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UK Shouldn’t Detain Asylum Seekers Offshore

Costly, Abusive Approach Fails to Address System’s Flaws

A group of people on the deck of HMC Seeker as they wait to be brought ashore by the UK Border Force in Kent. September 22, 2020. © 2020 Gareth Fuller/PA Wire via AP Images

The United Kingdom government’s new borders bill is expected to include the option of detaining asylum seekers offshore, according to multiple news reports. The emerging details of the policy shift suggest an approach that would not only likely cause harm and be costly, but would not address legitimate concerns about the integrity of the UK asylum process.

The human toll of warehousing asylum seekers offshore could be enormous. I visited Australia’s offshore centers on Manus Island and Nauru and, without exception, the people I spoke with described the prolonged distress of their time there. One man told me his son had stopped speaking. A woman said she had begun to wash her hands compulsively, hundreds of times a day. A girl showed me self-inflicted scars on her wrists and forearms. A boy said he wanted to end his life.

These accounts weren’t aberrations. At least 10 people held on Manus and Nauru took their lives. Children held on Nauru were among the most traumatized a team of pediatricians had ever seen.

It’s not surprising that forcibly transferring and effectively detaining people in remote locales adversely affects their mental well-being. I heard similar descriptions of anguish from families placed in the US “Remain in Mexico” program.

Offshore operations waste taxpayers’ money as well as human lives. Australia spent approximately £200,000 per person on offshore operations in 2016. It would have been far cheaper and more humane to allow them to remain in Australia pending a fair hearing.

What’s more, there’s little evidence such harsh policies actually deter people from fleeing harm and seeking safety. Five years of repressive police tactics in France haven’t dissuaded people from continuing to gather in significant numbers in the Calais region in the hopes of reaching Britain. Apprehensions by US border agents at the border with Mexico (the best measure available of irregular entries) were higher in 2019 than in each of the preceding seven years, well after the forced family separation policy became public in mid-2018.

What’s needed is an asylum process that treats people humanely and gives them a fair opportunity to make their case for protection. Key elements of that process – temporary accommodation to let people rest and recuperate, legal aid to help them put forward their best case, the support of social workers to help them and their families while the process goes forward, measures to support the voluntary return of those who don’t need protection – won’t grab the headlines.  But that’s the model the UK should adopt, rather than importing failed practices from Australia and America.


The approximate cost per person of Australia’s offshore processing operations in 2016 was £200,000. An earlier correction misstated the cost.

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