Wouldn’t it just be easier, and cheaper, to process them here? As a desperate Gillard government scans the Pacific for a suitably desolate island on which to stash asylum seekers, it is time to ask: is this the most cost effective use of taxpayer money?
Precious little official information is available about the relative costs of processing asylum seekers onshore versus offshore. Refugee advocates have long questioned the cost-effectiveness of offshore processing.
Oxfam has estimated Australian taxpayers spent $1 billion between 2001 and 2007 for the “Pacific solution” of processing asylum seekers at Nauru, Manus and Christmas islands. This equates to more than $500,000 each for the 1700 asylum seekers processed during that time.
In 2004, a spokesman for then immigration minister Amanda Vanstone estimated the cost of caring for the one remaining asylum seeker at the deserted Manus Island facility at $1.3 million in the final six months of 2003. This compared to an annual cost of $58,000 at the time for detention in Australia.
What are the figures today? The Department of Immigration insists it is not possible to calculate a “per detainee” cost given that numbers of detainees fluctuate, but facilities must remain open regardless. But information provided by the department to a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s immigration detention network last month provides some clues.
The department puts the total operating cost of more than 20 detention centres at $772 million last financial year. The number of people held in detention centres through the last financial year averaged about 6280, giving a rough total cost per detainee of $123,000.
Using a similar rough reckoning, the $253 million in costs at Christmas Island alone represents an annual cost per detainee of about $171,000, higher than the average cost across the network. The remoteness of Christmas Island creates higher costs due to transport, wages and healthcare.
By contrast, the total operating costs of the Villawood detention centre were $38 million for the financial year. With an average detainee population of 341 over the year, this represents a cost of about $111,000 a year.
By contrast, the department estimates it spent just $15 million last year to settle about 1500 asylum seekers, including children, into community detention – a cost of about $10,000 each. While settlement only began in October last year, meaning the cost over a whole year would be higher, this period included high upfront costs of securing leases, connecting utilities and buying household goods for these community-based houses.
A system of community detention raises the risk of asylum seekers absconding. But given the number of boat arrivals remains low (4730 people last financial year) and most asylum seekers to Australia are eventually granted refugee status, it make sense to at least do a cost-benefit analysis of this potentially much lower-cost option.
Not only might it save pennies, it could mean the difference between fostering a new workforce, as opposed to the current system, whereby successful refugees emerge downtrodden after years in detention, suffering severe mental health issues and institutionalised to the idea of being dependent on others.
THE IRVINE INDEX
$772 million Total operating cost of Australia’s immigration detention network last financial year, including Christmas Island.
6280 Average number of people held in detention centres throughout last financial year.
$123,000 Average annual cost of detaining an asylum seeker last financial year.
1476 Average number of detainees on Christmas Island last financial year.
$253 million Operating cost of Christmas Island detention centre last financial year — up from $52 million two years ago.
$171,000 Average annual cost of detaining an asylum seeker on Christmas Island last financial year.
$1 billion Estimated cost of the Pacific solution of processing asylum seekers on Nauru, Manus and Christmas islands between 2001 and 2007, according to Oxfam.
$500,000 Estimated cost per asylum seeker for the 1700 processed under the Pacific solution arrangements.
53% Percentage of Australians who would like to see boat people processed onshore.
Sources: Department of Immigration and Citizenship answers to questions from the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network, August 16, 2011; Herald analysis; Budget 2011-12, Budget Paper No. 2; Oxfam Australia and A Just Australia report “A price too high: the cost of Australia’s approach to asylum seekers”, August 2007; Herald/Nielsen Poll.