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    the razor wire of Woomera - photo taken during the 2004 Easter protests at the camp

The financial cost of Immigration Detention

"The current system of mandatory detention and the Pacific Solution is economic irrationalism at its worst. The administrative reasons for detention are false and the costs far outweigh the purported benefits. The system has been denounced by major NGOs, churches, lawyers, medical bodies, community groups and concerned citizens."

"Many proposals for alternatives have been put forward. They not only bring Australia in-line with our international obligations, they cost far less in financial and human-impact terms."

Below is one of those proposals, prepared by Kate Gauthier, a researcher for Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway in May 2004.

The financial cost of Immigration Detention

Prepared by Kate Gauthier
Researcher for Senator Aden Ridgeway
May 2004
Adapted from the RAR website

Executive Summary

The current system of mandatory detention and the Pacific Solution is economic irrationalism at its worst. The administrative reasons for detention are false and the costs far outweigh the purported benefits. The system has been denounced by major NGOs, churches, lawyers, medical bodies, community groups and concerned citizens.

Many proposals for alternatives have been put forward. They not only bring Australia in-line with our international obligations, they cost far less in financial and human-impact terms.

Alternate proposals to mandatory detention would provide significant funds that could be spent on health and education programs.

  Saving Per Year
End mandatory detention $ 42 000 000
End Pacific Solution $ 78 000 000
total per year $120 000 000

In addition, over $ 230 000 000 has been wasted on building detention centres in the past 3 years (MPS 33/2002, Minister for Immigration).

Border Security

Border security is important part of the defence of any nation. However this does not have to be won at the expense of human rights, the deaths of refugees and the destruction of our international reputation.

Spending on border protection should be clearly defined into separate programs of national defence and those that target illegal fishing, drug and people smuggling.

  • Turning boats with women and children away does not give us national security;

  • Detaining people in the Pacific Solution does not give us national security;

  • Breaching United Nations conventions does not give us national security;

  • Holding asylum seekers in desert facilities does not give us national security;

  • Denying refugees permanent protection does not give us national security.

Its time for some clear solutions that will grant actual national security, while upholding the Australian principals of democracy, freedom and a fair-go.

Detention

When we look at the rationale for prolonged immigration detention, there are a few reasons given.

1. Stop people absconding
The majority of asylum seekers, those who arrive in Australia on a visa and then apply for asylum onshore, are allowed to live in the community without health or security checks. They are not considered at risk for absconding even though the proportion of those found to be refugees in need of protection is much lower than those who arrive without a visa i.e. boat arrivals.

Since the majority of asylum seekers do not have to be detained, it is illogical to argue that those who have arrived without a visa (and are more likely to be found to be refugees) need to be detained.

2. Ensure people are available for interviews during processing
There is very little interaction with DIMIA and asylum seekers during the processing period. People requesting visas have a vested interest in ensuring they are available for interviews. It is ridiculous to say that detention for four years is necessary for the purpose of conducting three 1 hour interviews.

3. Send a clear message to people smugglers
This presumes that detention will be seen as a punishment for using a people smuggler. Under the Australian constitution, only the courts are allowed to administer punitive detention. Therefore if we are "sending a clear message to the people smugglers" we are in breach of our constitutional separation of powers.

Alternatives

Alternatives to mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals have been put forward by many NGOs and community organisations. A policy that would provide security, ability to detain and deport visa overstayers while ensuring our compliance with international conventions is the following:

  • Maintain Villawood and Maribyrnong facilities for visa overstayers and criminal deportees.

  • In a separate appropriate facility monitored by NGO's, accommodate asylum seekers for a 4-8 week health and security screening, after which they would be released into the community

  • After release, asylum seekers would be granted financial and casework assistance

  • All asylum seekers who enter Australian waters should be processed onshore

  • The above would enable the scrapping of Baxter, Port Hedland, Darwin, Christmas Island, Manus Island and Nauru facilities.

End Mandatory Detention - Provide Community Accommodation

Once adult asylum seekers have passed necessary security and health checks, they should be released into the community. These checks can usually be completed within 4-8 weeks.

Current Costs

The current estimate for detention is approximately $87m per year for accommodation, staff and other administrative costs:

  • Immigration detention centre costs - average over 2003-04

  • Approx detainee days for 2003-04 = $400,400.00 (average 1100 detainees at any given time x 364 days) In 2003-04 asylum seekers generally made up 50% of detainee population.

  • Detention costs DIMIA between $111 to $725 per person per day.

  • A costs estimate for expected numbers next year would be 87 million dollars.

  population daily cost annual cost
Baxter 280 310 $31 595 200
Port Hedland 100 286 $10 410 400
Villawood 600 111 $24 242 400
Maribyrnong 60 248 $5 416 320
Perth 10 589 $2 143 960
Christmas Island    50 725  $13 195 000
Total 1100   $87 003 280
Source: Additional Estimates Hearing: 17 February 2004; Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs Portfolio; Situation Reports from GSL site summaries & DIMIA

Source: Additional Estimates Hearing: 17 February 2004; Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs Portfolio; Situation Reports from GSL site summaries & DIMIA

Alternatives

The Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme is a program already in place to provide a living allowance and casework to eligible asylum seekers in the community.

This program could be extended to all asylum seekers after release from health and security checks. This program costs $44 per day (1999-2000 and 2000-01, DIMIA Fact Sheet 62, Assistance for Asylum Seekers in Australia (November 2001) and 2001-02 Australian Red Cross Annual Report, p13 and p66). Forms of security such as used for parole releases cost approximately $8 per day (RGS 2003, Table 7A.7), so the total cost would be $52 per day.

The yearly cost for alternate programs would be 44.9 million dollars per year:

Visa overstayer detention $32 000 000
Asylum seeker 4-8 week detention for security checks $3,700 000
Asylum seeker community release for processing $9,200 000
Total $44,900 000
Savings * $42,100 000
* not including capital costs of facilities

Note: The Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme "assists eligible asylum seekers living in the community to meet basic income support and health needs while they wait for their application for refugee status to be determined." Red Cross Annual Report 2001-02, p13

Costs are $24 per day for income assistance, and $20 per day for Red Cross casework service.

Currently, eligible asylum seekers are only allowed access to this program if they have lodged a protection visa application for more than 6 months.

In 2002-03, the Scheme assisted 1,865 clients at a cost of $9.566 million

End Pacific Solution and Manus Island

As of February 2004, 170 million dollars has been spent on the Nauru and Manus Island facilities (Immigration Estimates 17 February 2004). To allow the centre to continue Nauru has also been granted aid packages of 41.5 million dollars for 2001-03 (AusAID Pacifc Program Profile 2003-04 pg 28), and 22.5 million dollars for 2003-05 (Media Release, Minister for Foreign Affairs, 5 March 2004).

This brings the average yearly cost to 84 million dollars

Onshore community accommodation costs would have been 6 million dollars per year, saving 78 million dollars last year alone.

Bridging Visas

People on some of the bridging visa classes (e.g. BV-E class) face conditions that force them into the private charity system, reliant on NGO's or ad-hoc community groups for basic needs such as food and shelter.

  • 95% of people on BV-E's have no access to medicare or work rights (Justice For Asylum Seekers 2003)

  • 68% are homeless or present high risk of becoming homeless

  • There are approximately 8000 people on BV-E's

This cost of supporting these people is already being paid by the welfare sector and community groups. The Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme should be extended to all people on bridging visas who are applying for protection.

Offshore Humanitarian Program

There has been an increase in the numbers of visas for the refugee and humanitarian programs, with matching funding increases for the settlement services provided to those categories.

While the Australian Democrats welcome this positive step, it is overshadowed by other areas of the Immigration portfolio which fall far short of international law and conventions. Australia cannot repair our negative reputation in refugee policy by offering a mere 2000 extra places to the people "we choose come here and the manner in which they come."

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