The risk that other countries will copy Australia's hardline asylum seeker policies is low, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has told an international gathering in Geneva.
Antonio Guterres, who last month condemned alleged payments by Australian officials to people smugglers, also said he found Australia's fixation on boat arrivals – which he called a "floating obsession" – difficult to understand.
Mr Guterres made the remarks at a gathering of NGO's from 90 countries in response to a question from a refugee from South Sudan who had settled in Australia.
Dor Akech Achiek asked whether there was a danger hardline boat turn-back policies would be implemented by other countries.
The debate about whether Australia could serve as a model for other nations was fuelled in Europe recently after hundreds of asylum seekers fleeing Africa by boat drowned.
Mr Guterres, who for many years has been a harsh critic of Australia's policies, said the risk of an "Australian contagion" existed, "but it is limited".
"And one of the reasons for this limitation is exactly the fact that one of the key spaces …it has essentially been debated is in Europe," he said.
"And in Europe we fortunately have court decisions that would not make the Australian policy legal."
Mr Guterres went on to praise Australia's refugee resettlement program and saying the attitude to asylum seekers who arrived by boat was at odds with Australia's migration program and its response to asylum seekers arriving by air.
"I always feel a little bit puzzled with the Australian policy because Australia is, as you know, a country that has a very open migration policy – I think about 180,000 migrants every year," Mr Guterres said.
"Australia has a very important resettlement program and I have to say that I was always amazed with the quality of the integration of refugees in Australia. I have been already to Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane and seen the integration mechanisms: the civil society, the involvement of local authorities.
"On the other hand, I believe it is still the case – and if it's not, you can correct me – if you come to the airport in Sydney and ask for asylum you are treated normally, but if a boat floats, then everything gets out of control."
Mr Guterres said it was this difference that he did not understand and he hoped Australia would ultimately reverse its tough policies on boats.
"That kind of a global – not global, because many people in Australia do not feel so - but that large floating obsession, is for me something very difficult to understand. I hope that this will not last forever."
Mr Guterres had earlier told the conference the world was facing the largest number of displaced people since records began and the international humanitarian system was "broke but not broken".