9 December 2022

How Australia took back control


After all the hard-line rhetoric, the deployment of the Royal Navy and a series of costly deals with France, still the small boats come. Over 44,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel this year, bringing the total since 2018 to 83,000. And with costs spiralling and asylum backlogs mounting, the Government has looked ever more incapable of stopping the crossings and securing our borders. 

That is why, in a report published by the Centre for Policy Studies this week, Nick Timothy and I called for a radical overhaul of Britain’s failing immigration and asylum system.

While we make 41 specific recommendations in total, our proposals cluster around three main policy pillars: offshoring of asylum seekers, tougher and more intelligent immigration enforcement, and dedicated settlement schemes such as the one used in the Syrian refugee crisis.

Unsurprisingly, our report has caused some controversy. Already we have had the honour of being officially condemned by the UNHCR (‘achievement unlocked’, as one wag put it). And the first of our three pillars has proven especially controversial, at least among the pro-immigration scolds of UK political Twitter. 

In our view, the crux of the case for offshoring asylum seekers to a third country rests on deterrence. If migrants know they are likely to be on a plane to Rwanda within 12 hours of stepping ashore, they will be much less likely to attempt the crossing in the first place.

But opponents of offshoring say that the scheme is unworkable, or that there is no evidence that it will have a deterrent effect, or that it will be far too costly. Australia is the obvious counterexample on all counts. Unfortunately though, a lot of myths get peddled about the Australian approach.

We set the record straight in our report, but I want to briefly recap our analysis here, as many of our critics (not least the UNHCR) don’t actually seem to have read the report.

First, a bit of history. Australia’s problem with illegal maritime arrivals (UMAs) actually first took off during the John Howard era. Thousands attempted to cross the Pacific from Indonesia to Australian territories such as Christmas Island from 1999 to 2001. The problem was nipped in the bud by the ‘Pacific Solution’, with asylum seekers intercepted and taken to Pacific island nations, rather than Australia. In one instance, around 400 Afghan asylum seekers from a single vessel were transported to the Republic of Nauru under intense international media glare, with the Australian government declaring, ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’.  

And that message was heard loud and clear. Some 5,516 asylum seekers had attempted to enter Australia by boat in 2001; in 2002, this fell to just 1. For the remainder of the Howard government through to 2007, annual UMAs never exceeded 150. Deterrence through offshoring worked.

But the trend started to reverse under Kevin Rudd, who became Prime Minister in December 2007. The Pacific Solution was described in 2008 by Rudd’s immigration minister as ‘a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise’. The scheme was dismantled and the facilities in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea were mothballed. The number of UMAs duly jumped from 161 in 2008 to 2,726 in 2009 and by 2013 was running at 20,587.

Initially, Australia returned to conventional onshore processing. But Rudd’s successor as Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party, Julia Gillard, was forced to U-turn by the surging numbers and high-profile tragedies – during the Rudd-Gillard period, around 1,000 asylum seekers are estimated to have drowned trying to get to Australia.

By 2012 Gillard was seeking to reopen the shuttered sites, having conceded the deterrent effect of offshoring. The necessary legislation was passed that August with the support of the Opposition under Tony Abbott, while his shadow immigration minister, Scott Morrison, developed what would become ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ once the Coalition regained power in September 2013. When reintroduced, the lawfulness of the approach was challenged in the courts, but the offshoring process was upheld by the High Court of Australia (indeed, Australia has the advantage of not being in the ECHR, from which we may well need to withdraw to get the Rwanda scheme to work).

Operation Sovereign Borders had three main strands: turn-backs, interdiction and offshoring. Offshoring was by far the most important of these strands – in the event, 3,127 UMAs were transferred offshore, with the first tranche of 2,200 being sent to Nauru in August/September 2013, whereas just 10 boats containing 286 UMAs were turned back from December 2013 and through 2014. These various measures were put in place with determination and proper resourcing, using a military-led multi-agency approach and a multi-billion-dollar spending commitment. It remains the bedrock of Australian asylum policy to this day – and for good reason. 

From the peak in 2013, numbers dropped by 98% in the space of a single year. From 2015 until 2021, the number of asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia illegally by boat averaged just 56 per annum: in other words, just 0.3% of the 2013 peak or 0.5% of the 2009-13 average. There have been zero reported drownings since 2014.



If the UK were to achieve a similar reduction to Australia, then the number of asylum seekers illegally crossing the Channel would fall from around 44,000 to fewer than 200 per annum.  

Opponents of offshoring have criticised the cost to Australian taxpayers of this policy pillar. They argue that, at £4.3bn since 2013 to process 3,127 asylum seekers, Australia’s offshoring scheme has had a per capita price tag of £1.38m. Applying this to the numbers crossing the Channel produces some gigantic estimates for emulating that approach in the UK – at least £32bn per annum.

But in fact, under any reasonable range of assumptions, the cost estimates used by critics are out by two orders of magnitude. Why? Because their calculations omit the deterrent aspect of the policy. In other words, we should not count only the 3,127 migrants who travelled to Australia and were sent offshore, but all those who did not make the journey because of the policy.

Our analysis found that £11,350 per capita was a more realistic estimate for the Australian offshoring scheme. We also did some reasonably extensive modelling of the Rwanda scheme – I would urge readers to go and take a look – and found that implementation at scale, i.e. sending thousands of migrants a year to Rwanda for a few years – could feasibly save UK taxpayers £8bn over five years. 

So all in all, there is good evidence from Australia that offshoring is workable, that it can have a massive deterrent effect and that it is highly cost-effective. In both periods where offshoring was used, migrant numbers collapsed; in the intervening period of onshore processing, they soared. If the Rwanda scheme is implemented rigorously and at scale, as per recommendations contained in our report, we should expect to see similar results in the Channel.

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Karl Williams is Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.