Tampa 2007: The Cost and The Bill
In September 2003 Project SafeCom convened a public weekend forum at the University of Western Australia under the title 'The Cost, the Carnage and The Bill'. Now, on the sixth anniversary of the Tampa standoff, A Just Australia and Oxfam have released their report 'A price too high', while even the last of those asylum seekers who were rescued by MS Tampa is only just getting out of the woods and out of the quagmire of the political ramifications of the ensuing 'Pacific Solution.
IMAGE: Tampa's Captain Arne Rinnan sailed into Australian waters with his deck filled with Afghan refugees in 2001, causing a fury with Australian PM John Howard on international level, and resulting in Project SafeCom being established as one of the furious voices against the Australian government's treatment of asylym seekers and refugees.
According to the AJA/Oxfam Report, 'The Government has spent $1 billion - more than $500,000 a person - to process fewer than 1700 asylum seekers on Nauru, Christmas Island and Manus Island. By comparison, to process 1700 asylum seekers for 90 days each at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney would have cost around $35 million - around 3.5 per cent of the cost of processing them offshore.'
What's on this page:
a price too high: the cost of Australia's approach to asylum seekers
In the six years since the Tampa crisis in August 2001, Australian taxpayers have spent more than $1 billion to process less than 1,700 asylum seekers in offshore locations - or more than half a million dollars per person. Most, if not all, of these asylum seekers have paid a substantial personal toll through poor mental and physical health and wellbeing. There have also been detrimental impacts on Australia's democratic and legal system, Australia's regional relationships and the international system of protection of refugees and asylum seekers.
This report - a joint project of A Just Australia and Oxfam Australia, with support from Oxfam Novib in the Netherlands - analyses the costs of the policy known as the "Pacific Solution". It critiques government claims that the policy is an efficient and effective means of achieving refugee protection and immigration control.
The costs examined in the report are human costs, financial costs, cost to Australian rule of law and democratic system, costs to the region and the cost to the international system of protection.
The final tally of financial costs is difficult to obtain as Australia's offshore processing policies are not neatly encapsulated as a single program, however they include:
Cost to Australia's legal and democratic system
Regional cost - the cost to Australia's aid program:
Cost to international system of protection
Based on this study, A Just Australia and Oxfam Australia believe there is a need for urgent reform of Australia's asylum seeker policies.
We believe it is critical that the Australian government:
We also call on the European Union and other developed countries contemplating the introduction of offshore processing regimes to reconsider introducing such policies, in light of the costs and inefficiencies of the Australian policy, the threats it poses to the international refugee protection regime and the challenges it presents to international burden-sharing of refugee protection.
'Solution' branded a costly flop
EVERY asylum seeker processed in offshore centres such as Nauru under the Federal Government's controversial Pacific Solution has cost taxpayers more than half a million dollars, a report says.
The report, by aid organisation Oxfam Australia and refugee advocacy group A Just Australia, says the "flawed system" fuelled mental illness in refugees, failed to uphold Australia's commitment under international law and squandered taxpayers' money.
It says that since the Pacific Solution was introduced six years ago, the Government has spent $1 billion - more than $500,000 a person - to process fewer than 1700 asylum seekers on Nauru, Christmas Island and Manus Island.
"By comparison, the latest estimates from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship suggest that to process 1700 asylum seekers for 90 days each at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney would have cost around $35 million - around 3.5 per cent of the cost of processing them offshore," it says.
Manus Island in Papua New Guinea had been empty since 2004, but was maintained at an annual cost of $2 million in readiness for new asylum seekers.
Under the Pacific Solution - introduced following the Tampa crisis in the lead-up to the 2001 federal election - asylum seekers intercepted before they reach the Australian mainland are processed offshore.
The report says the policy creates a two-tiered processing system, one for people within Australia and one for people offshore - which opens the way for discrimination and breaches of the international Refugee Convention.
Australia has said it is not obligated to accept asylum seekers processed offshore even if they are found to be genuine refugees.
"The Pacific Solution is neither value for money nor humane," Oxfam Australia executive director Andrew Hewett said.
The report, A Price Too High, says medical studies, Immigration Department figures and testimony from staff and former asylum seekers on Nauru painted a shocking picture of psychological damage for detainees.
Cases included 45 people engaged in a serious hunger strike and incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide as a result of prolonged isolation in offshore detention centres, where access to mental health services were limited or non-existent.
The report documents long delays in resettling people found to be refugees, compounding post-traumatic stress disorder for asylum seekers.
The report says the Pacific Solution failed to uphold Australia's commitment under international law, which forbids sending a refugee back to a place where they might face persecution. It recommends that the Pacific Solution be abolished and all asylum seekers processed on the mainland.
Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and Queen's counsel Julian Burnside will address a Tampa Day commemoration tomorrow at the north end of the Sandridge Bridge at 1pm.
Pacific solution a rip-off, says Oxfam
THE so-called Pacific solution for asylum seekers is a taxpayer rip-off that fuels mental illness among refugees and should be scrapped, a new report claims.
The findings are from an analysis by aid organisation Oxfam Australia and refugee advocacy group A Just Australia released on the sixth anniversary of the arrival of the Tampa and its cargo of asylum seekers rescued from the Indian Ocean.
The report analyses the financial, legal, human and regional cost of the so-called Pacific solution which sent asylum seekers to offshore detention centres.
The solution was developed by the Government in 2001 in a crackdown on unauthorised immigration and to try to stem the numbers of asylum seekers accessing Australian courts in an increasingly costly litigation process.
But the report said taxpayers have spent more than $1 billion since 2001 to process fewer than 1700 asylum seekers in Nauru, Manus Island and Christmas Island - a cost of more than $500,000 per person.
"By comparison, the latest estimates from (the immigration department) suggest that to process 1700 asylum seekers for 90 days each at Villawood detention centre in Sydney would have cost around $35 million - around 3.5 per cent of the cost of processing them offshore," the report said.
Most detainees have spent two years on Nauru, it said, with some being held for up to six years and many developing psychological illnesses in detention.
"Most, if not all, of these asylum seekers have paid a substantial personal toll through poor mental and physical health and wellbeing," the report said.
"There have also been detrimental impacts on Australia's democratic and legal system, Australia's regional relationships and the international system of protection of refugees and asylum seekers."
Oxfam and A Just Australia recommended offshore processing be abolished.
"We believe it is critical that the Australian government end the Pacific solution and the offshore detention and processing of asylum-seekers on Nauru, Manus Island and Christmas Island," the document said.
"Instead, asylum-seekers reaching excised areas of Australia by boat should be processed in mainland Australia in the same way as other asylum-seekers."
The report demanded an audit into the full financial costs of running offshore detention centres, and the scrapping of arrangements that allow refugees to be resettled in the US and other third countries.
The report also called for an inquiry into whether offshore processing and the excision of islands from Australia's migration zone had decreased the number of refugee boat arrivals, as claimed by the Government.
The Federal Government is expected to open a new detention centre on Christmas Island later this year, built at a cost of about $400 million.
Labor vows to end offshore processing
ABC ONLINE NEWS
Deputy Opposition Leader Julia Gillard says Labor will end all offshore processing of asylum seekers if it wins the next federal election.
Oxfam Australia and A Just Australia have completed a report which labels the Government's 'Pacific Solution' a failure.
The report says offshore processing has cost Australian taxpayers $1 billion and mainland detention is 3.5 per cent the cost of offshore detention.
It also says it has found offshore detention to be inefficient, unaccountable and has fuelled mental health problems of detainees.
Ms Gillard says she is concerned by the report.
"We have committed to ending the so called Pacific Solution, we would not have offshore processing in Manus Island and Nauru," she said.
"I know the Oxfam report has gone through and tried to cost what all of that has cost the nation - it's not part of our vision for the future."
She says taxpayers will be concerned about the report.
"I think Australians, when the Pacific Solution started, probably looked a little bit in wonderment at it," she said.
"As the information has come through, and obviously Oxfam has now played a role in that too, it's been clear to Australian taxpayers that this has been a very costly way of dealing with this issue."
Time to remember the Tampa debacle
I WANT to take you back six years. To Saturday, August 25, 2001. Back when Australia was still shaping as a model of international citizenship. Back when we thought the rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation in the late 1990s was just a racist hiccup that had been usurped by the thousands of people who marched across bridges for reconciliation and Cathy Freeman's triumph at the Sydney Olympics.
Back when we believed we were on the verge of something truly GREAT here in the lucky country. Back when Prime Minister John Howard was facing re-election and was in serious trouble in the polls.
Just 24 hours later everything changed.
On Sunday, August 26, 2001 the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa sailed - in accordance with ancient seafaring traditions - to the aid of 438 people whose boat had sunk in international waters en route to Australia.
After the successful rescue of what were mostly terrified Hazara Afghans fleeing the Taliban, Captain Arne Rinnan headed for the nearest landing point of Christmas Island and radioed for medical help.
The Australian Government sent the SAS instead and for nine days those people sat on the decks of the Tampa while Canberra stared down international condemnation and demands to allow them ashore.
The Tampa was eventually diverted to Nauru as part of the Government's newly enshrined "Pacific Solution", prompting then immigration minister Philip Ruddock to say that the authors of the International Refugee Convention wouldn't want the convention seen as "the enabling tool for organised crime" as some kind of defence for his Government's shirking of its international responsibilities.
Two weeks after the Tampa incident, two hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Centre in New York.
The Prime Minister seized the opportunity to turn border protection into national security.
Less than a month later, on October 8, HMAS Adelaide went to the rescue of another sinking fishing boat, this one in Australian waters close to Christmas Island. It was full of mostly Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers who became political scapegoats in Peter Reith's thoroughly disproved "children overboard" scandal.
Eleven days later, 353 people - also Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers en route to Australia - drowned when their vessel, known as the SIEV (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel) X sank in what was reported to be international waters off Java.
Much conjecture remains about the precise location of the SIEV X, how much the Australian Government knew of its circumstances and how much - or how little - it did to assist its drowning passengers.
But one thing is ironclad. By the time John Howard went to Australian voters a few weeks later on November 11, 2001, Tampa had become a verb, an adjective and a noun synonymous with the darkest of victories - characterised by Howard's acceptance speech "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come".
Time lines are important, especially as we are in a similar one now. They remind us of how quickly - and how dramatically - things can be manipulated and wedged for political advantage.
In three short months in late 2001, the Howard Government succeeded in recognising a political opportunity existed in a new "Muslim" peril that fused the asylum seeker issue to the threat of terrorism. Since then there have been many dark victories. Our international standing as a good international citizen has been much diminished by the Howard Government's hardline position on asylum seekers and our hypocritical involvement in the same conflicts (in Iraq and Afghanistan) from which these people fled.
In the process, the names of wrongly detained Cornelia Rau and illegally deported Vivian Alvarez Solon became synonymous with systemic flaws in Immigration Department procedures.
It is important to remember these things happened in this country. And it is important that we honour the lives lost and those irreparably damaged in the process.
Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of the Tampa's rescue of a boatload of people who were making unimaginably desperate journeys from persecution to a land of promise. Of the 438, only 28 made it to Australia, after years on Nauru. New Zealand welcomed most of them - almost immediately - the rest went to Scandinavia and North America.
Lest we forget.
Tracee Hutchison is a Melbourne writer and broadcaster.
Long wait for asylum in no-man's land
SIX years after the Tampa affair sparked a radical crackdown on illegal boat arrivals, 82 Sri Lankan and seven Burmese asylum seekers face an uncertain future on the tiny island of Nauru they describe as "no-man's land".
Unlike detainees on the mainland, whose claims must be assessed within 90 days, those processed on Nauru can be left languishing for years.
For one Sri Lankan asylum seeker, who has been on Nauru since his boat was intercepted by the Australian navy in international waters in February, the waiting is the hardest part.
The 34-year-old man told The Age he had been interviewed by immigration officers in April but was told they did not know when his case would be decided.
"People are worried ... they are thinking they will lose their future," he said. "Time is wasting here. We want to make a big future in our life."
The man, who was a seafood exporter in Colombo, said he fled Sri Lanka after his business partner was shot and he had been beaten by unknown assailants. He said wealthy businessmen were often kidnapped and he feared for his life.
The UN refugee agency said in its December 2006 report that Tamils in Colombo were vulnerable to abductions.
Refugee advocate Susan Metcalfe, who has spent the past month on Nauru, said everyone was missing their home and family. "How can it be fair to leave these people here without telling them what will happen?" she said.
One group of more than 50 asylum seekers spent more than 3½ years on Nauru. Half were resettled in 2005 after a mental health team warned that several were suicidal.
"Today the same question, 'How long will I be here?', is asked every day by current asylum seekers and sadly, again there is no answer," Ms Metcalfe said.
Refuge finally found, six years after Tampa
EVEN now, as Mustafa Najib grips a letter offering him his freedom, he still believes something could go terribly wrong. That someone, one day, will approach him on the street, tap him on the shoulder and tell him there is a problem with his visa.
Mr Najib, tall and softly spoken, smiles nervously as he reads the letter. "I am pleased to advise that your client has been granted a Subclass 866 (XA Protection) Visa," it says.
It was addressed to his lawyer, but Mr Najib will keep it safe with other letters he holds dear, including those he received from a Melbourne woman during two years in detention on Nauru.
It arrived on Wednesday, four days short of the sixth anniversary of the day Mr Najib and more than 430 others were rescued by the Norwegian vessel Tampa, which was later refused permission to unload its human cargo on Australian soil.
For all that time, Mr Najib has lived a surreal existence, unable to plan for his future, unable to visit his family overseas, unable to be the master of his own destiny.
Now, at last, he has the prospect of seeing his mother and the younger brother and sister he last saw in July 2001, when he fled Afghanistan.
The visa means Mr Najib can complete his RMIT University degree, travel overseas and eventually apply for citizenship.
Just as the visa offers a promise of protection, so, too, did the letters mailed to him by Halinka Rubin, who wrote to him in Nauru through a letter exchange program for detainees. He now calls her mother.
During his two years in detention, he told Ms Rubin his story. Her story made her sympathetic to his: she was a Jewish child who fled with her family from Poland to the Soviet Union during World War II. She is 68, he is 29.
Mr Najib grew up in Afghanistan but left in 2001 to escape the Taliban. He travelled via Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in a journey that cost more than $4900.
He told Ms Rubin about his experience with the people smugglers and, finally, what happened on Nauru. "On one hand I was always waiting for his letters," Ms Rubin recalls, "but then I despaired when I got them."
Ms Rubin started writing to detainees on Nauru in early 2002. "I once read about a Swiss woman who sheltered German Jews crossing the border during the Second World War," she says. "In most cases, refugees were returned back to Germany to their death, as they were considered illegals. People prefer to think that acting within a legal framework equals morality. But there is no morality in returning refugees back to mortal danger."
Mr Najib smiles as he recalls the parcels from Ms Rubin. "She sent sweets and books," he says. "Her letters were the only thing inside the place, there is nothing else. When you open the letter, that is the only minute when you laugh or smile during the whole week."
He describes his time on Nauru as a limbo. "I didn't know, nobody would tell me about my future or what would happen. You didn't know where you would end up, or whether you would be there forever."
Then there was the all-consuming boredom. He survived by teaching himself English, picking up words and phrases from security guards and passing them on to other detainees.
Two years after his rescue, Mr Najib finally landed on Australian soil. He was eager to meet Ms Rubin; he remembers holding her and crying.
Ms Rubin, who migrated here in 1969, says she was nervous. "You know how it is, you can sort of hit it off in correspondence, but it is a strange person after all, and he may not like me."
That evening, the pair dined on Ms Rubin's attempt at Afghan rice and her concerns were put at ease. "We can talk about anything," she says. "There is no topic we can't discuss, we do have a lot in common."
When Mr Najib got the news of his permanent protection, no one was more overjoyed than Ms Rubin.
"I feel happy and feel free," he says.
But as with so many events in his life, there is also sadness. Sadness for his friends who were on the same, small, leaking boat but who still await permanent visas.
For Mr Najib, the Tampa anniversary tomorrow is a day of reflection, a day to celebrate living and the friendships he has made.
"It is a very special day for me, more important than my birthday. I thought that I died, and we were magically rescued. It was something unbelievable."
He says it is also a time to remember those who have lost so much.
Mr Najib is completing a degree at RMIT in international studies. He is also working part-time as an interpreter. He feels comfortable in his course, often achieving high distinctions. At the moment he is looking for a work placement and hopes to forge a career in human rights.
As Mr Najib calls Ms Rubin his Australian mum, she, too, thinks of him as a son. Last year, he taught Ms Rubin how to send SMS messages.
She cherishes the first one he sent her. "Mum, how r u?" it reads. "My 1st day of Uni was beautiful. Sleep well & good dreams. You helped me to live a normal life, the one every human deserves. Always love Mustafa."