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Aug 17, 2011

Cost of detention? $113,000 per asylum seeker

Over the last decade we've spent over $100,000 detaining each and every boat arrival.

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Australia’s fixation with asylum seekers arriving by boat has cost taxpayers nearly $2.4b since 2000, according to Budget and ANAO documents.

The expenditure includes spending to deter, process and most of all detain asylum seekers who have arrived by boat. Mandatory detention of asylum seekers was first introduced by the Keating Government and continued and expanded under the Howard Government, with a proliferation of offshore detention sites designed to punish asylum seekers and deter others from coming.

The $2.4 billion cost is separate from spending on detention facilities for other detainees such as asylum seekers who arrive by air, or visa overstayers — most years, the latter exceed maritime arrivals by a factor of ten or more.

The cost also does not include hundreds of millions spent on border security measures adopted under the Howard Government, nor the cost of conducting and carrying out the recommendations of the Comrie and Palmer Reports into the treatment of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon by the Immigration Department.

The cost of establishing and maintaining facilities on Nauru, where asylum seekers were detained before inevitably being allowed to live in Australia, still remains a mystery. It was kept out of the Budget papers by the Howard Government; in fact, bizarrely, the cost of the Nauru facility is a net negative in the Department of Immigration’s Budget papers since 2000, with over $35m in savings booked from the operation of the facility in 2006 — when it held two Iraqi asylum seekers — and a cost of $10m appearing as a Budget measure the following year, for continuation of the facility. Some of the facility’s original funding came from the AusAID budget.

Non-government sources have since estimated the cost of the Nauru facility at $1b over five years; a far higher figure than that offered by an Immigration spokesman in 2006, who provided a “preliminary estimate” that the facility cost around $1 million a month regardless of whether there were any inmates. The Coalition has consistently refused to provide a costing for its current proposal to reopen Nauru as a holding centre for asylum seekers. A plausible costing for the operation of the Nauru facility pushes the cost of the policy to over $2.5 billion.

Also problematic is the cost of the construction of the upgraded detention facility on Christmas Island, one of the many expensive bungles investigated by the Howard Government that received critical reports by the Auditor-General. The cost of the facility has an uncertain existence in the Immigration Budget papers, appearing only fleetingly from year to year. That’s because the construction of the facility was primarily overseen by the Department of Finance, with funding also going via the then-Department Transport and Regional Services.

The project was originally costed at just under $200m but, according to the ANAO, ended up costing $317m due to poor management by the Department of Finance. Another $200m has been spent in the last two years to further increase accommodation on Christmas Island and provide other detention facilities.

The cost of detaining asylum seekers only — that is, removing costs for deterrence and anti-people smuggling activities — totals just over $2b since 2000. During that period, just over 18,000 people have arrived by boat. That means taxpayers have spent about $113,000 simply to detain each asylum seeker, on average, across the period. Our obsession with detention comes with with a big price tag.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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85 thoughts on “Cost of detention? $113,000 per asylum seeker

  1. shepherdmarilyn

    $300 million for Nauru. Found out last year. Total cost for Pacific “solution” was over $2.5 billion though once the cost of war ships and other things were factored in.

    I reckon the full cost of this lunacy over the past 20 years has been close to $10 billion when we consider that $1.2 billion was the cost just in the last financial year with $772 million on prison costs alone last year which do not include the $400 million in rebuilding costs and new prisons.

    And for whom? The 2385 Afghans put on hold but have now almost all been granted visas – 1335 in the last financial year alone and 766 in the first 6 months of 2010.

    In the last financial year over 2700 visas were granted but 1500 remained jailed.

    A family could have had a decent house bought for them for the cost of their illegal prison.

    When things are so bad even that hard arsed Metcalfe is calling for a better way then we know the pollies have gone way over the top in their wish to punish innocent people over and over again.

    And for the people smuggling – Mr Al Jenabi helped his family escape Saddam Hussein, he spent 8 years in Abu Ghraib but Australia rendered him from Thailand because he helped people in Indonesia and we jailed him for 4 years claiming he broke some law.

    He still lives in limbo, his is just one of the many stories of not people smuggling we jail innocent people for.


    And Article 232a of the migration act means nothing more than giving refugees a ride yet our courts are so dumb they think it means smuggling – out in the open? Really, smuggling out in the open?

    What a hoot. People should stop wearing heroin strapped under their clothes and wear it outside their clothes.

    Finally, slowly but surely some parts of the media and courts and lawyers are catching on to the fact that there are no people smugglers.

  2. GocomSys

    Global view (the underlying malaise)

    In a healthy, vibrant democracy lively debates and a diversity of opinions are essential and should be encouraged. Extremist views however, once aired, must subsequently be subjected to vigorous scrutiny

    In our current sick environment of widespread ignorance, intolerance and selfishness only exposure and rigorous curtailing of damaging practices will prevent the destruction of what is left of our civil society.

    Example 1: When a person with all the above attributes and a willingness to spread fear and uncertainty in the public in order to gain power must be condemned. A person like that is a disgrace and has no place in a civil society.

    Example 2: When a media outlet publishes lies or spreads misinformation, immediate action is warranted to prevent further damage to our already adversely effected national psyche.
    Specific view (“asylum seekers”)

    First: The unconscionable headline seeking media as well as the well known unscrupulous political players need to apply self-censorship and stop exploiting this issue.
    Second: Once it is out of the public limelight the government can then close all “detention” centres and provides “processing” facilities on the mainland for health, security and identity check purposes. That’s the humane thing to do. Do we have the maturity and the will to do it?
    I am not holding my breath!

  3. CML

    @ DH – You have hit the nail on the head! I too saw the Burmese family on 7.30 and thought how good it was to see some folk who have been waiting for years to reach safety, finally make it. And I hope there will be many more. These people have done the right thing – reached Malaysia, applied for refugee status and never contemplated getting on boats (too dangerous for his children, the young father said). They do not need detention in Oz, just a helping hand to get started in their new life. Good on them.
    Meanwhile, we have the boat people who think thay are more important than everyone else, have money can travel and don’t seem to care about putting their children’s lives at risk. If we forget the law for a moment, purely on moral grounds why should we be forced to accept these people over others (in our region) who have been waiting for years? It is all about those who have money it seems – hardly an edifying decision.

    @ SM – “The reality is that it is people on the boats who are doing nothing wrong”. Of course they are. Consider the fact that these people are buying a passage of very short duration, which in any other circumstance, one would expect to cost a few hundred dollars. It is the illegality of that fare which makes it so expensive, and both the seller and the buyer are culpable. If you were to buy a stolen work of art, knowing it to be stolen, I think you would have difficulty proving you did nothing wrong.

    The other argument that is always given by refugee advocates is that boat people are fleeing from persecution etc. etc. Where is the persecution in Malaysia? Of course, they cannot look forward to all the creature comforts there which would be available to them in Oz, and Malaysia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. But it always seems to me, that said advocates are saying it is okay for people like the Burmese and others to stay in Malaysia and eke out an existence for years, but it is not okay for anyone who has money. Like all these people from the middle-east. That is totally immoral in my book.

    @ RZ – I have no idea what you are talking about. What evidence would you like about what? And what has a passport costing $20,000 in Europe got to do with anything? Sounds like a fake passport to me, and that is also illegal.

  4. CML

    Bluedog says there are 4.7 refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan alone. Are we going to take all of them? How much social unrest do you all you morons think even a fraction of that number will cause in this country? You don’t even seem to care about the consequences of your blind advocacy.

    And Michael Crook – How many of the 1600 people who were locked up by the Malaysian authorities were Burmese refugee pro-democracy demonstrators, and socialist party members who had “offended the king”? What a ridiculous thing to say. The only good thing about the so-called Malaysian solution is that we will settle 4,000 Burmese refugees who, before this policy was announced, had zero chance of ever having a life in Australia. I keep asking, and no one is answering, why are the boat people more important than the Burmese and other people who have already been granted refugee status and waited for years in Malaysia? The only obvious answer is that the former have money to pay people smugglers, so are therefore more acceptable than those who have nothing. Not good enough.
    I am also quite well educated, thank you Michael. I’ve been observing the socio/economic/political scene in this country for well over 50 years, so don’t try to tell me what to read, watch and say. It would be good if you could just grow up a little, and stop being so infantile!

    Marilyn – Why would the Burmese even bother to apply year after year when only a handful of them will ever be successful? They may be many things, but I don’t think they are stupid!

  5. fred

    Thanks for analysis and facts. Can you get Government to verify the figures? or explain what’s wrong with yours? You’d think that the numbers people at the AFR would crunch numbers – in the national interest, because this gross waste of resources to do the inhumane and unlawful thing to asylum seekers is nauseating. Can we continue to waste money like we are today on detention, stopping legal asylum seekers from landing etc?

    So sad to see some of the regulars above banging on about the hordes that will swamp us if we are not tough on border security. Take a good look at the passengers on those boats and assess their threat to national security! The system we have in place sorts the genuine from those coming for a very dangerous ride. Only confirmed refugees – adjudicated, mandated what ever technical term you prefer- are granted a visa to stay. If not genuine, with proven claims of persecution , we are entilted to turn them around. The very awkward and politically inconvenient truth is that those who dare to come by boat, are generallty genuine. Imagine if all those onshore applicants who came by air – outnumbering boaties 10:1 were genuine!

    Marlilyn is correct about the cherry picked refugees who come in our orderly refugee migrant program … the Burmese families arriving as part of the additional 1000 humanitarian entrants this year. We have no obligation to resettle them, but we chose to do so, good world citizen that we are. Bitterly ironic that we nevertheless chose to breach the international legal obligations we have to protect anyone who crosses our border and asks for our protection. Asylum seekers = obligation. Refugee settlers selected from the UNHCR pool= elective.

  6. Liz45

    @VENISE – Hi Venise!

    @SHEPHERDMARILYN – As usual, I support YOU not the hate mongers. Why don’t they get in a lather about the 40-60,000 people who could be here without a visa as we speak – they came by plane! What about protecting our borders at airports? It’s just beyond ridiculous that these people above just keep on trotting out their useless, stupid arguments! I refuse to acknowledge their presence any more!

    In recent days and weeks, lots of people have come out against mandatory detention. The most recent the AMA. There’s been the Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner’s Report; Amnesty, UNHCR, Professor and/or Dr Louise Newman, (the Govts own adviser on matters of psychiatric and psychological damage to and heath of asylum seekers), Human Rights Lawyers etc.

    I’m just not even going to respond directly to the hate mongers as they’re just destroyers of every human decent thought and action that I can think of!

    Why don’t they at least, ever, suggest, that our Govts have caused many of those fleeing their countries because we’ve shot/bombed/imprisoned/tortured their family members and/or friends, or remained silent while others did it – in our names! They sicken me!

    How did they come here? Or their ancestors? I’m not aboriginal. My ancestors arrived by boat! I’m a descendant of ‘boat people’? Fancy that? They were white and spoke English! Now, maybe that’s the difference! I have 16 different nationalities represented in my extended family – a couple came here seeking asylum! They’re all Australian citizens contributing far more than some of the morons above!

    Aboriginal people have been putting up with boat people for over 200 years! Some people respond to our invasion with ignorance too! At least these days the newcomers aren’t doing what the early invaders did – they’re not poisoning us or our food and water, introducing diseases, hanging us or putting us in chains and shackles!

    How many billions have we spent killing people in Iraq & Afghanistan, or conducting joint military activities with Sri Lanka, Burma and Indonesia? We’re helping prop up despots in too many countries, without showing any responsibility for those we drive out of their countries! What messages are we sending young people? HYPOCRISY on a huge scale for a start!

    Keep on with your good work Marilyn! Good for you! At least YOU and Pamela, and David Manne, Julian Burnside and others make up for the haters! I’m proud to say that a friend of mine has been working with and for asylum seekers for many years now. She makes me feel very proud too! You all make up for the haters!

  7. Liz45

    @DAVID HAND – Why don’t you go and read some of the Laws that our Govt is supposed to abide by. Most were made into LAW with the support of the Coalition. Read the article that Crikey put out about the Facts & Myths! The fact is, that we’re bound by the Laws that either our Fed Govt have made or those of an International nature that Australia is a signatory to, including the Declaration on the Rights of the Child which we re-committed to during the latter years of the Howard Govt. – not that you’d know.

    Julian Burnside, QC knows more about these Laws and our obligations than you obviously do – go and read some of his articles instead of just continually and boringly trotting out the same old arguments that have no resemblance to fact!

    If you hateful people spoke about using the Navy and weapons, you’d at least be a bit honest. You just fall short of this hateful stuff.

    If you don’t like it, you should be advocating a change, a big change in our foreign policy where we’re not a party to mass murder camouflaged by lies in order to invade, kill, maim and destroy countries and its citizens. We then take over their resources and administrations and cause awful poverty and destruction. We DO NOT abide by our responsibilities re the Geneva Conventions in relation to invaders and occupiers! For example, Iraq still does not have permanent fresh water, and probably not electricity to rely on either. The children of Iraq are malnourished and suffering from psychological damage – thanks to us, US/Britain etc!

    If you’re so b****y tired and/or bored, don’t put forward your hateful comments in the first instance!

    I can understand Marilyn’s frustration in particular. She puts forward the responsibilities Australia has by its own acceptances; she puts forward the stats that speak the truth; she puts forward excerpts from relevant Legislation; she’s out there being kind, compassionate and helpful to people in awful stress, and then she has to cop s**t. Would you abuse a doctor, nurse, priest or psychiatrist who works with traumatized people? Do you agree with having a special body where people who suffer trauma from wars etc can receive help? Do you even know that such places exist in many capital cities in Australia? Probably not!

    What do you or CML or Suzanne Blake or ????? do to help people in your communities? I don’t mean your paid jobs, I mean on a voluntary level? When was the last time you stood up for a stranger? Where it took some real guts to do it, regardless of the backlash you might receive? Probably never!

    You dish stuff out to people who genuinely act like true christians (I have no time for the others?) who stand up for those marginalised and tormented in our community! Like Marilyn! I hope that your hatred just fires her up to keep on going, not get depressed and lethargic as she’s entitled to feel!

  8. Liz45

    People fleeing war zones do NOT have documents. If they ask for ‘permission’ they’re killed in some countries like Iran. Iran has portable hanging platforms that they move around the country on ‘request’? They even execute young women whose only crimes were being gang raped! Their ID’s are removed during imprisonment or torture or surveillance by the secret police. Saddam Hussein operated in the same manner – not much has changed since then, in fact it’s worse. Afghanistan doesn’t process those who wish to flee. In fact, if they’re forced back there the Taliban/war lords etc murder them! Do some reading – PLEASE!

    @VENISE – Notice how when challenged on a particular point, those in question just ignore it. I’ve never seen them put forward one legal argument, unlike MARILYN who’s done it on a consistent basis for a very long time.

    The hateful and racist undertones, overtones are just too depressing for words. They don’t mind the thousands who lie in order to fly here (usually from english speaking countries?). They ignore the LAWS made by the Australian Parliament firstly when Howard was still in and agreed to by the Conservatives under a Rudd Govt. Convenient amnesia I call it? And, as DAVID HAND has shown, when all else fails they just lie or make stuff up!

    The weekend SMH has some good articles about those people who were on the TAMPA, and what happened to them.

    @SUZANNE BLAKE – ABBOTT & CO voted for the changes to the Legislation. They were represented on the Committee but only changed their views when they thought it was another wedge to use to out the govt, particularly after ABBOTT knifed Turnbull in the back!

    Being ignorant is no defence for your racist views! I suggest that you go back to school and learn how to spell before taking the high moral ground on others who show compassion and intelligence! Bigotry and hatred is a terminal disease – it kills from within first, taking those of different colours and cultural backgrounds with you. You’ve probably never even spoken to an asylum seeker or heard their stories let alone seen their scars etc – both inside and out!

    The facts are, that we have responsibilities to people seeking asylum regardless of your hatred and bigotry. We should either get on with it or announce that we’re tearing the Legislation up – at least that would be honest!

    But no, we proudly boast about our humanity and sense of justice ad nauseum, and then act in the opposite manner. Shameful!

    I understand that we are going to ‘import’ workers for our needs. What is wrong with teaching asylum seekers English and employing them? Could it be that those employing outside labour could exploit them more if they come here via 457 visas or the equivalent? No! That would be racist wouldn’t it?

    I’ve read where even those who are accepted as needing protection are subjected to awful racism by employers, some ‘neighbours’ etc? We’re a wonderful mob aren’t we?

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