Why Outsourcing Border Protection Cannot Work

Nishadh Rego

February 2017


In late January Malcolm Turnbull fronted the Australian media to declare that it was not his “job to run a commentary on the domestic policies of other countries.” He was referring to Donald Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, suspending refugee admissions for four months, and banning Syrian refugee arrivals indefinitely.

Turnbull’s response was classic deflective diplomacy, aimed at demonstrating respect for the United States’ (US) right to determine the parameters of its own border protection policy, and for the principle that allies should discuss their differences behind closed doors. But it was also likely framed to avoid the ire of America’s pathologically impulsive new president at a time when the future of the US–Australia refugee resettlement deal hangs in the balance.

Turnbull’s response to Trump’s executive order was not out of the ordinary. Since 2012, Australia has repeatedly affirmed states’ sovereign right to implement border protection measures in the face of worsening global refugee crises. In fact, our leaders have repeatedly encouraged other governments to adopt Australia’s trifecta of deterrence policies — temporary protection visas (TPVs), boat turn-backs, and offshore processing — as a model for preventing irregular immigration. This is illiberal normative leadership that challenges international refugee law, long-standing global institutional arrangements designed to protect refugees, and underlying principles such as burden-sharing all at once.

The Offshoring of Asylum Processing

The need for offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat stems from the bipartisan political commitment to prevent irregular arrivals from ever being processed or settled in Australia. This commitment to deterrence is justified with recourse to different kinds of domestically focused arguments: the need to keep Australians safe from the mass onslaught of economic opportunists and terrorists disguised as refugees; the humanitarian imperative to prevent asylum seekers’ drowning at sea; the country’s sovereign right to determine who enters and how. Although commentators debate the actual impacts of strong border protection policy on federal election outcomes relative to other issue areas, there is little doubt that both major political parties believe in the electoral prudence of conflating refugee protection with border protection, and privileging the latter over the former in policy.

Realising the promise to keep ‘boat-arrivals’ out has necessitated shopping for overseas territories in which to warehouse and potentially resettle refugees. The desperation to find willing refugee processing partners has resulted in a series of deals with some of the world’s poorest and politically unstable states. Arrangements with PNG and Nauru have little to do with promoting regional development, facilitating bilateral trade and investment, addressing mutual strategic interests or dealing with global collective-action problems (such as refugee crises). Instead they represent attempts to foist – with significant monetary incentives – Australia’s international legal and ethical responsibilities to people seeking asylum on societies with fewer resources. Sustainable foreign policy partnerships can never be founded on this basis.

Indeed, as offshore processing has evolved, it has become clear that Australia has limited control over legal or political developments in partner countries. There are many examples of this dynamic at play, especially in PNG. For example, last year PNG’s Supreme Court declared the Manus Island Regional Processing Center (RPC) illegal on the ground that prolonged detention violated an individual’s right to personal liberty, as enshrined in the country’s constitution. Peter Dutton steadfastly denied that the refugees would ever be resettled in Australia, claiming the matter to be one for PNG’s executive to resolve without Australian involvement. For its part, PNG’s government began allowing detainees to travel around the island during the day, claiming they were no longer in detention. Episodes like this highlight the fact that Australia’s offshore processing arrangements can be derailed by legal, institutional, and political factors beyond its influence.

Third-Country Resettlement

Deals designed to facilitate third-country resettlement from offshore processing sites are equally unsustainable. Sovereign states have little incentive to bear the logistical, financial, and political costs of providing residence or citizenship to people who sought protection in Australia. Countries such as MalaysiaPhilippines, and Kyrgyzstan have refused to resettle refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.

In the only third-country resettlement deal struck to date, it is clear that Australia has limited bargaining power or leverage over outcomes, despite its relative economic and military strength as a partner. As per a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in late 2014, Australia offered the Cambodian government $40 million in ‘development assistance’ over four years to complement the $79 million already allocated to Cambodia in Australia’s aid budget. A further $15 million was promised in incremental disbursements as the arrangement progressed. Despite Scott Morrison stating there would be no caps on the number of places offered, Cambodia negotiated to take only those who voluntarily accepted resettlement there, a provision which effectively ensured that very small numbers would actually set foot on Cambodian soil. To date six persons have been resettled in Cambodia, and at least three have returned to their countries of origin despite being found to be refugees.

It is quite likely that this litany of failures, combined with growing international pressure due to widespread reports of violence, abuse, and neglect in the camps, and an increasingly vocal Australian campaign to #BringThemHere, prompted the Turnbull government to draw on the American alliance for a definitive external solution.

Donald Trump’s non-committal stance on the US-Australia resettlement deal only reaffirms the notion that outsourcing one’s processing and resettlement obligations to others in the international system is fraught with obstacles. And for a country so stridently defensive of the sovereign right to border protection, it is also a huge contradiction in terms. 

Nishadh Rego has worked with refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia for five years, including as a caseworker, policy officer, and in stakeholder development. He is interested in the varied links between sovereignty, inequality, and forced migration, with a specific focus on Australia, South Asia and the Levant. Nishadh was the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs from July to December 2016. His work has featured in publications such as The Hindu, New Matilda, and Muftah. Twitter: ntrego88