Australia’s offshore processing arrangements: a form of neo-colonialism?

Neo-colonialism and refugee externalisation policies

When we survey refugee externalisation policies around the world, it is striking that many are forged upon old colonial relationships. Australia’s two partners in its offshore processing policy, Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) are its two former colonies. Similar histories lie beneath externalisation arrangements between the EU and its member states in North Africa, such as Libya.

Given these relationships, this contribution examines the extent to which an analysis of the colonial histories can help us understand contemporary refugee externalisation policies.

The persistent influence of colonialism in the post-colonial world was first anticipated in 1965 by the revolutionary, and later first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. This concept, which he termed ‘neo-colonialism’, still provides us with a clear framework for assessing colonialism’s legacy on contemporary refugee externalisation policies. Nkrumah understood neo-colonialism as the final, most lingering, and damaging stage of imperialism.

From Nkrumah’s ideas, first published in 1965, we identify three components of neo-colonialism that provide a helpful framework for analysing refugee externalisation policies. For Nkrumah, colonialism would persist as ‘neo-colonialism’, and thus continue to undermine state sovereignty, when:

  1. Former colonies exploited relationships of dependency to use aid to “purchase” policy and ensure compliance of elites;
  2. These arrangements created opportunities for exploitation by foreign corporations, with little reinvestment, resulting in low levels of long-term economic improvement to local communities;
  3. The arrangements created an environment with a high risk of corruption, undermining democratic processes, economic development, and state sovereignty.

Neo-colonialism and Australia’s offshore processing on PNG

Since 2001, and except for an intermission between 2008 and 2012, Australia and PNG have had an arrangement for the ‘offshore processing’ of people seeking asylum by boat. Using Nkrumah’s three components to analyse the arrangement with PNG, we can see how the former colonial relationship formed the foundation for the contemporary arrangement, which today fulfils his definition of neo-colonialism.

PNG gained its independence from Australia in 1975, and since that time has relied heavily on Australia for aid. Offshore processing has secured for PNG additional aid and a substantial stream of direct funding (PDF 749KB). As a result, the policy has enjoyed consistent political support from PNG’s leadership. Although this arrangement is implemented on PNG territory, Australian government officials or delegates make the substantial policy decisions.

Manus Province, in which the offshore processing facilities were located, is PNG’s most remote island province. It is clear that not much of the benefit for hosting the detention centre has stayed within Manus Province. Under current arrangements, 45% of security jobs, for example, are quarantined for locals; but locals are paid at a much lower rate than international staff (who come mostly from Australia and New Zealand). Local procurement has resulted in some benefit to the local economy, but locals have pointed out the many detrimental impacts of the policy: key among these are the rising cost of some basic foods, damage to local roads by frequent heavy trucks, and destabilising social impact of a large population of fly-in-fly-out workers. Meanwhile, significant allegations of corruption (PDF 1.33MB) have passed seemingly unnoticed by Australia.

PNG Supreme Court intrudes into neo-colonial story, but cooperation continues

In 2016, the PNG Supreme Court demanded the closure of the Manus detention facility, finding that the centre breached PNG’s constitutional right to liberty (PDF 480KB). In so doing, the PNG judiciary asserted PNG policy sovereignty. This fissure in the neo-colonial narrative sets the case of PNG apart from other states of externalisation, such as Nauru and Libya, in which judiciaries have had less power or inclination to push back against their wealthy patrons.

The cooperation continues, however. After the 2016 Supreme Court decision, the Australian government prevaricated for a further 18 months. However, at the end of 2017 the detention facility was finally closed. With few options for resettlement, however, the people caught up in the system remain trapped in PNG. In 2019 over 50 men, all of whom have failed in their applications for refugee status, were re-detained in Port Moresby’s Bomana Prison, held incommunicado in allegedly torturous conditions, before being released in January 2020. Without a decisive policy on the future of this group of people, who remain in PNG on Australia’s behest, these men’s liberty will continue to be vulnerable to politics with few legal protections.

The ongoing importance of colonial histories for refugee externalisation policies

Scholars who ignore the ongoing importance of colonial histories on refugee externalisation policies fail to paint the full picture of why some states are willing to cooperate with their wealthy neighbours to keep refugees at bay. There is little doubt that half a century of persistent poverty and economic dependence, and the ongoing political and person-to-person relationships, increased PNG’s readiness to cooperate with Australia when it was approached in 2001. Inconveniently for Australia, PNG’s Supreme Court asserted its constitutional protections of liberty and international law in 2016.However, the failure of the PNG government to unambiguously reflect that decision in policy demonstrates the persistent power of Australia’s influence. Writing in 1965 of neo-colonialism, Nkrumah may not have foreseen refugee externalisation policies, but in these policies, his predictions have been wholly realised.

Short biographies

Dr Amy Nethery is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Policy at Deakin University. She researches the development and impact of asylum policies in Australia and Asia, with a focus on transnational cooperation on border control. She has a particular interest in immigration detention: its history, evolution, diffusion, legal status, consistency with democratic norms, and human impact.

Mr Joseph Lea completed his honours in Politics and Policy Studies at Deakin University in 2018.