Kaldor Centre Senior Research Fellow Madeline Gleeson spoke to the Westminster Legal Policy Forum keynote seminar, ‘Next steps for asylum policy in the UK’ on on  8 September 2021. These are her remarks.

It is with the gravest of concern that we have watched from Australia as Denmark and now the United Kingdom have expressed interest in the so-called ‘Australian model’ of offshore processing. 

I was momentarily relieved in an earlier session today when Glyn Williams from the Home Office reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to its international obligations with respect to asylum seekers and refugees. But he then spoke about removing asylum seekers to safe third countries to have their claims processed and this is the issue that raises concern.  

There are four key points I wanted to make about this proposal. 

First, offshore processing has been a policy failure in Australia. 

It was introduced here to achieve three interrelated objectives: 

  • Deterring asylum seekers from trying to reach Australia by boat
  • Saving lives at sea; and
  • Breaking the business model of smugglers.

In practice, it achieved none of these things.

In the first year – 2012 to 2013 – more asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat than at any other time in history.

Before the end of the second year – in mid-2014 – Australia stopped transferring new arrivals offshore altogether.

So, while the policy formally remains on foot here – in the sense that there is a relatively small cohort of people who were sent offshore in 2013 or 2014, and whose situation is still yet to be resolved – we ourselves only actively pursued this policy for less than two years. We have then spent the last seven years in an incredibly difficult, protracted and expensive withdrawal from this failed policy. 

Second, the human impact of offshore processing has been catastrophic. 

And I don’t use that term lightly. UN medical experts found the rates of mental illness offshore to be among the highest recorded in any surveyed population. Médecins Sans Frontières similarly reported that suffering in Nauru was some of the worst it had ever encountered, including in victims of torture.

The impact on children has been particularly profound. Paediatricians report that children transferred to Nauru are among the most traumatised they have ever seen. And a few years ago, a number of children started presenting with a rare psychiatric illness known as resignation syndrome, which saw previously sprightly, engaged, resilient children regress and withdraw to the point that some entered coma-like states and needed to be hospitalised for the administration of food and fluids.  

Third, it is difficult to see how the Australian model of offshore processing could be done in a lawful or humane way. I’ve heard it suggested that the UK might seek to pursue a similar policy but without the more punitive aspects of the Australian practice. 

But offshore processing is one of the most expensive, risky, unpredictable and difficult ways of managing the arrival of asylum seekers. The only conceivable reason to do it is to try to deter people from arriving spontaneously. For this deterrent to be effective, the UK must be willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that what awaits asylum seekers in the so-called safe third country is worse than what they are coming from. 

It’s a slippery slope, and we’ve seen where it lands in Australia. When this policy was reintroduced in 2012, it was done with all the same stated good intentions as we are hearing now in the UK about respecting international law and human rights. But in practice, this is a policy that will go off course. 

The final point I wish to make is that the Australian model has never been scaled to the types of numbers that have been mentioned in the UK context.

Mr Williams mentioned 10,000 people arriving in the UK spontaneously already this year. The most we ever had offshore in any one place was about 1,300 people. And the most we ever had altogether offshore in both Nauru and Papua New Guinea combined was less than 2,500. 

The policy collapsed at that rate. And at that rate it cost us, at a very conservative estimate, about 1 billion dollars per year. So I think there are many reasons for extreme caution on the part of the UK before looking to Australia for inspiration in terms of asylum policy. 

Thank you.