About offshore processing

What is offshore processing?

Offshore processing or detention is immigration detention where people seeking to claim asylum in Australia and arrive by boat are transferred to and held in processing centres in another country.  The processing centres are staffed and paid for by the Australian Government.

Why was offshore processing first established in 2001?

In response to the “controversial Tampa incident” that began on 24 August 2001, the 433 asylum seekers from that incident plus some more, later boat arrivals were transferred to Nauru for processing.  These arrangements were formalised with an Administrative Agreement on 19 September 2001 which was superseded by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed on 11 December 2001 whereby people seeking asylum in Australia and arriving by boat would have their applications processed by Australia, while being housed in Nauru. On 11 October 2001, Australia also signed an MOU with Papua New Guinea (PNG), allowing for people seeking asylum to be housed and have their claim assessed on Manus Island, PNG.

This became the cornerstone of the Howard Government’s ‘Pacific Solution’.  These events played out in an atmosphere of worldwide shock at the terrorist attack in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.  People were frightened and an unpopular Liberal Government was returned with a majority on 10 November 2001, largely attributed to John Howard’s tough response to the “Tampa crisis” on the eve of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. 

Offshore processing was employed as a deterrent with the Government remaining “determined to deliver the message that illegal boat arrivals are not welcome in Australia”. 

The Manus Island, PNG detention centre ceased operation in September 2003 and the remaining three people were resettled in Australia (2) and removed to Nauru via the Baxter Detention Centre (1).  The Nauru centre was closed in 2008 because boat arrivals slowed to almost none and living conditions in the centre were untenable.  The transferees were resettled in Australia.  When the centres were dismantled, “1637 people had been detained in the Nauru and Manus facilities between 2001 and 2008.”

It is important to note that the resettling of transferees from Manus Island, PNG and Nauru in Australia in 2007/8 did not prompt new boat arrivals and that numbers of boat arrivals did not raise significantly until 2010. 

Why were offshore processing centres on Manus Island, PNG and Nauru reopened in 2012?

World events conspired to create a bigger group of people fleeing conflicts and, therefore, seeking asylum.  Some people made their way to Australia.  Some came by boat.

Increased fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka caused a new wave of people seeking asylum in 2009-10 by boat.  Numbers had dwindled by 2004-05 but started to rise again.  Australia and Australians appear to be particularly uncomfortable with people seeking asylum and arriving by boat.  While the numbers of people who do this appear to be considerable, in 2010-2011, for example, the majority of applications for asylum came from people who arrived by plane (6316), not those who came by boat (5175).

When the idea of offshore processing was revisited, the then Gillard Government was fully aware of the detrimental impact offshore processing had held earlier and that the expert panel listing it as one option was suggesting a short-term circuit breaker to a ‘crisis’.  Retaining transferees in offshore processing centres for long periods was not the intent and the Government, on both sides, was fully cognisant of the dangers as outlined in the Parliamentary Library’s Background Note of 4 September 2012.

From 2010, as a result of increasing unrest and crowding in onshore detention facilities, the then Gillard Government began to explore options for reintroducing offshore processing in Timor Leste, Malaysia and other places within the region. In an atmosphere of constant political pressure and an increase in the very visible boat arrivals, a Joint Select Committee into Australia’s Immigration Detention Network was established in April 2012.  The Expert Panel released its report on 13 August 2012 providing 31 recommendations the focus of which was that the Government adhere to its commitment of only detaining asylum seekers as a last resort and that all reasonable steps be taken to limit detention to a maximum of 90 days.

One of the recommendations was a short-term solution of re-establishing processing centres in Nauru and on Manus Island, PNG where transferees would have their claim assessed by Nauru or PNG and then, if the claim proved valid, would be eligible for resettlement in Australia or another country.

Which country is best equipped to accommodate refugees – Australia, Nauru or PNG?

Australia is well positioned to accept and accommodate refugees from the processing centres in Nauru and on Manus Island, PNG.  However, accommodating such a large number of people in either Nauru or PNG presents insurmountable challenges.

Australia is far larger and more prosperous than both Nauru and PNG in every sense including land size, population, wealth, health, education and infrastructure.  This would indicate significant challenges for both Nauru and PNG in accommodating such large numbers of people into their populations, whether permanently or temporarily.  The same could not be said for Australia.

Table 1:  Country comparison – who is better equipped to accommodate refugees?





Population 2016 (est)

24 309 000

10 000

7 776 000

Surface Area (in square kilometres)

7 692 060


462 840

Population Density (per square Km)







Kina (PGK)

Gross Domestic Product (in million USD)

1 471 439


16 572

Gross Domestic Product per capita (USD)

62 290.10

17 856.80

2 220.90

Unemployment (% of labour force)




Fertility rate (live births per woman)




Life expectancy at birth (females/males, years)

84.3 / 79.9

63.2 / 57.5

64.5 / 60.3

Total dependency ratio (Population aged 0-14 and 65+ per 100 population aged 15-65)




Infant mortality rate (per 1,000 live births)




Health: Total expenditure (% of GDP)




Education: Primary gross enrolment ratio (female/male per 100 population)

106.2 / 106.9

100.4 / 109.5

109.3 / 119.8

Education:  Secondary gross enrolment ratio (female/male per 100 population)

133.7 / 141.2

83.4 / 81.9

34.6 / 45.8

Population using improved drinking water sources (urban/rural, %)

100.0 / 100.0

96.5 / -

88.0 / 32.8

Population using improved sanitation facilities (urban/rural, %)

100.0 / 100.0

65.6 / -

56.4 / 13.3



















Health and life expectancy

Australians, on average, can expect to live about 20 years longer than people living in either Nauru or PNG.  Australia spends more money (a larger percentage of a larger amount) on health and this is made obvious in the extended life expectancy and the lower infant mortality rates.


The education ratio describes the number of enrolments in a given level of education compared to the eligible population for that level of education.  Therefore, where there is universal education for the school-age population, the ratio will be expressed as more than 100.

In Australia, that is true for both primary and secondary education:  all the school-age people are at school and there are others also engaged in both primary and secondary education.

In both Nauru and Papua New Guinea there appears to be universal primary education.  However, this is not the case for secondary education.  The statistics indicate that people living in Nauru and PNG cannot expect a secondary education in the way people living in Australia can.


While 100% of Australians have access to safe drinking water and a hygienic toilet system (basic sanitation), in Nauru 3.5% of people have no access to safe drinking water and 34.4% have no access to basic sanitation.  In PNG, the picture is worse with 12% of people in urban settings and 67.2 percent in rural settings having no access to safe drinking water.  In an urban setting in PNG 43.6% do not have access to basic sanitation and 86.7% of rural dwellers do not have access to basic sanitation.  Nations where safe drinking water and basic sanitation are not available for citizens are not places equipped to resettle people who have applied to Australia for asylum.

Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Statistics Pocketbook, 2016 Edition, United Nations, New York, 2016, http://unstats.un.org/unsd/publications/pocketbook

What is Australia’s border protection budget?

The total 2016-17 budget for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for Border Enforcement (including offshore processing) is $3.96 billion (total DIBP budget is $4.95 billion). 

Not included in these figures is the cost of the military and naval missions focussed on boat turn backs.

What does offshore detention cost?

According to the Budget Papers from DIBP, “IMA Offshore Management” cost $1.078 billion (defined as one thousand million or 109) in 2015-16 and will cost $880 million in 2016-17.

Given that there are currently about 1,300 people on Manus Island, PNG and Nauru, in 2015-16 it cost about $829,000 per person in 2015-16 to “process” the people.

What does onshore detention cost?

Expenditure for “Onshore Compliance and Detention” in 2015-16 was $1.711 billion and the budget for 2016-17 is $1.690 billion. Detail regarding exactly what the cost of detention facilities for people seeking asylum and refugees is unclear.  As at 31 August 2016, there were 1602 people in immigration detention in Australia. That figure includes people other than those seeking asylum such as visa over-stayers awaiting deportation.

What does onshore processing/settlement services in the community cost?

The expenditure for settlement services in 2015-16 was $142 million and the budget for 2016-17 is $264 million (thought to be increased to manage the larger intake from the Syrian crisis).  In 2015-16 Australia granted 13,764 refugee and humanitarian places. On those figures, the cost of settling a refugee in Australia is about $10,300 per person.  That is significantly different to the cost of detention on or off shore.

The Refugee Council of Australia explains the detail of Australia’s immigration expenditure each fiscal year.  This explanation can be accessed via the RCOA website at:

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