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Australia’s offshoring policy

This article looks in greater detail at Australia's offshoring policy, questioning its effectiveness and compatibility with the UN refugee convention.

Australia is the only country in the world to enforce a policy of mandatory detention and offshore processing for all asylum seekers who arrive without a valid visa, and is specifically targeted at those who manage to reach Australian territorial waters by boat.

The policy is supported by the country’s main centre-right and centre-left political parties. After the Pacific Solution was first implemented in 2001, it was dismantled by a Labour government in 2008 and the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island were temporarily closed, only for it to be re-established by a new Labour government in 2012 after a major rise in ‘boat people’ and deaths at sea. From 2013 onwards irregular maritime arrivals were transferred indefinitely to other Pacific island nations, with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – the same leader who had previously suspended the policy – announcing that ‘asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia’.

In order to achieve this goal, the Rudd government signed a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea (PNG) to divert all irregular maritime arrivals to the detention centre on Manus Island where asylum applications would be processed. PNG was a signatory to the UN refugee convention and so it was able to grant asylum to successful applicants. By financially compensating PNG, Australia essentially subcontracted its asylum duties to a foreign country. In fact, both PNG and Nauru depend heavily on Australian funds for revenue. Neither nation possesses a particularly healthy human rights record, while their detention facilities have been denounced by the UNHCR as ‘harsh’ and ‘inhumane’.

In September 2013 the centre-right Abbott government launched Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB), a military operation aimed at physically preventing people in boats from reaching Australia, which has greatly reduced the numbers of new asylum seekers transferred to PNG and Nauru. This ‘turn back’ policy has sometimes resulted in diplomatic disputes with Indonesia after the Australian navy enter the latter’s territorial waters.

Over and above the ethical issues about sending undocumented migrants to indefinite detention on remote Pacific islands or repelling rickety vessels at high sea, two questions should be considered. First, is the policy of offshoring actually effective in stopping irregular maritime arrivals? Second, does this approach to migration management represent a breach of Australia’s obligations to the UN refugee convention?

Regarding the first question, it has been argued that the Pacific Solution alone has not stopped the arrival of boats: indeed these actually increased following the reintroduction of the policy in 2012. For the first time in 2012, asylum seekers arriving by boat outnumbered those arriving by plane, although total maritime arrivals amounted to less than 8% of Australia’s annual migration intake. The launching of OSB in 2013 appears to have turned things around. The number of maritime arrivals transferred to Australian immigration authorities has dramatically fallen to a few hundred each year. However, the number of boats towed back at sea is also very low: 30 boats with a total of 765 passengers were successfully intercepted between September 2013 and April 2017. This suggests either that the popular argument about Australia being vulnerable to mass-scale irregular maritime migration is exaggerated, or that would-be asylum seekers increasingly see Australia as a less viable option.

An alternative argument is that Australia’s offshoring policy is less about numbers of arrivals than about keeping asylum seekers out of the public eye, given that asylum has often been a make-or-break electoral issue in Australian politics. If the Pacific Solution can be considered successful on these grounds, it has come at an enormous cost: between 2013 and 2016, the government spent around A$9.6 billion (6.4 billion euros) on maintaining this system, which works out at approximately A$400,000 (€265,000) per detained asylum seeker per year.

Regarding the second question, Australia’s annual intake of refugees since the early 1980s has fluctuated between 11,000 and 20,000 individuals, but it only accepts refugees through its humanitarian programme, which often means selecting individuals officially registered in UNHCR camps. However, not all asylum seekers are able to reach camps, while most are unable to procure visas prior to departure. For instance, members of the Hazara community, a historically persecuted ethnic minority in Afghanistan, cannot go to the Australian embassy in Kabul because its location is secret. As a result, many asylum seekers have no other option than to take dangerous and expensive routes, which is precisely what many Hazaras have done in their attempt to seek refuge in Australia.

Policy makers who created the Pacific Solution simultaneously invented the idea of the ‘queue’, in other words the notion that those in UNHCR camps were the greatest priority insofar as they had been patiently waiting to be resettled, while irregular maritime arrivals were simply ‘queue jumpers’. There is, however, no official queue because countries do not have to resettle refugees from UN camps. Instead, those that are signatories to the UN refugee convention are obliged to assess the claims of asylum seekers reaching their shores. While Australia has been able to legally off load this problem upon poorer Pacific states, when it pushes back asylum seekers at sea it seriously risks breaking the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, i.e. protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution.

Unsurprisingly, Australia’s offshoring policy has caused much controversy around the world but it has also been enthusiastically endorsed by western politicians seeking a hard-line approach to immigration.

What are your thoughts on Australia’s approach? Do you think offshoring is an effective policy? Do you think it is a fair policy? Discuss with your fellow learners in the comments section.

© European University Institute / CERC Migration, Ryerson University
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