The federal government’s model of offshore processing has been dubbed a ‘policy failure’ by researchers, in a scathing report that found the system has not stopped boats or saved lives.
In a new policy brief from University of New South Wales’ Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, researchers Madeline Gleeson and Natasha Yacoub explore Australia’s use of offshore processing since 2012, highlighting four distinct phases of the policy.
The research has found that offshore processing failed to meet the government’s stated policy objectives of deterring irregular maritime migration, breaking the ‘business model’ of people smuggling networks, and saving lives at sea.
“A close examination of the humanitarian objectives of offshore processing makes clear that the policy does not save lives, but rather destroys them,” it said.
“Since its reintroduction in 2012, 18 people have died offshore (or in Australia, following medical evacuation). Of these, at least six reportedly committed suicide, at least one was murdered, and at least two died from medical conditions after access to appropriate treatment was delayed or denied by Australia.
“In at least one case, an Australian coroner found that the death was ‘preventable’, and that the deceased would have survived had he been promptly evacuated to Australia for treatment.”
The brief noted that, while the number of deaths at sea eventually reduced, most asylum seekers and refugees who survived were exposed to significant harm. By 2019, the government was forced to medically evacuate almost all of those still in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG).
“By 2021, the vast majority of those who had not already been resettled or returned to their countries of origin were back in Australia, receiving or awaiting treatment for physical and mental health concerns that arose during their time offshore,” it said.
“The harm continues in Australia, where recovery is impeded by ongoing uncertainty about their legal status.”
Other ‘policy failures’ highlighted in the report include ‘enormous financial costs’ for Australian taxpayers, violations of fundamental rules of international law, numerous legal challenges, and systemic cruelty.
Gleeson and Yacoub have recommended that the Australian government immediately bring offshore processing to a formal end, and repeal or terminate the legislative and administrative arrangements underpinning the policy.
The small number of people still held offshore should be transferred back to Australia, they recommended. Further, everyone who has been subject to the policy since 2012 should be settled in Australia or another appropriate country, provided the humanitarian solution is voluntary.
Finally, the researchers recommended that the Australian model of offshore processing ‘should never be repeated by future Australian governments, nor should it be replicated by other countries’.
The release of the brief marks nine years since Australia resumed its bipartisan policy of intercepting asylum seekers at sea and forcibly transferring them to the Pacific nations of Nauru and PNG.
The policy of offshore processing was first established by a conservative coalition government in 2001, and operated until 2008 when it was dismantled by the new Labor government.
However, Labor re-established offshore processing in 2012 following an increase in the number of people trying to reach Australia by boat. During that second phase, asylum seekers were transferred to Nauru and PNG for two years. Australia ceased new transfers in 2014 and reoriented its border protection policies to maritime interception.
The report noted that ‘Australia has spent considerable effort and money since 2014 trying unsuccessfully to extract itself from its arrangements in Nauru and PNG’.
The brief has built on evidence that Gleeson presented to the UK House of Commons last November, after which the Scottish National Party asked UK home secretary Priti Patel for assurance that her government would never consider ‘replicating the Australian asylum system’.