What is Australia's criticised offshore asylum system and is the UK planning something similar?

Australia's approach to immigration has been criticised for years. Credit: AP

A highly controversial plan to fly asylum seekers who enter the UK by boat or lorry 4,000 miles to Rwanda for processing has been widely condemned.

Australia has run a similar policy with offshore detention centres that have been dogged with accounts of severe trauma - with one suicidal girl trying to set herself on fire in one of the most shocking reports.

The widespread criticism of Australia's policy suggests the fierce opposition to the UK government's plans will continue for some time.

So how exactly has Australia's policy worked and has it had any success?

What is Australia's offshore system?

In August 2012, Australia resumed sending people who came by boat to the country seeking asylum to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and to the Republic of Nauru.

Since July 2013, the Australian government’s policy is that no one in this group will ever be resettled in Australia, even if they are recognised as refugees.

According to Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, as of July 2019, 4,183 people have been sent offshore since August 2012.

Australia’s arrangement with Pap New Guinea ended in 2021, meaning Nauru is now the location for offshore detention centres.

Where do these refugees go?

Given that anyone sent to offshore centres cannot apply to reside in Australia, most people are then sent to third countries.

The Refugee Council of Australia reports 1,047 have been resettled to a third country. Another 998 were transferred to the US and 992 have been returned to their country of origin.

A total of 19 have been reported dead as of August 31, 2021.

Listen to the ITV News What You Need To Know podcast for analysis of news' biggest stories

Just last month, Australia finally accepted a nine-year offer from New Zealand to resettle refugees who had arrived by boat and been sent to Nauru.

Under the terms of the deal, New Zealand will resettle up to 450 refugees over three years who are either living on Nauru or in temporary processing facilities in Australia.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister John Key first offered to take 150 offshore refugees annually back in 2013, and the offer has been repeated by leaders since.

But until now Australia has always balked, arguing that if the refugees gained citizenship in New Zealand, they could move to Australia because of the two countries' free-movement policy.

Australia’s office of Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the refugees that New Zealand accepts from Nauru will never be allowed to settle in Australia.

Why is it criticised so widely?

Australia has been criticised across the spectrum, from United Nations bodies to immigration experts and activists.

International charity Doctors Without Borders reported on Australia’s offshore centre in 2018, giving stark details on the conditions and extreme mental health suffering.

Among the 208 refugees and asylum seekers they treated, 60%had suicidal thoughts and 30% had attempted suicide, the charity said.

ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers reported from Calais in November last year, when migrants were attempting to cross the English Channel to the UK from France

Following those reports, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the UN’s refugee agency – released a statement calling for Australia to end its offshore processing policy.

Amid a “collapsing health situation”, the UNHCR said as the time that around 500 people had been returned to Australia on medical grounds – “significantly lower” than all those with acute needs.

“In one of the various cases brought to our attention... a suicidal pre-teenage girl remains in Nauru despite doctors’ advice to the contrary,” UNHCR spokesperson Catherine Stubberfield said.

“Medical records seen by UNHCR staff show she first doused herself in petrol, before attempting to set herself alight and pulling chunks of hair from her head.”

In 2019, Australia passed a Medevac bill to medically evacuate nearly 200 people from offshore facilities. This was then scrapped in the same year.

Children are often among those trying to make it to the UK. Credit: PA

Speaking before the Nationality and Borders Bill committee in September last year, Zoe Gardner, Policy Manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, described the system as “disastrous.”

“Not only had it not deterred people from taking boats to Australia, it ended up with the Australian government forced to medically evacuate all remaining residents of those camps in 2019, having spent €6 billion on the entire process,” she said.

“That is an absolutely disastrous model for the UK that we absolutely should not pursue.”

So why can’t refugees just seek asylum in the first safe country they enter?

A popular refrain in debates over immigration is that people should seek refuge in the “first safe country” they come to – this is incorrect and there is no such requirement under the UN Refugee Convention.

According to the Refugee Council in the UK, 86% of the world’s refugees are living in countries neighbouring their country of origin, often in developing countries.

Just 1% of refugees worldwide live in the UK.

Those that do choose to travel to the UK often do so for specific reasons, Ms Gardner said to the parliamentary committee.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dungeness, Kent, by the RNLI following a small boat incident in the Channel. Credit: PA

“The people making their way to England and who specifically wish to come to the UK do so because they have ties to this country,” she said.

“They may also speak the language because of our colonial history and have other ties of kinship and history here.

“There are people who have legitimate ties to the UK and there is no good reason why they should have their claims assessed in France if they do not wish to.

“It does not really work for us to say to the French, ‘given that we are geographically located slightly to the west of you, none of these refugees is our responsibility, they are all on you,’ because France could say the same thing.

“Then Italy could say the same thing and the entire international refugee protection system will crumble.”

What are potential alternative solutions?

People continue to attempt crossing the English Channel, despite the obvious dangers and lives lost in previous trips.

As the weather begins to improve and days get warmer, more can be expected to attempt crossings over the coming weeks.

Many argue the most effective solution, advocated by several charities and organisations, is to offer alternative, safer routes for people to seek asylum in the UK.

By law, applicants must be in the country where they want to seek asylum at the time of applying, but because the UK is an island many feel they have no choice but to try to navigate the Channel.

Giving people the chance to obtain travel documents could allow asylum seekers to safely travel to the UK and then submit an application.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Amnesty International, who say: “Opening up safe routes to sanctuary for refugees is one important solution.

“That means allowing people to reunite with their relatives, and giving refugees visas so they don’t have to spend their life savings and risk drowning to reach safety.”