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Can offshore asylum processing ever work?

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

6 min read

The UK government’s Rwanda scheme is in trouble, but escalating migrant numbers are forcing other European nations to consider similar approaches. Sophie Church explores the attraction – and problems – of so-called offshore processing. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall

A little over a decade ago Australia was in the grip of a full-blown crisis as it struggled to deal with the arrival of thousands of migrants on boats. Its solution – schemes whereby arrivals were taken to third countries such as Papua New Guinea for their asylum claims to be processed – was condemned as immoral.

Within three years, however, the number of small boats making perilous crossings had fallen dramatically. Instead of a ticket to Australia, people smugglers were left offering the prospect of years in a camp, still very far from the dream destination. Their business model was destroyed.

Whatever one thinks of the morality of the scheme, there is no denying that the Australian programme was highly effective: arguably it is the only truly effective scheme for tackling the issue of illegal migration on such a scale.

For much of the last decade the United Kingdom has sought to introduce something similar, and the government still believes it can make the Rwanda scheme work despite a Supreme Court ruling that it is, as presently constituted, unlawful.

There will be pressure on the EU to start thinking about how to potentially renegotiate [the rules] to give countries the freedom to do what they want

But just as that judgment was delivered, so other European capitals are starting to consider their own versions. Nationalist Italian leader Giorgia Meloni has announced plans to host asylum seekers in Albania in two offshore centres due to open in spring 2024. Up to 3,000 asylum seekers could be sent to Albania each month and, if granted asylum, would find a new home in Italy. If their claim is rejected, they would be repatriated. As expected, the European Commission will be analysing the legalities. 

German chancellor Olaf Scholz is cautiously considering offshore processing, as increasing numbers of refugees and migrants drives up support for the far-right Alternative for Germany. Scholz has pledged to “examine” whether asylum claims could be processed abroad, though is said to be sceptical, and warned against the “whole series of legal questions” that would ensue.

Illustration: Tracy Worrall
Illustration: Tracy Worrall

European countries are paying close attention to the political fallout of the UK government’s plan. However, while the UK may have the power to override domestic courts, European Union members will be fighting different, and potentially more constraining, legal challenges. 
Article 27 of the Asylum Procedures Directive, just one of the fast-binding directives European countries are governed by, says EU member states can only send an asylum seeker to a third country if they have a connection there. 

“Unless the EU starts to renegotiate the whole of the European asylum system, and renegotiate and change its directives to get rid of that protection, I don’t think we’re going to really see any of these schemes working,” says Nicolas Rollason, partner and head of business immigration department at law firm Kingsley Napley. 

However, he falls short of saying offshore processing is impossible. “It’s not going to go away as far as I can see,” he adds. “So this pressure is going to continue. And there will be pressure on the EU to start thinking about how to potentially renegotiate this to give countries the freedom to do what they want.”

While Australia can send asylum seekers to neighbouring Pacific islands, it may prove harder for European countries to identify countries willing to partner on offshore processing. The “fantasy island” Tony Blair accused the Conservatives of looking for in 2005, when they were considering such a scheme, has still not materialised.

“If a country’s going to do this on behalf of EU member states, there has to be something in it for them. Maybe for Albania it’s the prospect of membership so they’re willing to do it,” says director of the Migration Policy Centre, Professor Andrew Geddes. “If you’re going to look at countries outside of Europe it’s going to be expensive, very expensive.”

European countries will inevitably encounter the same, persistent problem with offshore processing: when choosing another country to process asylum seekers, it is uncertain whether that country experiences the same standards of human rights as the country asylum seekers want to come to.

“Even if you go into a country that has ostensibly … a good human rights record, you still have these problems of monitoring and making sure there’s compliance and all sorts of things,” says Rollason.

In asking whether offshore processing can ever work, we must ask what “work” means, he says. “I think the problem about the cost is that it’s a human cost, and it’s a cost which is directly relevant to human rights and human dignity and all the things we see in international instruments that are protected. We don’t want to see them being undermined.”

Illustration: Tracy Worrall
Illustration: Tracy Worrall

For all the speedbumps, former immigration minister and Conservative peer Lord Kirkhope thinks the offshore processing considered by European nations – where asylum seekers are able to return to the country in which they’d sought asylum – can theoretically work. 

Meloni’s scheme would be one such example. And in recent days, Italy’s foreign minister has distanced Italy’s scheme from the UK’s. But while Meloni has hailed her scheme as a blueprint for other European countries to follow, comments from Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, are revealing. “It will not solve anything, but she [Meloni] asked us for help and we gave it,” he says, adding that negotiating repatriation agreements with African nations would be “the hardest thing”. 

Italy’s repatriation rate has historically been low. In 2022, almost 50,000 migrants arrived on small boats from Bangladesh, Syria, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Pakistan, Iran and Eritrea. However, only 23 nationals from these countries were repatriated. 

Since striking its deal with Albania last month, Italy would face the possibility of migrants returning to Italy because Albania has limited the time they can remain.

In the case where asylum seekers are returning to their intended destination anyway, can we really say the scheme works?

Lord Kirkhope says European countries are, in reality, turning to offshore processing for lack of an international agreement – such as a joint scheme protected by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). 

“While they wait to see whether the EU can produce a common approach, they are obviously looking at options. And this is no more than an option,” he says.

Ultimately, as European countries mull over an option that is less than ideal, Lord Kirkhope cautions that the lack of desire to follow through on such plans mean they will never succeed.

“The position is that there’s not a single European country that is offshoring now. We’re the only ones that are actually developing this particular thing. Italy, Austria – I think those are the two most obvious ones – they all face massive challenges,” he says. “They haven’t actually got the political will behind this.” 

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