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24 January 2022
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UNHCR Representation in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific
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Externalisation refers to measures taken by States— unilaterally or in cooperation with other States—which are implemented or have effects outside their own territories, and which directly or indirectly prevent asylum-seekers and refugees from reaching a particular ‘destination’ country or region, and/or from being able to claim or enjoy protection there. Such measures typically involve shifting responsibility for identifying or meeting international protection needs to another State or leaving such needs unmet.  

With the recent emergence of new proposals in this vein, in May 2021 UNHCR issued a Note on the externalisation of international protection, cautioning against measures which could deny refugees access to international protection and enjoyment of their rights. Practices which can constitute externalisation because of their design and/or implementation include extraterritorial processing in the territory of a third country and unilateral or cooperative measures to intercept or prevent arrivals, including the use of so-called “pushbacks”. UNHCR believes that such arrangements run counter to the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees under which 181 countries agreed to share equitably the responsibility for refugee protection. 

As UNHCR has seen in several contexts, offshoring of asylum processing often results in the forced transfer of refugees to other countries with inadequate State asylum systems, treatment standards and resources. “Out of sight and out of mind”, refugees have been exposed to serious harm and been de-humanised. UNHCR re-affirms that asylum-seekers and refugees should ordinarily be processed in the territory of the State where they arrive, or which otherwise has jurisdiction over them. Further, any cooperation arrangements between States should be based on responsibility-sharing for refugee protection in accordance with international law, in order to enhance protection in all concerned States and in the region as a whole. Australia remains jointly responsible, with Nauru and Papua New Guinea, respectively, for ensuring that the treatment of those transferred by Australia is compatible with each State’s respective obligations under the Refugee Convention and other applicable international human rights instruments. 

UNHCR shares Australia’s commitment to reduce loss of life at sea, as well as the risks of exploitation, abuse and violence facing individuals in the context of mixed maritime movements. However, efforts to address mixed movements and limit loss of life at sea must not be at the expense of international protection for refugees, asylum-seekers and stateless people.  

UNHCR has long expressed concern at the interception at sea of individuals who may be seeking Australia’s protection and return arrangements and that appear to take place without adequate consideration of an individual’s need for protection. Wherever a State exercises effective control over persons or places on the territory of another State, or indeed, in international waters, its obligations under international refugee and human rights law continue to apply, including in extraterritorial asylum processes. As noted by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi “[t]here is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land.” 

The externalisation of Australia’s asylum obligations has undermined the rights of those seeking safety and protection and significantly harmed their physical and mental health. Unilateral, national steps that do not share but shift responsibilities to countries and regions already hosting the vast majority of forcibly displaced people running counter to international cooperation and solidarity. Indeed, such measures have the potential to erode the international protection system, and if adopted by many States, could render international protection increasingly inaccessible, placing many asylum-seekers and refugees at risk of limbo, mistreatment or refoulement.  

This is why UNHCR’s advice to governments worldwide is to refrain from externalisation and avoid detention of refugees and asylum seekers. With 82 million people forcibly displaced around the world, stepping up to the commitment of stronger responsibility-sharing in the Global Compact on Refugees is critical.  Page Break 

UNHCR Guidance   

Recent Media Statements  

UNHCR Monitoring Reports: Papua New Guinea & Nauru  

Human Rights Processes  

Selected Legislative Proposals   


United Kingdom  

Court Interventions, Inquiries and Inquests 

Selected Scholarly Contributions