Kasian Wililo is a NSW resident with a wife, two young children and a full time job. He’s also a former detainee of Baxter Detention Centre. In May this year Mr Wililo’s wife Emily opened a letter from the Immigration Department. It was a bill for $161,684.60.

The letter stated that the sum was the total expense incurred by Mr Wililo’s stay in Baxter — with an order for the sum to be paid in 30 days (read here and here):

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Mr Wililo is not alone. As of the 30 June 2008, there were 386 persons with active detention debts amounting to $7,705,576, according to Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) spokesperson Sandi Logan.

Any former detainee not granted a Permanent Protection Visa or Humanitarian Visa is billed for their time in detention, and any costs associated with their subsequent deportation.

According to Logan, “… the department has a standardised cost charged per day for detention across all mainland facilities. $125.40 a day is now the standardised rate charged across all mainland centres. The daily maintenance amount is never more than the actual cost of detention incurred by the Commonwealth.”

The overall detention costs include the cost of moving the detainee between different detention locations and the daily maintenance cost of detention, made up of expenses such as food and accommodation.

After fleeing Tanzania, Kasian Wililo arrived in Australia as an asylum seeker in 2002. He was held at the Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne from Jan 2003 and then Baxter (Port Augusta) detention centre from March 2004 to June 2005.

Mr Wililo was refused a permanent protection visa, but at the Immigration Minister’s intervention was granted an onshore temporary spouse visa last September, after marrying Emily Ackland. Kasian met Emily while she was volunteering at Maryibynong detention centre, and they were eventually married inside Baxter Detention Centre.

Mr Wililo is still waiting on approval for a permanent spousal visa. His May invoice stated that his outstanding debt would mean the criteria to be met in order to obtain a permanent visa would be “affected adversely.”

Crikey understands that there are a handful of couples in Kasian and Emily’s situation — former detainees who have married Australian citizens and been granted temporary spousal visas only to be subsequently billed for their detention stay, with permanent visa approval subject to payment.

In April the Commonwealth Ombudsman Professor John McMillan questioned the value of making asylum seekers pay for their time in detention.

“This outstanding debt impacts on Kasian’s future opportunity to become an Australian citizen, as well as re-entry into this country should we leave for any reason, like to go to Africa to visit his father suffering from AIDS,” Emily Wililo told Crikey. “We also have two young children to care for and cannot afford to begin to repay the debt.”

“This is outrageous on many levels, but most of all because of the traumatic nature of his detention; to be billed for this has been devastating, confusing, and infuriating,” says Mrs Wililo.

DIAC spokesperson Sandi Logan told Crikey: “The power to waive debts to the Commonwealth rests with the Minister for Finance and Deregulation and his delegate (in the Department of Finance and Deregulation). Each case is unique and decided on its individual merits …”

“The department is mindful of the amount of the debt and has offered the option of a repayment plan, so the individual can service his debt,” says Logan.

Mrs Wililo confirmed to Crikey that the couple had been offered a payment plan — “$4000 up front and enter into a payment plan of the debt plus interest.”

Logan also told Crikey that approximately 95% of detention debts are eventually written off.

“The power to waive a debt to the Commonwealth is … vested in the Minister for Finance and Deregulation (Finance) and his delegates,” says Logan.

“The department is able to assist Mr Wililo to prepare a submission for consideration by a delegate within Finance. However it should be noted that an application for waiver of a debt will only be successful where it is found that there is a moral obligation on the Commonwealth to waive the debt,” says Logan.

The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans told Crikey this morning:

I am aware of the difficult circumstances and inequities that the detention debt policy sometimes produces. I have acknowledged publicly that the detention debt system is in need of overhaul and have sought comprehensive advice on this complex issue from the Department.

It has been long-standing departmental policy that persons released from immigration detention after the grant of a Protection or Humanitarian visa are not pursued for their immigration debt on public interest grounds. But we recognise that an inequity may sometimes occur when a person receives a visa other than a Protection or Humanitarian visa, despite having made protection or humanitarian claims, and therefore are still pursued for their detention debt. This is an area that the Department has been asked to explore.

Any changes to the detention debt framework will be part of the Government’s broad strategic overhaul of immigration detention policy.