Analysis: Australia knows the horror of deaths at sea – and that turn-backs and offshore processing have huge human costs
The prime ministerial language is starkly reminiscent.
In 2013, as asylum seeker boats appeared on Australia’s north and west horizons almost daily, the then prime minister Kevin Rudd said those who were bringing them were “the absolute scum of the earth” and should “rot in hell”.
“Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas.”
The man who would replace him, Tony Abbott, elected that year on a bare promise to “stop the boats”, vowed likewise, “by hook or by crook we will do what is necessary to keep our country safe and to keep this evil trade stopped”.
In the UK in 2021, in the wake of the brutal tragedy of 27 lives lost in the frigid waters of the Channel, the British prime minister Boris Johnson has sounded, to Australian ears, extraordinarily familiar.
“This disaster underscores how dangerous it is to cross the Channel in this way.
“And it also shows how vital it is that we… use every power that we can, leave no stone unturned to demolish the business proposition of the human traffickers and the gangsters.”
Australia has promoted itself globally as a country with a solution.
An adamantine and unflinching policy of boat interceptions and turn-backs, of offshore processing and indefinite detention, even of children.
But an examination of the facts of Australia’s asylum policies reveals a pernicious cost: legal, moral, financial, but above all, human.
Eight years and the equivalent of £5bn. Twelve deaths and thousands of lives damaged, disrupted, and left in limbo. Australia’s asylum policies have resolved little.
The UK is openly contemplating an “Australian-style” offshore processing regime, where the legal obligation to assess an asylum seeker’s claim for protection under the refugee convention is - claimed at least - to be outsourced to some place overseas.
Gibraltar, Ascension Island, Papua New Guinea, Moldova, Rwanda: Britain’s list has grown longer, the places more distant, more doubtful. The Falkland Islands has been proposed. Albania has angrily rebuffed overtures.
But home office minister Kevin Foster has conceded no country is, yet, willing to host offshore processing centres for people who have sought asylum in the UK.
In Australia, offshore processing did not stop the arrival of boats.
Australia announced it would restart offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat (those who arrive by plane, a far larger number, are not sent offshore), in August 2012. The first asylum seekers were sent to the Pacific island of Nauru in September of that year, to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in November.
The government’s own data shows that in 2013, the first full year of offshore processing, 300 boats arrived in Australian waters, carrying 20,587 asylum seekers, the largest number of boat arrivals ever recorded.
So many boats arrived, in fact, that the capacity of both centres was overwhelmed within three months and the government was forced to announce some boat arrivals would be kept onshore.
“The Australian experience shows that offshore processing does not do what it’s meant to do,” Madeline Gleeson, senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law said, “it does not deter asylum seekers from seeking protection by boat”.
“In the first 12 months we saw more people arrive in Australia by boat seeking asylum than at any other time in history or since.”
Boat arrivals only began to reduce in Australia in 2014 with the implementation of forcible boat interceptions, turn-backs and take-backs.
Asylum seekers, most coming from Indonesia or Sri Lanka, were forced by Australia’s navy to turn their boats around - on occasion skippers were bribed by Australian officials to go back. Others were towed back outside Australian waters. Others still were put into lifeboats with just enough fuel to reach Indonesia’s closest islands.
But turnbacks have raised legal issues around refoulement - sending people back to harm.
Gleeson argued boat turnbacks have “serious legal and humanitarian concerns … in fact, we know that people have been taken back to their countries of origin, only to flee again and be recognised as refugees elsewhere”.
“The legal and geographic environments of the UK are too different from those of Australia to make that a viable option to be adopted there.”
The Australian government maintains the policy is a success.
Defence minister Peter Dutton said on Friday, the government had made the “difficult decisions necessary to regain control of our sovereignty, by securing our borders and breaking the people smugglers’ business model”.
Australia’s ambassador to the UK, formerly the attorney general in Abbott’s government, George Brandis, told a commons home affairs select committee this year that deterrence efforts in transit countries such as Indonesia, boat turnbacks at sea, and offshore processing, were a collective force: “a suite of policies that, operating together, had the effect of driving the people smugglers out of business”.
But Australia’s asylum policies carry other significant, fundamental flaws.
Parts of it were illegal: Australia’s largest offshore detention centre, on Manus Island, was found to be unconstitutional by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court. The Australian government was later ordered to pay AU$70m [£35m] in compensation to those it had unlawfully detained.
The United Nations has said Australia’s system violates the convention against torture and the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said indefinite detention offshore was “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and unlawful under international law.
In 2016, the Nauru files published by the Guardian exposed the detention system’s own reports of rape, sexual abuse, self-harm and child abuse in offshore detention.
Psychiatrists sent to work in the camps have described the conditions as “inherently toxic” and akin to “torture”.
It is also exceptionally costly: the commons committee heard it costs Australia, conservatively, AU$1bn [£540m] a year to run its offshore processing system.
Currently on Nauru, Australia’s only “enduring” offshore processing island, there are 107 refugees and asylum seekers held. Most have been there more than eight years.
It costs the Australian taxpayer $358,646 (£193,400) every month to hold a single person on the island, nearly $12,000 (£6500) a day, or $4.3m (£2,320,000) per person each year, according to the government’s own figures.
Kurdish-Iranian journalist and refugee Behrouz Boochani was held for more than seven years on Manus Island, abused, beaten and tortured, before he secured a visa to New Zealand, which recognised his protection claim. He saw friends killed, watched them descend into madness, or simply give up.
“The Australian government has so badly damaged many people we don’t ever hear from them,” he told the Guardian. “People who are still suffering even after being released from those prison camps, families who were separated and children who were traumatised.
“People think if they do this cruelty on the most vulnerable people it only damages refugees, but in fact it undermines democracy and basic principles of humanity. The Australian government has deliberately created a tragedy.”