Health, Human Rights & Offshore Processing

  • Jackie Maher



Australia’s mandatory offshore processing practices are directly harmful to health and breach international treaties on human rights.[1] Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states that everyone is entitled to the “enjoyment of the highest possible standard of physical and mental health” and has been ratified and in force in Australia since 1976.[2] Underlying these practices, the policy in question is the 2013 Regional Resettlement Arrangement (The PNG Solution), in the context of Section 189 of the 1958 Migration Act which, when amended in 1992, established mandatory detention of unauthorised maritime arrivals in Australia.[3] The PNG Solution ascertains that any person arriving in Australia by boat to seek asylum, will not ever be eligible to enter or apply for asylum in Australia and will be removed and held in mandatory offshore detention centres for processing.[3] This practice is well out of step with the policies of other comparable countries.[3]

Since offshore processing in Australia resumed in 2012, 4,177 people have been held on Nauru and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea), after attempting to seek asylum in Australia.[4] In July 2013, The PNG Solution was announced and since then 3,127 people, with no pathway for settlement in Australia, have been detained.[4] The numbers of detainees peaked in 2014 and have since dwindled.[4] This is as more than 800 people have been returned to their country of origin with others transferred to The United States (U.S.) in a deal struck under the Obama Administration, or settled in the local community in Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Nauru.[4,5] Manus Island Regional Processing Centre was forcibly closed in 2017 after the PNG government ruled it to be unconstitutional.[6] This left 690 men on Manus Island to fend for themselves in highly hostile conditions.[7] They now live in the community or in transit centres and await transfer to Nauru, The U.S. or removal to their country of origin.[4,7] Nauru Regional Processing centre remains open. Approximately 359 people remain on Nauru, with fewer than ten held in the processing centre and notably all children have been resettled, primarily to the U.S.[4] Those remaining in Nauru live in the community.

Of the 3,127 people denied the opportunity to apply for asylum in Australia more than 80% are recognised as refugees and have this important legal status.[6,8] Thus, for the remainder of this review the group of people discussed are these adults remaining on Nauru or Manus Island requiring of refugee status, not other groups of people who remain in legal “limbo” after not being recognised as refugees for local settlement, but the UN not deeming it safe and therefore allowable for them to go home.[9] Despite the current reduction in numbers, it remains that refugees arriving in Australia by boat will be subject to mandatory detention. Mandatory offshore processing is illegal under Australia’s party to Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), despite this it persists at extreme financial cost to Australian taxpayers and does not fulfil the claimed political agenda of stopping boat arrivals.[1,10] As of May 2019, 14 people have died while being detained under this policy.[11] Of paramount importance are the direct harms to health, the lack of appropriate services and inability of refugees to achieve basic health, and the prevention of flourishing in good health that directly results from detaining refugees in detention. 

How to Cite
Maher, J. (2020). Health, Human Rights & Offshore Processing. AMSA Journal of Global Health, 14(1), 52-58. Retrieved from
Feature Articles