Refugee Council of Australia
People sleeping in jumble

Intake submission on Australia’s 2013-2014 refugee and humanitarian program

Offshore processing

There is no question that the appalling loss of life resulting from dangerous sea journeys to Australia necessitates an urgent and considered policy response. Feedback from consultation participants, past experience with similar policies, advice from organisations working in the region and RCOA’s own research all suggest that offshore processing is neither an appropriate nor effective way of addressing this issue.

The impact of offshore processing on the mental health of refugees and people seeking asylum was raised as an issue of great concern among participants in this year’s consultations. Many had worked with former detainees or had themselves been detained, and expressed fears that people who spend prolonged periods in offshore processing facilities could experience the same mental health issues seen among long-term detainees in Australia. Some participants who worked with refugees subject to offshore processing under the Pacific Solution highlighted the “profound” mental health issues experienced by this group. A number of service providers expressed fears that the mental health impacts of offshore processing would diminish the capacity of refugees to settle successfully in Australia in the future. Particular misgivings were expressed about the impact of offshore processing on vulnerable groups, with the treatment of unaccompanied minors being a major area of concern.

Participants also expressed concern about conditions in offshore processing facilities and the services and support provided to people seeking asylum residing in these facilities, citing the absence of legally-binding safeguards for people subject to offshore processing and the limited capacity of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to provide appropriate care and support to people seeking protection, including access to robust status determination procedures.

There was general consensus among consultation participants that offshore processing would not act as a deterrent to boat journeys. While participants were well aware of the risks associated with boat journeys and agreed that this issue needed to be addressed, offshore processing was not seen as an effective way of managing the problem. Many consultation participants drew attention to the issues which compel people seeking asylum to undertake dangerous boat journeys, noting that refugees often had few viable alternatives available to them and are often facing immediate threats to their lives or freedom.

Many consultation participants expressed concern that the reinstatement of offshore processing and deterrence-based policies in general could have negative impacts beyond the individuals directly affected by these policies. The re-emergence of deterrence-based policies was seen as having a significant impact on negative media portrayal of refugees and people seeking asylum and the tenor of the public debate on protection issues. A number of participants also felt that offshore processing could have a negative impact on protection standards across the region, arguing that Australia was setting a “bad example” for other countries. It was noted that, through eroding protections for people seeking asylum arriving by boat, the Australian Government also undermined its capacity to promote greater respect for human rights in the region.

Offshore processing therefore ultimately undermines the only viable way forward, which is to work tirelessly and incrementally towards a sustainable and constructive regional framework for cooperation on refugee protection. Such a framework cannot be successful, however, so long as Australia continues to model policies which, if implemented by other countries in the region, would have disastrous consequences for people seeking protection. It is essential that Australia fundamentally reorient its policy approach to ensure a primary focus on achieving positive protection outcomes for all people fleeing persecution.

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