The policy of sending people seeking asylum to camps and centres ‘offshore’ has led to criticism and human rights abuses – but the UK Government is doing it anyway

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Migrant men arriving into the UK via the Channel could soon be removed from the country for processing in Rwanda, if Government proposals announced today become law. 

But the decision to process people seeking asylum and other migrant people offshore shows that lessons have not been learned from other countries which have tried this – notably Australia and Israel. 

The policy of offshore processing for people seeking asylum and migrants has been much criticised by those working on migrant rights. Tim Naor-Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, has called the policy a “grubby cash-for-people plan” that is “a cowardly, barbaric and inhumane way to treat people fleeing persecution and war”.

Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, said: “Boris Johnson’s plan to imprison refugees in prison camps in Rwanda is deeply disturbing and should horrify anybody with a conscience. It is even more dismaying that the UK Government has agreed this deal with a state known to practice torture, as we know from the many Rwandan torture survivors we have treated over the years.”

An Opportunity for Smugglers

In 2013, Israel signed secret agreements with Rwanda and Uganda to transfer people seeking asylum from Eritrea and Sudan. Although the scheme was billed as voluntary, people from Eritrea and Sudan had to choose between detention in the Holot facility and signing a document to ‘willingly’ leave.

Research by the University of Oxford on Israel’s policy found that those individuals who agreed to leave “were not granted protection in Rwanda or Uganda, forcing them to embark on a dangerous journey in search of safety, ending in Europe”.

The researchers spoke to 19 people who had eventually come to Europe and found that none of them had been given the opportunity to apply for asylum once they left Israel and arrived in Rwanda. All interviewees told the researchers that, on arriving in Rwanda, their travel document produced by Israel – the only identity document in their possession – was taken away. They were held in hotels guarded by armed men. 

Realising that there was little hope of claiming asylum, all of the interviewees said that they only remained in Rwanda for a few days before deciding to take their chances and travel to Europe by so-called ‘irregular’ routes. They paid people smugglers to take them through South Sudan, Sudan and then Libya, where migrants are routinely jailed in camps, subjected to rape and other forms of violence.

From there, they made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe, where 16 were given refugee status. At the time of the research, three more were waiting for asylum decisions to be processed.

The UK Government’s plan for immigration is to deter people from making so-called illegal crossings and only take safe, regular routes into the UK. It hopes that by introducing offshore processing, it can prevent people making dangerous journeys across the Channel. 

But the experiences highlighted by the University of Oxford research show that people in desperate need of asylum will risk taking more dangerous journeys out of Africa to reach Europe. 

Back in 2018, the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, appealed to Israel to end its policy of relocating Eritreans and Sudanese to sub-Saharan Africa after some 80 cases were identified in which people relocated by Israel risked their lives by taking dangerous onward journeys to Europe via Libya. Four years later, the UK Government is mimicking the policy.

The Angry Sun

Lessons have also not been learned by Australia’s much-criticised offshoring processing policy, with vulnerable people seeking asylum held in Manus Island and Nauru – territory owned by Papua New Guinea. The cost of holding people offshore was $2 million per person per year.

In 2014, Amnesty International in Australia launched a campaign to end the detention of children seeking asylum on Manus Island, one of the camps. 

As part of its campaign, it released illustrations created by children held there. All of them depicted massive, angry, hot suns – reflective of how they felt oppressed under the heat in a camp where there was little shelter. Most of the children drew pictures of men crying. 

The Home Office has said that it will only be taking male migrants to offshore processing centres, not women or children. This raises questions for family reunification policy.

But the human suffering of men being held offshore is clear, with Amnesty International finding evidence of men regularly attempting suicide and self-harm on Nauru. Daily violence was also recorded. 

In a joint report by the Refugee Council of Australia and Amnesty International, the camps were described as places where minds and bodies were broken. 

“Australia’s horrific experiment sending refugees thousands of miles away led to rampant abuse in its camps, as well as rape, murder and suicide,” said Tim Naor-Hilton.

Sonya Sceats agreed, saying: “Australia’s experiment with offshore processing camps became hotbeds of human rights abuses, where sexual abuse of women and children was rife.”

In 2021, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court found that the facility on Manus Island was “illegal”. Remaining refugees were either transferred to Nauru or given the choice to stay in the country and start the process to become a permanent citizen there. As recently as 22 February this year, 112 people were still held in Nauru. 

The human suffering documented in Manus Island and Nauru was criticised around the world. Now the UK Government is following in Australia’s footsteps. 

“Ministers seem too keen to ignore the reality that most people who cross the Channel in flimsy boats are refugees from countries where persecution and war are rife who just want to live in safety,” said Naor-Hilton.

“It’s time the Government found its moral compass and started treating refugees with dignity and compassion, creating more routes to safety to claim asylum here and building protection system that’s just and humane.”


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