decade ago.

For many Australians, hearing UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promise to “stop the boats” was a moment of deja vu.

The same words were used by former Australian PM Tony Abbott in 2013 – helping him win an election.

The situation in Australia was similar to the one facing the UK now.

Last year, more than 45,000 migrants crossed the English Channel in small boats to reach the UK. In 2013, Australians watched as 20,000 migrants made similar perilous journeys from countries like Indonesia, Iran and Sri Lanka. Scores died en route.

And so, during his winning general election campaign, at the height of the crisis, right-wing Liberal Party leader Mr Abbott promised to implement border rules even tougher than the outgoing Labor government. Under his “Operation Sovereign Borders” policy, migrant boats would be intercepted and either returned to where they travelled from or those on board taken to overseas island detention centres.

Human rights groups have long criticised Australia’s border policy – but other countries, like Denmark, have been inspired.

“Australia absolutely wrote this playbook – and we’re still writing it,” says Australian National University politics lecturer Kim Huynh, whose family fled Vietnam for Australia via boat in the 1970s.

In the UK, the Conservatives have already adopted an “Australian-style” points-based immigration system – but to what extent are they following Australia this time?

The UK copied word-for-word Australia’s “stop the boats” slogan, but the broader rhetoric – the tough language – is also strikingly similar.

Australia’s former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has suggested several times that the country has blocked murderers, rapists and paedophiles from seeking asylum by boat. And in 2017, he faced a backlash after suggesting that many asylum seekers who travelled to Australia were “fake refugees” trying to “rip the Australian taxpayer off”.

In the UK, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has controversially referred to her job as being “about stopping the invasion on our southern coast”. And – while numbers of Albanians arriving fell significantly at the end of 2022 – she told MPs last week that many of the migrants were young men “from safe countries like Albania” who were “rich enough to pay criminal gangs thousands of pounds for passage”.

That kind of language resonates in both Australia and the UK, partly because their populations have – to differing degrees – “island mindsets”, Dr Huynh says. “A lot of the critics would say [the rhetoric] works politically because it stirs up fears of outsiders.”