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Academic report finds Australian model for offshore processing of asylum seekers, which UK proposes to copy, is ineffective, costly and cruel


Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law says failed policy should not be replicated by other countries

Date of Publication:
16 August 2021

A new report published last week by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law considers Australia's policy of offshore processing for asylum seekers arriving by boat. The Kaldor Centre is based at University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney and is a leading academic research centre dedicated to the study of international refugee law.

Report coverThe 32-page report can be downloaded here. It was released to coincide with the 9th anniversary of the policy's introduction in Australia.

With the British government's new Nationality and Borders Bill proposing legislation to allow the UK to offshore asylum seekers in a similar way, the Kaldor Centre's report is a timely and important read.

The report finds that the Australian model of offshore processing is cruel, costly and ineffective. In particular, the policy:

  • does not deter irregular maritime migration, 'stop the boats' or 'break the business model' of people smuggling networks;
  • does not 'save lives at sea' or achieve any other humanitarian objective; and
  • suffers from other policy failures, including enormous financial costs for Australian taxpayers, violations of fundamental rules of international law, numerous legal challenges and systemic cruelty.

The Kaldor Centre stresses that the Australian offshore processing model cannot be implemented in accordance with international law and basic human rights standards. As the driving principle behind the policy is deterrence, this means that the conditions offshore must be as bad as, or worse than, those from which people have fled.

The report states: "Offshore processing poses threats to life, may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, involves prolonged, indefinite and arbitrary detention, constitutes an unlawful interference in family and private life, exposes women to gender-based violence and discrimination, and violates many obligations owed to children."

In implementing the policy, Australia "violated many of its obligations under international law, as well as the good faith promises it made to the international community through its ratification of core international human rights treaties and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol."

Whilst Australia has sought to create distance between its actions and the legal consequences of offshore processing, the Kaldor Centre says that the Australian government has nevertheless been forced to defend a near constant series of domestic legal challenges to various aspects of the policy. It has also had to field legal challenges before the courts in the countries where asylum seekers were sent for processing (Nauru and Papua New Guinea).

The Kaldor Centre highlights: "Australia's transfer of asylum seekers out of its territory has not enabled it to avoid legal liability for harm suffered offshore. In fact, at times, the offshore processing policy created additional legal difficulties for Australia in that its legal obligations continued, but its capacity to fulfil them was complicated by the involvement of other sovereign States. Australian courts have declined to relieve the government of its duties to people offshore on this basis."

Importantly, the report finds that the introduction of offshore processing did not achieve its aim of stopping the boats.

In an article for The Conversation website, the report's authors explained: "The government's own data on the impact of offshore processing on boat arrivals is the starkest revelation of this policy's failure. During its first year, more people sought asylum in Australia by boat than at any other time since boat arrivals were first recorded in the 1970s. Deaths at sea also continued at broadly comparable rates to previous years. People continued to seek safety in Australia via maritime routes until they physically could not do so anymore. The 2013 launch of Operation Sovereign Borders, and the Abbott government's commitment to intercepting and returning people trying to reach Australia by boat — no matter the legal and humanitarian consequences — effectively rendered it futile to try and reach Australia by sea."

According to the Kaldor Centre, the fact that offshore processing was not a deterrent for irregular maritime migration was entirely foreseeable. Historically, the vast majority of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat have been found to be refugees and very few had access to alternate safe and legal pathways to protection.

Highlighting the failure of the policy, the author's noted in their article for The Conversation: "[A]lmost everyone still subject to this policy is back in Australia, having been either returned following a policy change in July 2013 or medically evacuated amid spiralling health crises offshore from 2017. According to latest figures, there are barely more than 100 asylum seekers left in each of Nauru and Papua New Guinea."

The Kaldor Centre calls for Australia to formally end the policy of offshore processing. In addition, it stresses that the Australian model should never be repeated by future Australian governments, nor should it be replicated by other countries.

As we have reported recently on EIN (see here and here), it is not expected that the UK will be able to implement offshoring given the difficulties finding countries willing to be partners.

Meanwhile, UK media reported in recent days that the Home Office is progressing with plans to house asylum seekers in new UK-based asylum reception centres.

The New Plan for Immigration published in March said: "To help speed up processing of claims and the removal of people who do not have a legitimate need to claim asylum in the UK, we plan to introduce new asylum reception centres to provide basic accommodation and process claims. We will also maintain the facility to detain people where removal is possible within a reasonable timescale. The use of hotels to accommodate new arrivals who have entered the UK illegally will end."

PoliticsHome reported on Friday that the Home Office is now actively seeking contractors to design, build or renovate centres that can accommodate and support asylum seekers. A Home Office notice about the tender can be viewed here.

The Home Office told PoliticsHome it could not comment on ongoing commercial discussions.

According to The Independent, nine centres are planned across England.

When fully operational, the centres are planned to hold up to 8,000 asylum seekers for up to six months while their claims are being processed.

The charity Asylum Matters said "warehousing" people in this type of accommodation would be hugely harmful to vulnerable and often traumatised people.