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Video by Subttld, Cecilia Humphrey 

About the Policy Brief

Australia’s multi-billion-dollar offshore processing system has demonstrably failed to stop boats, save lives or break the business model of people smugglers, according to a new Policy Brief from UNSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. 

Released at a pivotal moment when the policy is drawing political interest elsewhere as an ‘Australian model’, ‘Cruel, costly and ineffective: the failure of offshore processing in Australia’ 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 Papua New Guinea. 

For the first time, Kaldor Centre researchers Madeline Gleeson and Natasha Yacoub break down the common perception of offshore processing as a single policy, explaining how instead it has unfolded in four distinct phases since August 2012. Critically, they note that Australia has been caught up in the fourth and final phase – in which the government stopped transferring people offshore and has been trying to extricate itself from the arrangements – for more than seven years now. 

Contrary to popular belief, offshore processing did not stop the boats. Relying on the government’s own data, the authors show that both boat arrivals and deaths at sea continued after the reintroduction of offshore processing in 2012, dropping only after Australia recognised the limitations of its own policy and pivoted away from it to pursue maritime interceptions exclusively from 2014 onwards.  

Rather than save lives, offshore processing ruined them; the authors note cases of murder, suicide and sexual assault, as well as a devastating deterioration in physical and mental health, separated families and traumatised children. ‘Those who survived were exposed to significant harm, which some described as worse than death,’ the authors write. As further evidence of the policy’s failure, the vast majority of the people still subject to it are now back in Australia, many having been urgently evacuated amid spiralling health crises. 

The Policy Brief also debunks the claim that offshore processing ‘breaks the business model’ of people smugglers, and critiques the policy as a failure on the basis that it involves: 

· enormous ongoing financial costs for Australian taxpayers; 

· violations of fundamental rules of international law; 

· legal challenges in Australian and international courts; and  

· systemic cruelty.   

These findings come as the United Kingdom is debating a similar offshore processing system and Denmark has just passed legislation enabling one. This Policy Brief builds on evidence that Gleeson presented to the UK House of Commons in November 2020, 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’. 

In this Policy Brief, Gleeson and Yacoub recommend that Australia bring back the small number of people still held offshore and enable those already here to remain while ‘as a matter of urgency’ humanitarian solutions are found, including settlement in Australia.   

‘The ‘Australian model’ of offshore processing should never be repeated by future Australian governments,’ they write, ‘nor should it be replicated by other countries.’ 

Read: ‘Cruel, costly and ineffective: the failure of offshore processing in Australia’. 

Listen to an audio interview with the authors.

About the authors

Madeline Gleeson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Kaldor Centre, where she directs the Offshore Processing and Regional Protection projects, and is the author of the award-winning book Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru.  

Natasha Yacoub is an international refugee lawyer and scholar. Working on refugee protection for two decades in conflict and peacetime settings, she was recently based in Myanmar and subsequently in Australia, covering Pacific Island States (including Nauru and Papua New Guinea).   

Image credit: 'Endurance' by Alwy Fadhel.

See more information about the Kaldor Centre's evidence to the United Kingdom's House of Commons.