EU interest in Aust border regime 'tepid'

Europe is looking to Australia's response as it tackles thousands of asylum seeker arrivals. (AAP)

As the European Union continues to muddle through its migrant crisis, Australia's border protection policies have attracted some interest.

You would need two-and-a-half Colosseums to accommodate the number of asylum seekers and migrants who reached Europe by boat in 2017.

The 128,000 arrivals - adding to the 1.5 million since 2015 - dwarf Australia's 50,000 between 2008-2013 which included a peak year of 20,000.

The drowning toll is also much grimmer; 2542 dead and missing in 2017 on top of the 5143 in 2016, compared to an estimated 1200 who died en-route to Australia since 2008.

Australia is just about to clock up four years since the Abbott government instigated its military-led crackdown - the super secret Operation Sovereign Borders - to "stop the boats".

The Turnbull government could soon be boasting 1200 days without a successful people-smuggling venture.

It argues controversial measures such as boat turn backs, a ban on arrivals resettling in Australia, and the Nauru and Manus Island detention centre camps Labor reopened, have been necessary to save lives and smash the business model of people smugglers.

By comparison, the 28-country European Union's efforts to tackle asylum seeker and migrant boat arrivals have had mixed success.

An EU people swap deal with Turkey has stemmed the flow of Syrians through Greece - more than 12,000 arrivals this year compared to a peak of 850,000 in 2015 and 160,000 in 2016.

But Italy is now struggling with the lion's share of arrivals from northern Africa - 97,000 so far this year - with lawlessness in Libya feeding into the problem.

Spain is also experiencing an uptick in arrivals via Morocco - more than 8000 so far - double the number for the same period last year.

EU nations in late 2015 agreed to resettled 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy over two years, but only about 28,000 people have been moved so far.

Earlier in September, the European Court of Justice rejected legal action by Hungary and Slovakia that sought to avoid their refugee allocations.

Meanwhile, a two-year-old EU naval mission - Operation Sophia - has netted 110 suspected traffickers, destroyed 470 vessels and trained Libyan coast guard officials.

But critics say those arrested are low down the chain of command.

According to a recent UK parliamentary inquiry, the operation's destruction of smuggler boats may have inadvertently resulted in more deaths at sea.

Previously traffickers would send up to 600 people on boats that could reach the Mediterranean Sea's midpoint, but now they are using unseaworthy vessels and small dinghies.

Some EU countries are so frustrated with the bloc's lack of a coherent asylum seeker policies, they've been forced to branch off and go it alone.

At a Paris summit in late August, seven European and African leaders agreed to set up United Nations refugee agency-run processing centres in Chad and Niger to allow people to apply for asylum from Africa rather than undertake dangerous sea journeys.

France, Germany, Italy and Spain have also promised an increase in foreign aid aimed at alleviating poverty so people have a reason to stay in their homelands. This comes on top of a 2015 EU emergency trust fund for Africa that has a $AU4.4 billion kitty.

As Europe continues to muddle through its migrant crisis, Australia's border protection policies have sparked some interest, especially among right-wing parties.

Belgian MP Tom Vandenkendelaere from the Christian Democrats says his party is opposed to boat turn backs, but the Flemish Nationalist Party is keen.

"In the long run, you just literally push away the issue from you ... onto other countries," Vandenkendelaere told AAP in Strasbourg.

"I don't think we can copy the Australian example to the EU because the geography is very different."

Another complicating factor was how Europe had dealt with its African colonies in the past and had failed to build up economies.

It was important to give Europeans a sense of perspective, he argues.

Europe, with a population of 500 million, accommodates 1.5 million refugees - the same number as Lebanon with its population of six million.

It was only seven decades ago that Europeans themselves were fleeing the horrors of World War II.

"We (Belgians) were received by the Dutch people in very warm circumstances," Vandenkendelaere said.

German MP Michael Theurer is in favour of expanding Frontex, the EU's border management authority, to take on a greater coast guard-border police role and potentially turn boats back, rescue people and stop traffickers.

"I believe if we want secure open borders (within) the European Union you have to protect your borders outside," Theurer said.

Finnish MP Hannu Takkula says refugees shopping around for the most generous welfare payment deals is an issue.

The German government, ahead of an election on September 24, has called for the standardisation of benefits for asylum seekers across the EU in order to reduce the attractiveness of Germany.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to retain power, her popularity took a massive hit in the aftermath of Germany accepting one million refugees in 2015.

On the campaign trail, she argues Germany should be proud of accepting so many people fleeing war, but insists 2015 can't happen again.

The hard-right Alternative for Germany party is expected to enter the Bundestag for the first time and wants to send asylum seekers to islands outside Europe and to cut aid dollars to African countries if they don't accept returnees.

Italians go the polls in mid-2018 and the migrant crisis is shaping up to be a hot-button issue.

Striking a balance between humanitarianism and not wearing welcome mats thin won't get any easier.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch