A plan recently proposed for dealing with refugee influxes in the United Kingdom has sparked significant outrage. Namely, those who travel to the United Kingdom via the Channel in search of asylum would be sent to Rwanda instead of being granted shelter in the UK (Hall, 2022). This comes after notable increases in the number of illegal Channel crossings, with almost 30,000 people crossing the Channel in the last year alone (BBC, 2022). Following similar past ideas that failed to establish an exact refugee outsourcing deal with Albania or Ghana, this plan with Rwanda would, if adopted, ensure that the UK does not have to help outside of its capacity to provide such help by simply sending refugees to a third country while their asylum claims are being processed (Hall, 2022). Exporting asylum in such a way would not be a global first, as similar plans are already in use in other countries. One example is Denmark, where a bill was passed in 2021 that would allow the country to, similar to the UK, send asylum seekers to Rwanda (Da Silva, 2021). This law faced significant criticism, including from the UNHCR and human rights activists.
This present article will assess another instance of exporting asylum, specifically the case study of Australia, in an attempt to investigate the ramifications of such policies on asylum seekers. This case was chosen in part because the UK’s proposed asylum policy is itself modelled on the Australian example (Gleeson, 2021). The procedure by which this outsourcing functions will be explained, and the implication of said procedure on the rights and obligations related to refugees and the impact on asylum seekers, such as the principle of non-refoulment, will be analysed. The benefits and drawbacks of employing such a policy and the effects this has on asylum seekers will be evaluated. Lastly, the implications of the UK’s plans on those seeking asylum in the UK, regardless of whether the plan is implemented or not, will be assessed.
Case study – Australia and the Pacific Solution
- The policy
Australia first began implementing its policy of sending asylum seekers to third countries in 2001. This policy, called the Pacific Solution, was created so that ‘boat people, i.e. those who were arriving in Australia on ships that qualified as unauthorised or irregular maritime arrival vessels in search of refuge, would be discouraged from continuing this practice (Frelick, 2012; Phillips, 2012). Moreover, from 2012 the ‘no-advantage’ principle was determined as a key aspect of the policy, meaning that those coming by ships may face longer periods in detention so that they are not ‘advantaged’ over others who use regular migration pathways (Phillips, 2012). As regulated in the Australian Migration Act of 1958, indefinite immigration detention is a mandatory part of the asylum-seeking process in case the individuals are not in possession of a valid visa (Australian Human Rights Commission, n. d.). The refugee or asylum claims would then be processed in the respective third country (Australian Human Rights Commission, n. d.). Moreover, these asylum seekers would be granted Special Purpose visas by the countries in which they were detained until they were either returned or resettled (Phillips, 2012).
Though briefly repealed in 2008, the policy was reinstated in 2012 after a renewed increase in the number of arrivals on ships (Doherty, 2016). Initially, these refugees were sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. There, Australia set up offshore processing facilities in which the men, women, and children seeking refugee status or asylum in Australia are housed. The last Manus Island detention centre was shut down in 2021, a decision which followed a ruling made in 2016 wherein Papua New Guinea’s Constitutional Court deemed its existence unconstitutional (Doherty, 2021; BBC, 2021). This came after the UNHCR stated that the detention situation was not in line with international standards and that the state was in breach of its obligation to uphold the principle of non-refoulment, that is, the principle that forbids a country from returning refugees who may face persecution if returned (Bakshi, 2020). Since then, only Nauru, an island country of only about 20km², has been the location of an Australian offshore detention facility.
- The issues
On Nauru, asylum seekers are held in less than ideal circumstances. While the majority of those placed in these detention facilities are later determined to be refugees with a legitimate fear of persecution, they nonetheless remain in the facilities for years with limited information on the progress of their case (Doherty, 2016). Meanwhile, the standards of the detention facilities have been widely criticised. The International Criminal Court determined that this detention regime qualifies as ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment’, although the levels of this treatment were not high enough to warrant further investigation (ECRE, 2020). A UN report claimed that, in holding children in these detention centres and in keeping asylum seekers in such dangerous conditions, Australia is violating the Convention against Torture (Méndez, 2015). Around 2000 reports of sexual abuse of children in Nauru detention facilities were discovered and the rates of mental health issues among the refugees are extreme (Doherty, 2016; Gleeson, 2021). Children develop mental health problems and chronic illnesses, including the rare traumatic withdrawal syndrome which can result in severe impairment to normal functioning – the facilities show clear violations of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Refugee Council of Australia, 2020). Access to adequate health facilities, nonetheless, remains difficult.
While some died by committing suicide, several refugees died on Nauru because access to necessary health services was delayed or not provided. In 2016, Omid Masoumali set himself on fire in protest after three years of detention without prospects of resettlement – had his timely transport to a hospital in Australia been possible, he would have survived (Human Rights Law Centre, 2021). The State Coroner who looked into his death noted that “the level of care was well below that available in rural Australia”, something which has not significantly changed since Omid’s death. Simultaneously, journalists are barred from traveling to Nauru so little information on the current situation is known, and staff members at the detention facilities face prison sentences if they publicly speak out about the situation (Doherty, 2016). The Pacific Solution is still in use in Australia as of April 2022, with a new Memorandum of Understanding between Australia and Nauru signed in 2021 aiming to establish an ‘enduring regional processing capability’ in Nauru (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021; Bakshi, 2020).
- Outcomes of the Pacific Solution
The positive outcomes of Australia’s offshore detention system are difficult to find. Even if the numbers of refugees coming to Australia were lower, at least in 2001, this seems to be more the result of a global trend than of the policy itself (Menadue, 2012). In 2012, meanwhile, according to Gleeson, 2021), more refugees arrived by boat in Australia than at any time before.
There are, on the other hand, many negative outcomes. One of the main ones is, undoubtedly, the infliction of human suffering and global condemnation of the numerous human rights violations that occur in detention centres. However, it is also a very costly practice. Though only around 200 people are still in Nauru, the maintenance of the system is expected to cost the Australian government more than $800 million (Gleeson, 2021; Human Rights Watch, 2021). Moreover, as the Nauruan government refuses to permanently resettle any refugees, Australia has to find other solutions. As reported in Doherty (2016), in one such situation Australia had to pay more than $40 million to resettle one refugee in Cambodia. In another case, Australia paid for a whole incarceration centre for two men who were later given refugee status and resettled (Doherty, 2016).
The United Kingdom – Outsourcing to Rwanda
The UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a continent away, is already causing significant controversy. Although the policy would allegedly be an attempt to end illegal immigration into the UK and prevent human smuggling, the Australian example casts doubts as to whether this is a suitable method to do so. As one UK minister, Sarah Jones noted: “We are just moving the people smuggling problem, we are not fixing it, which is what the government claims to try and do.” (Cowburn, 2022). According to the memorandum signed between the two countries, Rwanda would have to approve all transfer requests by the UK, while the initial asylum screening would still be held in the UK (Home Office, 2022). Moreover, as stated in section 10 of the memorandum, Rwanda will grant the individual asylum or refugee status if they are recognised as such after the processing is completed. The relocated individuals would be returned to the UK if the UK requested such an action; otherwise, the refugees would be eligible for long-term relocation in Rwanda (Home Office, 2022). This policy would initially focus on single men arriving in the UK (BBC, 2022).
The costs, if the plan were to go through, would also be significant – £120 million (roughly $156 million) are to be paid upfront, with the actual final costs still unknown (Cowburn, 2022). Rwanda has experience in hosting refugees, specifically with high numbers of refugees coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is generally a safe country (UNHCR, n.d.; Faulkner, 2022). However, it also has a less than stellar record of ensuring respect for human rights, including restrictions on civil and political rights, with Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director saying that sending refugees to Rwanda was the ‘height of irresponsibility (Faulkner, 2022). The UNHCR has already warned that such policies, as seen in past experiences such as that of Australia, frequently violate international law, lead to the use of widespread and sometimes arbitrary detention, and may achieve a counter-effect and cause more smuggling (Al-Jazeera, 2022).
When it comes to asylum and refugee policies, the Australian Pacific Solution example shows why exporting asylum to third countries may not be the best decision. In the last 20 years that the offshore detention policy has been heavily criticised, and numerous refugees and asylum seekers have suffered and continue to suffer in detention centres under questionable circumstances with little prospects for change. From high costs that may take an unnecessary toll on the country, to a lack of guarantees that the stated goals could be achieved, to concerns over potential human rights violations – the United Kingdom’s plan to outsource asylum seekers to Rwanda could, in the long run, bring more harm than good. As stated by Enver Solomon, CEO of the organisation Refugee Council:
“There are many ways to achieve effective borders while protecting vulnerable refugees.” They need not rely on criminalising men, women, and children who reach our shores, or on paying large sums of taxpayers’ money to other countries to run schemes that are proven to be cruel and ineffective.” (Solomon, 2022).