Refugee Council of Australia
Nauru, long part of Australia's offshore detention policy, from the air

Australia’s offshore processing regime: The facts

History of offshore processing

The Australian Government, under John Howard, first introduced offshore processing in September and October 2001.

The Tampa affair

In August 2001, the government had asked a Norwegian ship, the MV Tampa, to rescue 433 people when their boat was sinking. However, it decided not to let these people into Australia.

It asked other countries, including Nauru, to take these people instead. After days of waiting, on 29 August 2001 the Tampa entered Australian waters to get help.

Instead, the Australian Government sent members of the army to board the ship. They moved the people on to an Australian ship.

Meanwhile, the Australian Government made agreements with Nauru and New Zealand. It passed laws, including laws that meant anyone who came to a part of Australia that was ‘excised’ (mostly islands near Australia) could no longer apply to be a refugee, unless the government let them.

131 of those on the Tampa were sent to New Zealand, and the rest were sent to Nauru.

The Tampa case (18 September 2001)

This happened just before a national election. After it won the election, the Howard Government continued sending people to Nauru. It also started sending them to Papua New Guinea, which also agreed to process refugees. Those who were found to be refugees were resettled in Australia or in another country.

It also intercepted and turned back boats of people entering Australian waters. These policies were often called the ‘Pacific solution’.

What happened under the Pacific Solution?

The Australian Government decided all refugee claims on Manus Island, and some of those on Nauru. UNHCR decided other refugee claims on Nauru. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) managed the facilities on both islands.

Most of the people were sent to Nauru between late 2001 and early 2002. Many had left by September 2003. Manus Island housed its last people under the Pacific Solution in May 2004.

The ‘Pacific solution’

A new Labor Government, under Kevin Rudd, abolished the policy. On 8 February 2008, the last refugees left Nauru.

Senator Chris Evans, Last refugees leave Nauru (2008)

1,637 people were detained under the ‘Pacific Solution’, mostly people from Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka. 70% of these came to Australia (705 people) or other countries.

The ‘Pacific Solution’ revisited (Parliamentary Library, 2012)

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