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Social Justice

The UK has long wanted an Australian refugee system. Here’s how that failed spectacularly.

The UK government has announced a new £120 million ‘migration partnership’ with Rwanda, in move not dissimilar to that announce by Australia a decade ago.

Boris Johnson has announced a new plan to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda, seeming to take inspiration from the Australian scheme which processed people in off-shore detention centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Nauru, a tiny island in Micronesia.

Johnson has claimed that the agreement with Rwanda set “a new international standard in addressing the challenges of global migration and people smuggling.”

But responding to the government’s plans, Marley Morris, associate director for migration, trade and communities at think tank IPPR, said: “The government’s announcement to set up offshore processing centres in Rwanda is unethical, unsustainable, and likely to come at a huge cost to the UK taxpayer.

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“There is also no evidence to show that this method of immigration enforcement is effective. Australia’s policy of offshore detention has become a costly failure.”

Despite the similarities in deporting asylum seekers to detention centres in other countries, Home Secretary Priti Patel has said “Australia is not comparable”.

“This is not the type of arrangement that Australia had,” she added when pressed by reporters.

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Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has branded the plans “unworkable and unethical.” 

Here are some of the key things you should know about Australia’s failed offshore detention policy. 

The Australian asylum scheme has cost taxpayers around £5.2 billion since 2013

The Australian Government has sent 3,127 people people to these detention centres since 2013, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.

This has come at a cost to Australian taxpayer of AUS$9.5billion, which is over £5.2billion, and works out to £1.6million per detainee.

For the same price, the Australian government could have sent each detainee to London’s Eton College for 33 years.

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Australia’s system violated the UN’s Convention Against Torture

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said indefinite detention offshore was “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and unlawful under international law. Australia has not actually sent anybody offshore since 2014, but about 250 people remained in offshore processing centres more than seven years later. 

The UN accused Australia in 2015 of violating the Convention Against Torture by holding asylum seekers in dangerous and violent conditions on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. 

In 2017, the Manus Island camp was found to be illegal, and the Australian government was ordered to pay AU$70m [£35m] in compensation to the 1,905 people it had unlawfully detained there.

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Despite Boris Johnson desribing Rwanda as “one of the safest countries in the world”,  arbitrary detention, torture and degrading treatment, and political imprisonment have been widely reported

Not long ago, January 2021, the British government was giving recommendations to Rwanda on how the country could improve its human rights record. It advised that independent investigations be conducted into “allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture”.

“Sending vulnerable people who have fled persecution to offshore processing hubs is a recipe for further human rights violations,” said Morris.

The majority of the people Australia processed off-shore were found to be refugees

The Refugee Council of Australia raises many issues with how officials in Papua New Guinea decided whether or not a person was a refugee, including denying people the right to choose their lawyer or the right to the information needed to ensure independent and fair decision-making. The process was also described as “complex and opaque”.

Despite this lack of safeguarding, 74 per cent of people had been recognised as refugees the last time the Australian Department of Home Affairs reported on the percentage of final decisions in October 2017.

Since then, the Department only reports on the status of people remaining on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, but most people remaining on the islands have been recognised as refugees.

Australia’s off-shore detention centres did not stop the boats 

In the first full year after offshore processing was reintroduced in 2012, government figures show more people arrived in Australia by boat seeking asylum than at any other time in history or since. In 2011, 69 boats with 4,565 on them arrived in Australia, but this jumped to 278 boats in 2012, and 300 in 2013. 

Australia halted its policy of sending new asylum seekers to offshore detention centres in 2014, instead, physically intercepting the boats at sea to turn them back. In 2014, zero boats arrived on Australian shores. 

Australia could have settled asylum seekers in New Zealand all along, but that would have been too nice

Australia has finally accepted New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees per year from Australia’s off-shore detention centres. 

The Australian government maintained, for nine years, that allowing asylum seekers to be resettled in New Zealand could act as an incentive or “pull factor” for people to travel to Australia.  

The logic here is that asylum seekers have to be sent somewhere that is unpleasant enough to discourage others from following them. The British government have decided that detention centres in Rwanda fits this bill. 

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