Kasian Wililo and his wife Emily have been sweating on a bill for $161,684.60 since May last year. Care of the immigration department, the sum was the total expense incurred by Mr Wililo’s stay in Baxter Detention Centre in 2005.

Evelyn and Masoud Shams currently have an outstanding Commonwealth debt for Masoud’s detention from 2000 — 2004 of $257,225.10. Plus $4,857.50 in legal costs.

Safe to assume both couples, along with many other former detention detainees, are taking a great interest in the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009 that is currently being debated in Canberra’s Lower House.

Shadow Immigration Spokesperson Sharman Stone today argued that the bill should be defeated.

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Stone argued that billing former detention detainees “serves a very important purpose” and that abolishing the measure would be “very unwise”.

Stone labelled the image of former detainees laden with hundreds of thousands of debt being unable to move on with their lives as a “furphy”. She argued that the Australian taxpayer should not pay for the detainment of illegal fishers, asylum seekers who do not have a valid claim and people smugglers.

“Australia is the only country in the world which charges innocent people the cost of locking them up,” Julian Burnside QC told Crikey late last year.

The government’s flagged amendment could change all that for most former detainees. As outlined in the Migration Amendment Bill:

The purpose of the Bill is to amend the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) (Migration Act) to remove the requirement that certain persons held in immigration detention in Australia be liable for the costs of their detention. The Bill would also extinguish all immigration detention debts outstanding at the time of commencement of the legislation.

The Greens have been unanimous in their opposition to billing detention detainees for years. Crikey understands that Family First Senator Steve Fielding was undecided as late as yesterday, but The Sydney Morning Herald today reports that he will now support the bill, “I am 100 per cent opposed to any policy that would leave refugees with a debt hanging over their head,” he said.

Initially, it seemed that the Coalition would also support the bill. As the Migration Amendment backgrounder states:

“…it is significant to note that the membership of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, which recommended that detention debt be abolished, includes several Coalition MPs, including the Opposition spokesperson for Immigration, the Hon. Dr Sharman Stone MP. Dr Stone become a member of the Committee on 10 November, some three weeks before the Committee’s report was released.”

But in early June the coalition announced that it intended to oppose the bill in the Senate. Stone said abolishing detention debts would be “another advertisement” to people smugglers.

Since then, Stone has continued to reiterate, “We don’t believe that we need any more signals to people smugglers to make offers to asylum seekers even more likely to be taken up.”

But as we publish, the member for Kooyong Petro Georgiou has told the House that he supports the bill, saying “… this bill is another step towards closing a dark chapter in our history.”

And so, in the shadow of Utegate and a looming split over ETS, the coalition is now divided over the issue of abolishing detention debt, a bill many believe to be a no-brainer, not only because it’s considered to be inhumane, but because it doesn’t work.

As the Explanatory Memorandum notes:

During 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 immigration detention debt raised was $54.3 million of which $1.8 million (or 3.3 per cent) was recovered. $48.2 million was written off by the Department as uneconomical to pursue and $4 million was waived.

As Immigration Minister Chris Evans has noted in the past:

It seems that the cost of administering the scheme to raise the debt either outweighs or is close to a break-even point in terms of the money brought in. It does seem to be a crazy situation to run a system to raise debt when it costs us as much to raise the debt as it does to generate income from it.

The bill further states:

The new arrangements will help to minimise the costs to the Australian community of the detention, maintenance and removal or deportation of unlawful non-citizens.

The Joint Standing Committee on Migration also found that there was no evidence that people were less inclined to come to Australia because they may incur a debt.

Insiders have told Crikey that senators most likely to cross the floor over this issue are Victorian Senator Judith Troeth and South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that “as many as 15 Opposition members were prepared to speak out against the bill ….”

In the meantime, GetUp is currently gathering together a delegation to travel to Canberra to lobby on behalf of former detainees.

Stone argued today that “now is not the time to give people smugglers another boost, another angle to sell their passage through the back door… Those who cannot afford to pay or do not have the criminal contacts should not be put to the back of the queue…”

Georgiou, voice cracking, followed up with, “… I welcome the abolishment of billing detainees … the most obvious reason for repealing it is that it has totally failed in its objective. I’ve searced for evidence that it works as a deterrent, I have not found it”.

There is simply no rational basis on which to retain this measure.

…How could …the department have ever believe that refugees could repay these debts?

…The policy has failed abysmally to achieve its stated objectives.

..imposing these charges is part of the strategy of dehumanising these people…”

Tune into APAC for what should prove to be a lively debate this afternoon, one that doesn’t involve pretend e-mails, shifty public servants and utes.