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  Download Policy Brief 11 - Cruel, costly and ineffective: The failure of offshore processing in Australia 

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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, 'Cruel, costly and ineffective: The failure of offshore processing in Australia'. The Kaldor Centre's, Senior Research Fellow Madeline Gleeson, and international refugee lawyer and scholar Natasha Yacoub, discuss their latest policy brief with Lauren Martin.

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Executive summary 

Offshore processing’ is a method of border control which involves forcibly transferring asylum seekers to third States to have their claims processed.1 It is not a new phenomenon.2 However, whereas offshore processing was previously viewed as ‘a significant exception to the normal practice’,3 Australia’s development of the policy over the past two decades has generated significant political interest elsewhere, such that other countries are looking to replicate it.4 In light of this development, this policy brief critically assesses Australia’s experience of offshore processing against its stated policy objectives and other indicators of success or failure, including its cost, lawfulness and impact on the people subject to it. For most of the past two decades, offshore processing has been a hallmark of Australia’s approach to deterring people from seeking asylum by boat. First established by a conservative Coalition government in 2001, the policy operated until 2008 when it was dismantled by the new Labor government as an abject policy failure. Despite that assessment, Labor re-established offshore processing in 2012 following an increase in the number of people trying to reach Australia by boat, and a political impasse in Parliament as to how this should be addressed. In its second iteration, offshore processing saw asylum seekers transferred to Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) for two years, under shifting policy settings, before Australia ceased new transfers in 2014 and reoriented its border protection policies to maritime interception. While offshore processing formally remains part of Australia’s asylum policy in 2021, Australia has spent considerable effort and money since 2014 trying unsuccessfully to extract itself from its arrangements in Nauru and PNG. This policy brief explores the objectives and practice of offshore processing since 2012, highlighting four distinct phases of the policy. It analyses the failure of offshore processing to achieve its border protection, humanitarian and foreign policy aims. In particular, it finds that the Australian model of offshore processing:

  • does not deter irregular maritime migration, ‘stop the boats’ or ‘break the business model’ of people smuggling networks;
  • does not ‘save lives at sea’ or achieve any other humanitarian objective; and
  • suffers from other policy failures, including enormous financial costs for Australian taxpayers, violations of fundamental rules of international law, numerous legal challenges and systemic cruelty.

The policy brief concludes by recommending that:

  • offshore processing immediately be brought to a formal end by providing everyone who has been subject to the policy since 2012 with settlement in Australia (or another appropriate country, provided the humanitarian solution is voluntary 5), and repealing or terminating the legislative and administrative arrangements underpinning the policy; and
  • Australia’s offshore processing model not be adopted elsewhere. 



  • 1. Offshore processing is factually and legally distinct from the transfer of asylum seekers to remote parts of a State’s territory, such as from the Australian mainland to Christmas Island, since the latter involves neither the removal of people from a State’s jurisdiction nor the transfer of people between states
  • 2. In the first policy brief in this series, Professor Jane McAdam examined European proposals for the extraterritorial or ‘offshore’ processing of asylum seekers dating back to at least the mid-1980s: Jane McAdam, ‘Extraterritorial processing in Europe: Is ‘regional protection’ the answer, and if not, what is?’ (Policy Brief 1, Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, May 2015) <
  • 3. Letters from UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres to Australian Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen, 5 September 2012, 9 October 2012.
  • 4. In June 2021, Denmark amended its Aliens Act to enable offshore processing and protection if a partner State can be identified: Lov om ændring af udlændingeloven og hjemrejseloven (Indførelse af mulighed for overførsel af asylansøgere til asylsagsbehandling og eventuel efterfølgende beskyttelse I tredjelande) (Denmark) 3 June 2021 < In July 2021, the Nationality and Borders Bill 2021 (UK) was introduced in the United Kingdom, with a similar intended effect.
The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.