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Offshoring deals are no silver bullet for Europe's migration crisis

Ellis Coughlan
January 24, 2024

Europe has a growing trend of pursuing third-country offshoring agreements amidst the surge of irregular migrants. While Italy’s deal with Albania and Britain’s deal with Rwanda continue to fall at every hurdle, it is time for European leaders to accept that offshoring agreements are not the silver bullet they once envisioned.

Immigration is on the forefront of the political agenda once again. Giorgia Meloni made immigration a central issue in her election campaign, and Rishi Sunak made ‘stopping the boats’ one of his five key pledges.

The European Union is similarly concerned. Last year, the political bloc received over a million asylum applications – the highest number of undocumented arrivals since 2015. Italy alone experienced a 50 per cent increase in sea arrivals from 2022 to 2023.

States have resorted to transferring asylum seekers to a third ‘safe’ country for processing their asylum applications. Denmark was the first in Europe to explore this approach, passing a law in June 2021 enabling the processing of asylum seekers outside Europe. The UK, Italy, Austria, and the German opposition have all sought to follow suit. In December, the EU reached an agreement to simplify the deportation process for unsuccessful migrant applications.

Offshoring migrant agreements are not a new phenomenon. Offshoring migrants to Papua New Guinea and Nauru proved unsuccessful for Australia. Similar agreements are showing signs of failure once again. We must learn lessons from the past.

Third country agreements raise significant human rights concerns. In Australia’s case, there were reports of poor living conditions, mental health issues, and human rights abuses in detention centres. They received condemnation from the UN and various international human rights organisations. As for Rwanda, Human Rights Watch reports extensive human right violations.

Additionally, partly due to human rights considerations, such agreements will invariably face legal challenges. For instance, Italy’s deal is currently stalled in the Albanian Constitutional Court. The primary legal concern is the violation of the principle of non-refoulement, as outlined in the 1951 Refugee convention. The UK, Australia, and all 27 EU states, being signatories of the Refugee Convention, are obliged not to return refugees to their home countries if they face persecution.

The UK Supreme Court ruled that the Rwanda plan posed a risk of refoulement, and the UNHCR provided evidence showing that asylum seekers were routinely moved from Rwanda to Uganda. This is not unique to Rwanda. In Papua New Guinea and Nauru, asylum seekers struggled to access legal representation, receive fair and transparent asylum assessments, and appeal against rulings.

Sunak has indicated measures to ensure Rwanda would comply with human rights standards. However, this would significantly increase the costs of an already expensive scheme. Besides, simply passing legislation to declare Rwanda a ‘safe country’ does not make it so. It is dubious to suggest that one can legislate facts.

Simply passing legislation to declare Rwanda a ‘safe country’ does not make it so Quote

Most significantly, the effectiveness of these schemes is unclear. While Australia had some success in reducing boat arrivals, deterring those fleeing persecution from crossing the Indian Ocean is a different challenge than stopping crossings of the Mediterranean Sea or the English Channel.

Furthermore, these agreements do little to address the enormous backlog of asylum applications. Rwanda’s processing limit of 1,000 over five years and Albania's initial limit of 3,000 does little to tackle the six figure backlog of Italy and the UK combined. It’s a mere drop in a bucket.

Meanwhile, the government’s own figures reveal that deportations would cost £63,000 more per person than accommodating them in the UK. The costs would likely be much higher if the government were to take steps to ensure Rwanda’s compliance with human rights law. Australia, for example, spent approximately $9 billion on its offshoring policy between 2016 and 2020, and yet human rights abuses were prevalent. Even Sunak, as the former Chancellor, admitted having concerns about the financial viability of the scheme.

How can governments justify pouring time and resources into plans that are unpopular and unsustainable?

Despite being introduced in April 2022, nearly two years ago, the only flights to Rwanda have been those carrying Home Secretaries Priti Patel, Suella Braverman, and James Cleverly. Italy is similarly yet to deport anyone to Albania whereas Denmark is yet to make a deal with a suitable third country.

Politicians are aware of these shortcomings. Many Conservative MPs publicly express opposition to the Rwanda bill, yet vote in its favour to avoid a government collapse. Sunak even considered ditching the plan before the 2022 summer leadership election.

Undoubtedly, managing the influx of irregular migrants is a huge challenge. States need to enhance their bureaucratic capacity for processing applications and find effective ways to deport those with failed claims. Australia has already exposed the detriments of offshoring agreements. European leaders must be innovative rather than try to salvage a sinking ship.

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Ellis Coughlan is a Senior Political and Media Consultant at Bridgehead Communications. 

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