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Australia’s offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG: A Quick Guide to statistics and resources - research paper series, 2016–17 updated 19 December 2016

Situation Report
Originally published
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Elibritt Karlsen

Law and Bills Digest Section

This Quick Guide contains official statistics released by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) from the resumption of offshore processing in 2012 until October 2016. The statistics contained herein include:

  • Cost of operating the offshore processing centres in PNG and Nauru

  • Total number of asylum seekers at Offshore Processing Centres

  • Number of asylum seekers at each Processing Centre

  • Nationalities of asylum seekers at each Processing Centre

  • Number of children accommodated at the Processing Centres

  • Number of females accommodated at the Processing Centres

  • Number of arrivals and departures from Processing Centres

  • Refugee determinations per month at each Processing Centre

  • Percentage of asylum seekers found to be refugees in Nauru

  • Percentage of asylum seekers found to be refugees in PNG

This Quick Guide also contains:

Annex 1 – List of inquiries and reports into offshore processing

Annex 2 – List of court judgments and related commentary


On 8 February 2008, seven months after Kevin Rudd was sworn in as Prime Minister, the former Labor Government announced that the last remaining asylum seekers on Nauru had been transferred to Australia ending the Howard Government’s controversial ‘Pacific Solution’, which had begun in 2001 in response to rising numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat.

However, by July 2010, then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard announced in her first major policy speech that the Government had begun having discussions with regional neighbours about the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region. Whilst only 25 asylum seekers had travelled by boat to Australia to seek asylum in the 2007–08 financial year by the time Prime Minister Gillard made her announcement in July 2010, more than 5,000 people had travelled by boat to Australia to seek asylum (that is, during the 2009–10 financial year).
Whilst Prime Minister Gillard acknowledged that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia was ‘very, very minor’ and that at the current rate of arrival it would take about 20 years to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) with asylum seekers, she identified a number of reasons why the processing of asylum seekers in other countries was, again, considered necessary:

  • to remove the financial incentive for the people smugglers to send boats to Australia

  • to ensure that those arriving by boat do not get an unfair advantage over others

  • to secure Australia’s borders and create a fair and orderly migration

  • to prevent people embarking on a voyage across dangerous seas with the ever present risk of death

  • to ensure that everyone is subject to a consistent, fair assessment process

  • to improve the protection outcomes for refugees by establishing a framework for orderly migration within the region

  • to prevent overcrowding in detention facilities in Australia

  • to respond to increased numbers of unauthorised people movements in the region and around the world and

  • to acknowledge that irregular migration is a global challenge that can only be tackled by nations working together.

Though it took another two years for her Government to secure the statutory and practical arrangements for asylum seekers to be sent to third countries, people began to be transferred to Nauru on 14 September 2012 and to Papua New Guinea (PNG) on 21 November 2012.

Two months before the 2013 federal election, and in the wake of growing support for the Opposition’s tougher border protection policies, newly appointed Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd made a surprise announcement on 19 July 2013 that Australia had entered into a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG. Under the Arrangement, all (not just some) asylum seekers who arrive by boat would be transferred to PNG for processing and settlement in PNG and in any other participating regional State. He subsequently made a similar Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Nauru.
Notwithstanding Prime Minister Rudd’s announcement, the Australian Labor Party was unable to secure another term in office and, on 7 September 2013, the Liberal and National parties were voted in to form a Coalition Government, led by Tony Abbott. The current Coalition Government, led by Malcolm Turnbull, continues to implement the former Government’s offshore processing arrangements. However, the offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and PNG has proved contentious for a number of reasons, including:

  • the financial cost (see statistics below)

  • ongoing concerns about the safety and security of asylum seekers and refugees in the Processing Centres and in the broader community

  • ongoing concerns about the desirability and sustainability of involuntary settlement (currently in Nauru and PNG)

  • prolonged uncertainty and punitive living conditions which are said to be causing or exacerbating psychological harm and

  • inadequate transparency and independent oversight.

See Annex 1 for further information about these concerns.