Offshore processing: an overview

Save this webpage as PDF


Since 13 August 2012, asylum seekers without a valid visa who have arrived in Australia by boat (or who have been intercepted at sea and brought to Australia) have been subject to ‘offshore processing’ in Nauru and on Manus Island in PNG. The terms of Australia’s agreements with these countries were originally set out in two memoranda of understanding signed in August and September 2012 with Nauru and PNG respectively. They were subsequently superseded by agreements in largely similar terms in August 2013. The 2013 agreement between PNG and Australia is also supported by a Regional Resettlement Arrangement, signed by the two countries on 19 July 2013.

The agreements between these countries provide that Australian authorities will first conduct identity and health screening of asylum seekers in Australia. In practice, Australian authorities have also performed ‘pre-transfer assessments’ to determine whether each asylum seeker is fit to be sent offshore, before removing them to Nauru or PNG at the earliest possible opportunity. These transfers have persistently been criticised as ‘inadequate’,1  especially in cases involving children.

All asylum seekers who have arrived by boat since August 2012 have been liable to removal to Nauru or PNG, even if they applied for asylum immediately upon arrival in Australia or had characteristics warranting special consideration (such as being an unaccompanied minor, a survivor of torture and trauma, or a victim of trafficking; or having special health needs requiring treatment in Australia, or immediate family already living in Australia). However, while all asylum seekers have been liable to be sent offshore, in practice some were kept in Australia due to a lack of space in the offshore facilities, or for other reasons. 

At various times asylum seekers have been brought back from Nauru or PNG and permitted to remain in Australia, either temporarily or on an ongoing basis. More information about these exceptional cases is set out below.

It is also worth noting that, despite the policy of offshore processing remaining on foot, official statistics from the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) indicate that no new asylum seekers have been transferred from Australia to PNG or Nauru since 2014. All new asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat since this time have instead been turned back at sea or otherwise returned to their countries of origin. 


Madeline Gleeson
Senior Research Associate
Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law