What is offshore processing or offshore detention?
Offshore processing is when Australia sends people to another country to process their refugee claims. (The Australian Government calls this ‘regional processing’).
Australia has been sending people who come by boat to Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea since 2001. It stopped sending people in 2008, but began doing this again in 2012.
Some people also call it ‘offshore detention’ because these people were detained in centres in Nauru or Manus Island.
How does offshore processing work?
If a person seeking asylum comes to Australia by boat, an Australian navy ship usually stops (or ‘intercepts‘) the boat. The boat is usually required to ‘turn back’ or can be ‘taken back’ to a third country. If the person is taken on board, the government detains the person for checks.
They are then sent to either Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. They are detained there until their refugee claims are decided.
Australia last transferred a person this way to Nauru in September 2014, and PNG in December 2014.
The ‘hardening’ of offshore processing
When offshore processing resumed in 2012, the government did not send everyone who came by boat overseas.
This changed on 19 July 2013, when Kevin Rudd came back as Australia’s Prime Minister. Under his policy, everyone would be sent to either Nauru or Manus Island. Those already on Nauru and PNG were transferred back to Australia, where they waited for their processing to begin again.
Rudd also changed the policy so that those found to be refugees could never come to Australia.
What is wrong with offshore processing?
Refugees leave their homes because they are in danger there. They should be protected, not punished.
Offshore processing aims to stop people trying to come to Australia for protection by boat. Instead of reaching safety, they end up detained in remote places in terrible conditions.
For years they have been in limbo. They live in extremely poor conditions and are vulnerable to abuse.
The suffering has been enormous. The evidence of abuse, including sexual abuse, has been overwhelming. 13 people have died, including through neglect and suicide. Their health care is very poor. Their mental health is worse than those of people in refugee camps.
Australia is responsible for protecting refugees under international law. As a rich country which has long resettled refugees, it is an excellent position to do so. Instead, Australia has paid other, much poorer, countries to take on this responsibility.
The policy costs Australians billions. There are also costs to transparency and accountability. The public and the media are kept in the dark. When refugees are mistreated, the Australian Government often says that this is not its problem. This is so even though Australia pays all the costs and signs contracts with those who run the offshore processing system.
Why are they still there?
It took the Australian government a long time to find other countries which would take the refugees.
It first agreed in September 2014 to pay Cambodia to resettle some refugees. However, refugees had to choose to go to Cambodia. Only seven refugees accepted this offer. The agreement has since ended.
In September 2016, the US Government agreed to take around 1,200 refugees. However, they would only take those recognised as refugees.
They also made them go through more interviews and checks, so that it has taken much longer to resettle people.
Some people cannot resettle in the US because they have not been found to be refugees. Others are rejected by the US for other reasons.
Both PNG and Nauru have been reluctant to allow people to settle permanently. A resettlement plan had to be ordered by the Supreme Court of PNG. Only a small number of men have settled in PNG. Some found it so difficult they tried to return to detention.
At first, Nauru only granted refugees a five-year visa. In September 2016, it agreed to allow 20-year visas for those granted refugee status.