Camilla Ioli

Australia’s offshore processing regime has caught the attention of some European Union leaders as an effective way to reduce irregular arrivals by boat. The significant influx of irregular migrants and refugees reaching European coasts in 2015 – and the anti-immigrant backlash that resulted from it – has made the Australian model even more attractive in some corners of the EU.

This article demonstrates ways in which the EU is moving towards an offshore processing model of its own, taking into consideration both the policy and language choices of EU leaders. It outlines potential juridical barriers to the adoption of offshoring in Europe, and argues that the model violates human rights.

The Australian Model

Australia’s offshore processing system is infamous internationally for totally externalising the processing of asylum claims of people who arrive by boat. Offshoring means that those who try to reach Australia by boat are transferred to third countries (Nauru and, until recently, Papua New Guinea) where they are detained indefinitely in extraterritorial processing centres, waiting for their asylum claims to be assessed. Human rights violations in the centres are well documented. Although the PNG* and Nauru detention centres are not on Australian territory, they are controlled and funded by the Australian government.

Towards a European offshore processing system?

More than one million asylum seekers and migrants reached EU coasts in 2015 – an anomalous influx that made Australia’s offshore processing model very appealing to some.

European leaders have considered adopting the Australian model previously, but they have never progressed to implementation. However, the recent announcement by France regarding the opening of migrant registration centres in Chad and Niger, and meetings between European and North Africans leaders concerning third country centres, shows that the Australian model may become a reality in Europe.

European leaders are even adopting the language used by Australia to justify its offshore processing regime. Thomas Maiziere, the former German Interior Minister, claimed that stopping irregular migrants and refugees arriving by boat would dissuade people from taking dangerous journeys. French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron used the same rhetoric more recently, in July 2017.

EU-Turkey deal and the ‘hotspot approach’

There have been many signs in recent years that Europe is becoming increasingly serious about following Australia’s example. The humanitarian discourse of saving life at sea has led to a greater emphasis on deterrence and externalisation within the EU’s migration policies. Deterrence is clearly one of the key motivations underlying the contested EU-Turkey agreement signed in March 2016. Under the agreement:

‘For every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU… Priority will be given to migrants who have not previously entered or tried to enter the EU irregularly.’

An increasing shift towards externalisation is suggested by the recent adoption of the ‘hotspot approach’, whereby processing centres for irregular migrants and refugees have been created in the frontline member states Italy and Greece. While this practice is not offshore processing since it is being undertaken in member states, the centres are located on the very periphery of Europe, and may be used as a blueprint for conducting processing procedures outside of Europe in the future.

Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding

Yet the clearest example to date of the externalisation of EU migration policies is the Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding signed in February 2017. The Memorandum has the aim of reducing departures of migrants to Europe by making the Libyan borders more secure. The MOU refers to ‘temporary reception camps in Libya, under the exclusive control of the Libyan Ministry of Home Affairs’. As scholars have argued, the memorandum prevents refugees and irregular migrants from leaving Libya. Nevertheless, some still manage to move forward and attempt the risky sea journey to Europe, at which point they may be intercepted and returned to the Libyan ‘reception camps’.

Human rights violations in the Libyan ‘reception camps’ are even better documented than in the Australian offshore processing centres. Notably, Libya is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. The Memorandum between Italy and Libya does not expressly mention the respect for human rights standards. Only article 5 vaguely refers to:

‘The Parties [committing] to interpret and apply the present Memorandum in respect of the international obligations and the human rights agreements to which the two Countries are parties.’

The High Commissioner for Human Rights and a number of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, have described sexual abuses, torture, and inhumane treatment of irregular migrants and refugees in Libya.

Barriers to the ‘Australianisation’ of European asylum policy

Despite the clear interest in the Australian model among European leaders, its adoption in the European context may face a number of obstacles. The situation in Australia and Europe differs in many ways.  For example, Europe is dealing with much larger numbers of irregular migrants and refugees than Australia.  Furthermore, EU member states are signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) – a regional human rights treaty with no equivalent in the Australian context. The ECHR has been used in the past to prevent pushbacks by Italy to Libya. The implications of third country processing under the ECHR have not been tested, but the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights suggests that the human rights obligations of European States will follow them when they act outside of Europe.

Despite the legal boundaries provided by the ECHR, the political pressure on this issue may push Europe further than it has previously ventured – at a very high price for human rights.


* The Manus Island offshore processing centre in PNG was decommissioned by Australia on 31 October 2017. Asylum seekers and refugees have been moved to alternative centres on the island.

Camilla Ioli is an alumni of the University of Bologna, Italy. She is also a former visiting fellow at the ANU Centre for EU where she examined comparative EU and Australian laws and policies under a Europa visiting fellowship.