Offshore processing

A project to examine the implications of policies which see asylum seekers forcibly transferred ‘offshore’ to have their protection claims processed in the territories of States such as Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Rwanda.

Giff file

The challenge

For most of the past two decades, ‘offshore processing’ has been a hallmark of Australia’s approach to deterring people from seeking asylum by sea. This policy involves forcibly transferring people elsewhere to have their protection claims processed in the territories of third States – specifically, Nauru and Papua New Guinea. It is not a new phenomenon. However, whereas it was long viewed as a significant exception to normal practice, now other countries are looking to Australia’s ‘model’ to see if it might be replicated abroad. This development carries grave human, legal and financial risks. 

Our impact

The Kaldor Centre works to improve Australian policy and to ensure that bad laws pioneered here are not replicated elsewhere. For instance, Senior Research Fellow Madeline Gleeson has presented hard-hitting evidence to a UK House of Commons committee about Australia’s experience of offshore processing. Our intervention prompted the Scottish National Party to demand absolute assurances that the UK government would never consider following the Australian model. In Australia, our submissions and evidence to parliament has contributed to life-saving medical transfers of people held offshore, and our policy briefs, media commentary and shareable content helps to galvanise change. By bringing solid evidence, knowledge and experience to a debate that is too often politicized, we strive for better Australian policy and to avert copycat policies abroad. You can explore more of our work on offshore processing below.

Our work  

The Kaldor Centre promotes lawful, humane, effective and sustainable alternatives to offshore processing. We focus in particular on the international law relevant to ‘offshore processing’ policies in Australia, where the possibility of future transfers to Nauru persists, and abroad, where policy diffusion – particularly to the United Kingdom – remains a real risk.

The Kaldor Centre seeks to stop the spread of offshore processing policies that violate international law by:

  1. producing rigorous, evidence-based academic research that identifies the legal, practical and humanitarian shortcomings of offshore processing;
  2. providing expert, non-partisan advice to policymakers and government, both in Australia and abroad, through submissions and targeted briefings; and 
  3. contributing a credible voice to public debates about offshore processing through media engagement and other strategic communications.

 

Focus areas

  • International legal implications of offshore processing

Madeline Gleeson’s research focuses on Australia’s practice of offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea since 2012, with a particular focus on its international law implications. She also studies the proposed spread of these policies elsewhere, and provides advice to government and civil society about proposals to adopt comparable laws and policies in other countries. 

  • Domestic legal implications and spread of offshore processing and boat push-backs at sea 

Daniel Ghezelbash’s research focuses on examining the origins of offshore processing and boat push-backs at sea, examining the initial development these policies by the United States, and their emulation in Australia.  He also examines legal challenges to these policies in Australia, the United States and Europe, and the lessons that these experiences hold for other countries considering adopting similar models. 

  • Re-thinking regional refugee protection as alternatives to offshore processing

Natasha Yacoub's research highlights the neo-colonial practice of Australia's offshore processing policies, with a particular focus on re-thinking refugee protection in Southeast Asia from an historical lens to learn lessons for the future. She has also published on the practice and international law parameters of 'externalisation'. This research draws on years of practical experience monitoring Australia's offshore processing centres and other externalisation measures.

Explore

This project explores the legal implications and spread of 'offshore processing' policies. It focuses on the implementation of these policies in Australia, Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) since 2012, and on UK proposals to adopt a similar policy with Rwanda.

For a general overview of the Australian policy, click on the next tile to see our collection of factsheets and research briefs. Our introductory factsheet on offshore processing in Australia is a useful starting point. Other factsheets provide short answers to questions about Australia's legal responsibility for asylum seekers transferred offshore, the medical evacuation of asylum seekers and refugees back to Australia, and Australia's agreements with Cambodia and the United States to relocate or resettle refugees from Nauru and PNG. Our selection of research briefs provides more in-depth analyses of Australia's legal responsibility for offshore processing, the agreement to relocate refugees from Nauru to Cambodia, refugee status determination in Nauru and PNG, and Australia's obligations with respect to asylum seeker children transferred offshore.  

If you are looking for a deeper analysis of Australia's offshore processing policies, check out our academic publications, reports, policy briefs and submissions. We recommend in particular Madeline Gleeson and Natasha Yacoub's policy brief, Cruel, Costly and Ineffective: the Failure of Offshore Processing in Australia, which has been cited by the UK Parliament. It details the human, legal and financial costs of offshore processing and debunks common misconceptions about the effectiveness of offshore processing at 'deterring' people from trying to reach safety in Australia by sea. The Kaldor Centre submission to the UK House of Commons on the Nationality and Borders Bill 2021 also corrects some common misunderstandings about the implementation and effectiveness of offshore processing in Australia.

This project also explores issues relating to the detention of asylum seekers and refugees, both offshore and in Australia. For more information about detention, see Madeline Gleeson's article about monitoring places of immigration detention under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), chapter two of the Australia OPCAT Network's submission to the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on immigration detention in Australia, and the Kaldor Centre's submission to the SPT  about the definition of a place of deprivation of liberty. 

Finally, our dedicated UK-Rwanda section collates some of resources relevant to the potential spread of offshore processing policies to those countries. In March 2024, Madeline Gleeson and Professor Theodore Konstadinides from the University of Essex published a comparative analysis of the Australian policy and UK proposal, recommending that the UK learn from Australia's mistakes. We also recommend Madeline Gleeson's evidence to the UK House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in November 2020, in which she cautioned the UK about the costs and mental harm inflicted by offshore processing in Australia.

 

Factsheets

For an easily accessible overview of how Australia’s policy of offshore processing has unfolded since 2012, see our selection of factsheets: 

See also our collation of the key bilateral agreements underpinning offshore processing here

See also our Evidence to UK House of Commons here.

Research Briefs

For deeper analyses of key aspects of the policy, see our selection of research briefs:

Books

Book chapters

Journal articles

 

Policy Briefs

On the nine-year anniversary of offshore processing in 2021, Kaldor Centre researchers Madeline Gleeson and Natasha Yacoub released a Policy Brief which critically assessed this policy against its stated objectives and other indicators of success or failure, including its cost, lawfulness and impact on the people subject to it. 

Reports

  • Human Rights Law Centre and Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, 'Offshore Processing and Asylum Policy - Lessons from Australia' (post-event report, 21 September 2022)

On 21 September 2022, the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham and the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney co-hosted an online meeting entitled ‘Offshore Processing and Asylum Policy – Lessons from Australia’. This meeting brought together a panel of Australian experts with a select group of advocates and civil society organisations in the United Kingdom (UK) to discuss recent asylum reforms and lessons which might be learned from the Australian experience of similar practices. The post-event report summarises the key points made by each speaker and sets out key resources. 

  • Australia OPCAT Network, 'The Implementation of OPCAT in Australia', Submission to the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), January 2020

In January 2020, the Australia OPCAT Network prepared a submission to the SPT and WGAD ahead of their expected visits to Australia (which were subsequently postponed due to teh pandemic). The Kaldor Centre co-led the drafting of chapter two which set out the state of play of immigration detention in Australia, at sea, and offshore in Nauru and PNG.

On 12–13 September 2016, the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law convened a two-day Expert Roundtable on regional cooperation and refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific at UNSW. This report, which was prepared by the Kaldor Centre, provides a general overview of the discussions, ideas and opinions expressed over these two days – noting, where appropriate, the issues on which opinions converged or differed. The topics covered included offshore processing, protection at sea, protection in the region and safe pathways to protection.

This report emerges from a high-level expert roundtable on refugees and asylum seekers that was held at Parliament House, Canberra, on 11 July 2014 under the auspices of Australia21, the Centre for Policy Development and the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW.

Australian parliamentary submissions

  • Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Inquiry into the Migration Amendment (Evacuation to Safety) Bill 2023 (24 February 2023)
  • Submission and Supplementary Submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs Inquiry into the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019 [Provisions] (16 August and 10 September 2019)
  • Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee Inquiry into the Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing Cohort) Bill 2019 [Provisions] (7 August 2019)
  • Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Inquiry into the Australian Border Force Amendment (Protected Information) Bill 2017 (1 September 2017)
  • Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee Inquiry into Migration Legislation Amendment (Regional Processing Cohort) Bill 2016 (11 November 2016)
  • Submission to the Senate Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru (30 April 2015)
  • Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee on the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 (Cth) (31 October 2014)
  • Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee Migration Amendment (Protecting Babies Born in Australia) Bill 2014 (Cth) (29 August 2014)
  • Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee on the Inquiry into the Incident at the Manus Island Detention Centre from 16 to 18 February 2014 (2 May 2014)
  • Submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights Migration Legislation (Regional Processing and Other Measures) Act 2012 (11 January 2013)
  • Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Inquiry into the Migration Amendment (Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals and Other Measures) Bill 2012 (14 December 2012)
  • Submission to the Senate Standing Committees on Legal and Constitutional Affairs Inquiry into the agreement between Australia and Malaysia on the transfer of asylum seekers to Malaysia (15 September 2011)

International submissions

United Kingdom

  • Submissions to the UK House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry into Channel crossings, migration and asylum-seeking routes through the EU on the costs and mental health impact of offshore processing in Australia (27 November 2020)

United Nations bodies

  • Submission to the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on Draft general comment No. 1 on places of deprivation of liberty (article 4) (14 April 2023)
  • Submission to the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ahead of the SPT Visit to Australia in October 2022 – civil society recommendations in relation to immigration detention (14 October 2022) 
  • 'Torture and cruel treatment in Australia’s refugee protection and immigration detention regimes', Submission to the UN Committee Against Torture’s sixth periodic review of Australia, 75th Session, 2022: NGO response to State party report (3 October 2022)
  • Follow-up Civil Society Report on United Nations Human Rights Committee Concluding Observations 2017 – 2019: Australia (31 January 2022)

 

A select list of media relating to offshore processing

2023

2022

2021

2020

Earlier