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Offshore Processing: Characterised by Punishment, Not Protection

Our intern, Daisy Robins, has written a guide to offshore processing and why we stand in opposition to the proposals to adopt it by the UK Government. 

Trigger warning: self-harm, suicide, sexual abuse, child abuse

What is Offshore Processing?

Offshore processing is the process by which people seeking sanctuary in a country are transferred to another country and held in a processing centre there. This often involves the host country receiving some form of compensation, typically economic, in return for holding people seeking sanctuary


Where Offshore Processing has previously been used

Offshore Processing has been used in Australia – a country with one of the most punitive approaches to people seeking sanctuary in the world. It has been called ‘a policy designed to deter people from coming to Australia by punishing people who have come here seeking our protection’ by the Refugee Council of Australia. The Australian government has set up offshore detention centres in countries such as Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Nauru under what it terms the ‘Pacific Solution’. Even if these people have formally recognised claims to protection, the Australian government has asserted that they will not be resettled in the country. While Australia ended processing in Papua New Guinea in late 2021 and has made agreements with countries such as the US and New Zealand in regards to resettling people seeking sanctuary, the centre on Nauru remains in use. 


Elahe Zivardar,  who spent six years locked in the Australian detention centre of Nauru, states that  ‘every single element in the centre was designed to torture the inmates’  – with a lack of clean water and electricity and the presence of asbestos (6).  She speaks of self-harm and the sense that everyone was ‘punishing’ themselves. Human Rights Watch notes that these camps have been sites for multiple suicides, as well as sexual assault and child abuse (7). These people live in constant uncertainty, punished for seeking sanctuary in their most vulnerable states. They repeatedly ask ‘why me?’, and assert that they are humans like anyone else, yet not treated with any semblance of humanity. They say that all they want is a place to call home. In these centres, they are often subject to abuse and neglect and receive inadequate medical care for even extremely severe health issues.  Ultimately, the offshore detention policy has been found to be an all-around failure. It is expensive (with a cost of over £8.5 billion), illegal, inhumane and ineffective


The Home Secretary recently stated that the Australian model was ‘not comparable’ to the new British plan, despite them sharing many characteristics, including the justificatory rhetoric of ‘saving lives at sea’. When asked whose responsibility the well-being of people seeking sanctuary will be, the Home Secretary stated that this is a ‘partnership’ between the UK and Rwanda. This does not seem to be sufficient reassurance that the UK’s system will not replicate the abuses and suffering seen in Australia’s enactment of offshore processing, as gives us no sense of who will truly be accountable for the wellbeing of these people. 


How our government is currently trying to implement offshore processing and why we are opposed

International law prohibits the use of immigration detention centres as ‘punishment’, stating that even when they are used ‘legitimately’ – in exceptional cases as a very last resort where there is a legitimate aim- adults should be detained for the shortest possible time and children should not be placed in detention. However, on Thursday morning, Simon Hart (Welsh Secretary) stated that it would be ‘mainly men’ who would be sent to Rwanda.  He said: ‘This is about male economic migrants in the main. There is a different set of issues with women and children and refugees and asylum seekers’.  It remains unclear which exact stipulations we would use to determine if someone is an ‘economic’ migrant or someone seeking sanctuary (with the gendered differentiation being a considerable concern in this area) and also how we would ensure that children are not subject to this treatment. Overall, it appears quite clear that the British government will not be holding people in these centres for the shortest possible time, but in fact, using them as a punishment and so-called ‘deterrent’.  The government seems to be pushing a rhetoric that they are aiming to protect people seeking sanctuary from ‘evil people smugglers’ – but that does not seem to hold true.   Even the Prime Minister himself has admitted that the government’s response does not resolve this problem, saying that it is  ‘unlikely’ that these new measures will eradicate small boat crossings ‘any time soon’ (15)


The punishment of people seeking sanctuary does not seem at all connected to deterring ‘people smugglers’. The people this government is punishing have made long and perilous journeys to seek sanctuary, with some now fleeing multiple wars to reach safety. The only ‘deterrent’ to dangerous channel crossings is safe modes of arrival in the UK. The government’s assertion that the move to offshore processing is a ‘really humane step forward’ could not be further from the truth. What would this government do if they were in the shoes of someone seeking sanctuary? How would they want to be received? Would they be speaking so boldly about the ‘humanity’ of this plan if they were the ones being shipped 5,000 miles away to be held in a camp indefinitely, vulnerable to multiple human rights abuses?  


This grossly inhumane system is also costly to maintain. The UK has promised Rwanda an initial £120 million, and will also pay for operational costs, with a ‘set amount’ of funding per person: using the British taxpayer’s money to fund such cruelty at a time when Britons are opening their own homes to those seeking sanctuary. Some reports suggest that the offshore processing of migrants could cost ‘at least four times more than in the UK’


This policy, and indeed the Nationality and Borders Bill more generally, is characterised by punishment, not protection. The only ‘humane’ and indeed, sustainable, response to people seeking sanctuary is a compassionate one. The government’s current plans are not only inhumane, but have been seen to be ineffective and extremely expensive. At a time when so many people are seeking sanctuary  – the government’s decision to continue with such a costly and cruel strategy is even more abhorrent.  As The Tory Reform Group stated: ‘The Rwanda announcement today is wrong & irresponsible. Wrong because vulnerable individuals should not be transported across the globe to be processed. Irresponsible because this hastily thought through plan will cost taxpayers millions. At a time when the U.K. cannot afford it.’ 


What you can do

The Nationality and Borders Bill will return to the House of Commons on Wednesday the 20th of April. It is vital MP’s vote against it – and they will only do that if their constituents keep up the pressure. For more information and to find resources to help you contact your MP, please visit

Or use our template letter to write to your MP:

Please sign this petition:

Bristol Defend Asylum Seekers Campaign are hosting a protest on Saturday in the city centre. More details here

Join us and stand up for the right to seek sanctuary



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