How much are you, the Australian taxpayer, paying to keep desperate people in hellish camps indefinitely, where they are denied access to basic medical care, live in constant fear of regular rape and sexual abuse, and provided hope only that they might be released from their island prison and sent to a Third World country lacking in infrastructure and run by an authoritarian government whose own human rights abuses are well documented?

The answer, according to Monday’s Senate committee hearing into the conditions in the asylum seeker detention centre in Nauru, is $645,726 per asylum seeker during an 11-month period, or almost $2000 a day. It would be vastly cheaper to give each asylum seeker free housing, enrol each one in public school, or even house each one in prison.

In the 11 months between July 2014, and the end of May 2015, the Australian government spent $409,390,722 in operational costs for running the asylum seeker detention centre in Nauru, including $22,354,520 in medical costs. There were 634 asylum seekers in the detention centre at the end of May, equating to a cost of $645,726 for the 11 months, or about $1927 per asylum seeker per day.

If instead of keeping asylum seekers in detention on Nauru the government decided to imprison them in the most expensive prison system in Australia, it would cost less than a quarter as much. According to 2013-2014 statistics from the Productivity Commission, housing inmates in the ACT, the most expensive jurisdiction in Australia, costs $394 per inmate per day.

And if the government wanted to give asylum seeker children a decent education instead of forcing them to live in unsafe conditions with sexual predators, that would also be much cheaper. According to 2011-2012 data from the New South Wales government, it spent $14,123 per full-time primary student per year and $16,749 per full-time secondary student. This equates to around $84 per day.

The government could also afford to give each asylum seeker free, normal accommodation on the mainland and pocket more than $400 million in change. According to the 2011-2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures (the most recent available), Australians spend an average of $38 per day on housing.

Department of Immigration and Border Protection Secretary Michael Pezzullo indicated that unless there was evidence to the contrary, the government was getting value for money in detaining asylum seekers in Nauru for the estimated $1927 per day cost.

“I am not in a position to agree or otherwise,” he told the committee. “As to whether I am comfortable with it or not, that is a function of whether we are discharging the implementation of the government’s policy and doing it on a value-for-money basis. My contention is that we are — which is, no doubt, subject to the discussion we will have over the next hour or so. Is it lawful, ethical and value-for-money expenditure? Unless I get presented with evidence to the contrary, the answer is yes.”

Transfield Services said that it was receiving $1.2 billion for its 20-month contract with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for running the detention centre.

Chair of the committee Labor Senator Alex Gallacher indicated that the committee would be closely examining why the expenses had not been referred to the Public Works Committee.

“I raise that extraordinary per capita expenditure because we as a committee have decided that there has not been proper transparency in acquitting taxpayers’ funds by the lack of referral to the Public Works Committee. That is a matter that will be mentioned in our deliberations, but it is a separate matter,” he said.

Infographics by Crikey intern Joely Mitchell

Peter Fray

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