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Offshore detention: what Australia's experiences suggest for the UK


Australia’s offshore detention policy was cruel, costly and ineffective – the UK should not follow in its footsteps, argues Natalie Hodgson

The UK’s Rwanda plan

In 2012, Australia started sending asylum seekers to offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. This policy was ‘cruel, costly and ineffective’. People in offshore detention reported extreme levels of mental illness including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. 12 people died offshore. Australia’s policy cost an average of $1 billion (£574 million) per year. Yet, there is no clear evidence that offshore detention reduced the number of asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat.

Now, the UK Government is planning on sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, in a plan that ignores the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and raises serious human rights concerns. In this blog, I draw comparisons with Australia’s experience to identify four potential problems that might arise with the UK’s Rwanda plan.

Insufficient facilities and systems

When asylum seekers were first sent offshore in 2012, Australia’s detention centres quickly reached capacity. Conditions on Manus Island were overcrowded, with 112 asylum seekers housed in a single dormitory that resembled an aircraft hangar. Insufficient medical facilities led to delays in medical care. Serious medical conditions went untreated and some asylum seekers were forced to extract their own teeth. There were also delays in determining refugee status as neither Papua New Guinea nor Nauru had experience processing asylum applications on such a large scale.

Boris Johnson has suggested that Rwanda might receive ‘tens of thousands’ of asylum seekers from the UK. However, the accommodation earmarked for asylum seekers can only house 100 people, with plans to expand to 300, suggesting a disconnect between the Government’s ambitions and current capacity. It is not clear that Rwanda can cope with an increased volume of refugee status determinations. In 2020, Rwanda made just 228 decisions on asylum claims. The United Nations Refugee Agency recently raised other concerns about the legal processes in Rwanda.

Similarly to Australia, the UK Government is likely to retain effective control over asylum seekers located offshore. Therefore, the UK Government is responsible under international law for ensuring conditions for asylum seekers meet basic human rights standards.

Asylum seekers’ safety

In Papua New Guinea and Nauru, local communities developed animosity towards asylum seekers. Because of this hostility, asylum seekers reported feeling unsafe. Some were assaulted, raped and robbed when they left the detention centre.

In 2014, Manus Island locals attacked the detention centre, murdering Reza Barati and injuring 77 other asylum seekers. In 2017, members of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force fired bullets at asylum seekers over a football dispute. Later that year, asylum seekers barricaded themselves in the Manus Island detention centre to resist their transfer to new accommodation. They were beaten and forcibly removed by the Manus Island police.

Rwanda has a record of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment. In 2018, Rwandan security forces killed 12 refugees who were protesting a reduction in their food rations.

Asylum seekers have already fled danger and persecution. There is no justification for a policy that places asylum seekers in a situation where their safety is at risk.

Psychological harm

In 2016, medical experts found that 88% of the asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and 83% of the asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru were suffering from a psychological disorder. These levels of mental illness were significantly higher than among asylum seekers living in Australia, suggesting that the offshore detention environment was a factor in their mental health issues.

There are already reports of significant distress among asylum seekers targeted for removal to Rwanda. The degree of psychological support available to asylum seekers in Rwanda is unclear. A policy that inflicts psychological harm on an already traumatised population is inhumane and should be reconsidered.

Constructive refoulement

Due to the poor conditions, long delays and psychological distress, some asylum seekers left offshore detention and returned to their countries of origin. Of 3,127 people sent offshore under Australia’s policy, 751 (24%) ‘voluntarily’ left offshore detention. It is unclear how many of these people left before a decision on their case had been made, and how many left after receiving a negative decision on their refugee status.

One Rohingya asylum seeker explained his decision to return to Myanmar: ‘But the reason why I leave PNG is there is too much torturing, they treat us as prisoners and they kill us mentally. That is more scary for me, that’s what I decided to go back.’ When a state creates an environment that compels an asylum seeker to return to their country of origin, this amounts to constructive refoulement (the return of asylum seekers to a situation where they are at risk of persecution) in violation of international law.

Evidence suggests that asylum seekers may be unlikely to remain in Rwanda. Between 2014 and 2017, 4,000 asylum seekers were sent to Rwanda by Israel. Many left Rwanda shortly after their arrival and attempted to seek asylum in other countries – once again undertaking dangerous journeys and vulnerable to people smugglers.

The solution

Australia’s experience suggests a number of potential problems that may emerge with the UK’s Rwanda plan. These issues will need to be closely monitored. However, there is no evidence that the UK will be any better at preventing or addressing these issues than Australia. Ultimately, the best way to prevent these problems from arising would be to abandon the policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda altogether. There is no evidence that the Rwanda plan will reduce the number of asylum seekers travelling to the UK, and there are other policy options that are less expensive and more humane.

Australia’s offshore detention policy was cruel, costly and ineffective – the UK should not follow in Australia’s footsteps.


Natalie Hodgson in an Assistant Professor in Law in the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Head of the Forced Migration Unit in the Human Rights Law Centre.


Posted on Thursday 16th June 2022

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