Offshoring Refugee Processing

Author: Trinh Luu
Editor: MinhAnh Nguyen

Though the media often mentions refugee offshoring together with Australia, extraterritorial asylum processing is not necessarily unique to the country. This article, therefore, focuses on the state of offshore refugee processing in Australia while also making references to similar models that gave it inspiration or are considered for replicating. 

As a policy, offshore refugee processing was introduced in 2001 under the “Pacific Solutions” arrangements, suspended in 2008, and resumed in 2012 when the number of boat arrivals to Australia shot up [1][2]. Under this policy, asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat and without valid visas would be intercepted by Australian authorities and diverted to the country’s offshore detention centers set up in the Republic of Nauru or Manus Island of Papua New Guinea (PNG), both of which are Australia’s former colonies [3][4]. The detention centers are funded by the Australian government and operated by private companies while refugee status determination is handled by the Nauru and PNG governments [5][6].

Ideas for this system came from the U.S’s handling of Haitian asylum-seekers in the 1980s [7]. The U.S basically turned Guantanamo Bay into its externalized asylum processing centre and transferred asylum-seekers there, effectively shirking its responsibility to protect them [8]

Australia’s refugee offshoring regime has long been considered a breach of international human rights standards and legally challenged, with occasional successes, ever since its implementation [9]. But without any regional human rights courts to act as deterrents, controversial policy changes that aggravate the precarious existence of those held in detention centers in Nauru and Manus continue [10].

Most notable is Australia’s change of policy in July 2013, which blocks pathways to resettlement in Australia for those held in Nauru and Manus island even if they are formally recognized as refugees [11]

Problematic conducts by staff in detention centers and multifarious scourges of suffering endured by asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore centers further trigger international outcry [12]. Despite curtailment of independent reporting of the conditions inside these centers, a cache of documents exposing the abuses of and inadequate affordances for asylum seekers – known as the Nauru files – reveal what’s happening inside [13]. All levels of harms can be found: from sexual and physical assaults of those detained by staff, to medical negligence or outright denial of medical treatment, to suicidal and self-harm tendencies exhibited by children, many of whom are not even in their teenage years [14][15].

Yet as the people inside languish and the cost of maintaining these centers amounts to $AUD 1.7 billion each year, some countries such as the U.K still explore options to put in place a refugee processing system similar to that of Australia, with Moldova, Morocco, and PNG as potential detention sites [16][17]

Australia and those who want to replicate its system cloak their motivations in a language of altruism: to tackle people smuggling and stop people from making perilous journeys by boat [18][19]. This is the reason Australia gave for turning down New Zealand’s resettlement offer in 2013, cautioning that the prospect of resettling in the latter encourages more people smuggling and dangerous border crossings [20]. But what Australia really wants is to stop asylum-seekers from exercising their autonomy of choice. The country doesn’t want to be chosen by boat people who arrive at its shore, it wants to be able to decide who gets in and who doesn’t [21].

While the means by which refugees come to Australia and whether they are on valid visas should matter less than their safety, both factors are used to differentiate the treatments between the onshore program’s asylum seekers and those placed on the offshore program.

The think piece Raia Apostolova wrote for Focaalblog on the immigration system in the European Union noted that the hierarchization of human mobilities – through the use of different migratory categories and differentiated allocation of rights and benefits – is not necessarily based on the differences in suffering or the needs for protection but attempts by states to regulate mobilities across borders [22]. This assessment applies to Australia’s regulation of human movements through its externalized offshoring program as well. 

The colonial and racialized underpinnings of Australia’s refugee offshoring program also should not be missed. Why set up detention centers in Nauru and PNG, both unfit (compared to Australia) for hosting asylum seekers? Rather than coincidental, Australia’s use of the territories of these countries to “implement its own migration and ‘border control’ strategies is made possible by [its] former colonial relationship[s]” [23]. Colonial dominance and exploitation have locked both countries into a relationship of economic and aid dependence with Australia, forcing them to become Australia’s so-called “refugee dumping ground[24][25].

Similar to Nauru and PNG, countries in the Asian Pacific region like Indonesia and Malaysia form part of Australia’s “widening zone of extended border security” [26]. By deepening cooperation with them to foist its responsibilities to provide protection for asylum seekers onto their territories, Australia is able to reserve its mainland territory for white people and keep it out of the unruly migration zone, effectively pushing the racialized others elsewhere [27]. In short, the extraterritorial asylum process of Australia is enmeshed in a continuation of colonial and racialized dominance in the Asian Pacific region. 

What is objectionable about the offshore asylum processing regime in operation in Australia and the models that might be implemented in other countries is not just the level of abuse and suffering it subjects already vulnerable populations to. The system is pernicious since it lets persist, or, more precisely, thrives on a logic of racialization and colonialism that is ongoing even in the postcolonial era.

The system, therefore, has to be removed, and any plans to replicate it should not be pursued. 

Image: Photo by Daniel Anthony on Unsplash

Offshoring Refugee Processing
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