Next year (2011-12) the government will spend $709 million in asylum-seeker detention and related costs. This is up $147 million on this year (2010-11). This is about $90,000 for every asylum seeker who comes to Australia.
The abolition of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, which means mainly boat people, could save between $150 million and $425 million per annum.
In chiding the Chinese about their human rights, Julia Gillard said that “we believe (in human rights) … it is us. It’s an Australian value”. How can she say this when we have 6819 asylum seekers in detention in Australia who are entitled to our legal protection and hopefully, our compassion. They have this human right because in 1954 the Menzies government brought into Australian law the Refugee Convention of 1951 followed by the protocol of 1967. Very few have committed any crime. They are imprisoned and humiliated because we mistakenly believe they are a threat. It is also good politics to act tough. The riots and burnings are a symptom of the problem. The problem is inhumane and expensive government policies and a cynical Opposition barking at the government’s heels.
Hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved through ending mandatory detention and allocating funds to community detention by supporting NGOs such as the Red Cross and others. Such a policy still requires mandatory processing to establish identity and conduct health and security checks. But once those checks are conducted most asylum seekers should be released into the community. Community alternatives are more humane and can be tailored to the security needs of each person.
What does our heavy reliance on mandatory detention cost? In March this year, there were 6819 persons in detention; 4292 were in immigration detention centres, mainly Christmas Island (1831) and Curtin (1197). The balance were in various forms of residential, transit or community detention. Let’s assume that say, 3500 could be moved out of Immigration Detention Centres to community detention, leaving 792 in detention centres awaiting removal for breach of visa conditions, rejected claims or security or character risks.
The UNHCR in their research series in April this year on Legal and Protection Policy (page 85) shows the savings in costs in switching from mandatory to community detention. It found that in 2005-06, the potential savings per person per day in Australia ranged from $333 to $117, depending on assumptions about the particular form of mandatory detention (e.g. remote facility) or community detention.
Given say 3500 persons who could be moved into community detention, the savings per annum to the taxpayer could range from $425 million. (3500 x $333 x 365 days) to $150 million (3500 x $117 x 365 days). This estimate is based on conservative assumptions. The costs are for 2005-06, so we could add another 10%. Neither do the costs include the delayed mental and other health costs that mandatory detention triggers. They also do not include the large-scale capital program the government has foolishly undertaken to build more and more immigration detention centres and facilities.
The case for change is compelling, not just on grounds of cost.
- The UNHCR in its Legal and Protection Policy series (April 2011) says “pragmatically, no empirical evidence is available to give credence to the assumption that the threat of being detained deters irregular migration’. It also found that 90% or more of asylum seekers … complied with release conditions”.
- The report commissioned by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) from the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of NSW in November 2009 said “conditional release programs — such as supervision and bail — have proven a cost-effective way to minimise the detention of non-citizens and ensure their compliance”.
- Australia is quite exceptional with its mandatory detention policy.
- More than 80% of those in detention in Australia will be recognised anyway as genuine refugees.
- It varies over time, but the Australian Parliamentary Library advises that in most years 70% to 97% of asylum seekers come by air. It was 84% in 2008-09 and 53% in 2009-10. Yet very few of them are detained. In March this year, 6507 boat arrivals were in detention, but only 56 were unauthorised air arrivals. With so many coming by air, many of whom are Chinese, it is noteworthy that they are living in the community. Somehow we remain fixated on the relatively small number of boat people.
- Further, by keeping almost all boat arrivals in detention, we are penalising the most deserving. Boat arrivals have “success” rates in refugee determination of about 80% while for arrivals by air, it is 20%.
- In keeping boat people behind razor wire and tear gassing when deemed appropriate, we quite wrongly confirm in the public mind that these people, who have escaped war and persecution, are illegals, criminals and a danger to the community. They are nothing of the sort.
- In 1988, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission argued that the policy of mandatory detention breached international human rights standards.
- Professor Patrick McGorry has said that international detention centres are “factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder”.
- In February this year, the Commonwealth Ombudsman proposed to DIAC that a person who has received a positive Refugee Status Assessment should in a timely manner be released from immigration detention on Christmas Island and be placed in community detention on the Australian mainland subject to strict reporting conditions.
We are wasting money on a trivial problem. As an island at the end of the line, we have few asylum seekers compared with other countries. The government has failed to explain or manage the issue.
Despite its harsh treatment of boat people, which did not change asylum flows to Australia, the Howard government showed what could be done to ease mandatory detention. Starting in 2005, the Community Care pilot was successful in almost every respect — cases were resolved more quickly, it was cheaper and absconding was minimal. This program was transitioned into Community Assistance Support in 2009. Such community-based processing and treatment of asylum seekers resulted in better compliance and better outcomes for everyone. Where given the opportunity, community-based programs have proven a much better method, not just because it respects human rights, but also because it is cheaper and faster.
There are some encouraging signs that the government is changing course on mandatory detention. It must move decisively to end the mandatory detention that the Hawke government introduced. Unfortunately the government’s timidity, policy confusion and the unscrupulous behaviour of the opposition stand in the way of sensible reform.
*John Mendaue is a board director of the Centre for Policy Development and was formerly a departmental secretary under Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam. This is the fifth in a series of post-budget reports from the Centre for Policy Development.