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Ends don't justify means

By Toby O'Brien - posted Friday, 24 October 2014

Australia's offshore detention policy is a colossal and unnecessary waste of tax payers money.

This week the federal government announced that they have spent more than $1billion this financial year, alone, to accommodate about 2200 refugees in their offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island. The cost of running the detention centre on Manus Island cost taxpayers $632.3 million and cost of running the centre on Nauru cost $582.4 million. Given there are 1167 refugees being detained on Nauru, this amounts to a staggering cost of half a million dollars a year per person, or $1369 per person per day. That's $1.2billion of tax payers money to lock up 2200 people who have committed no crime, in conditions that are inhumane and that breach, Australia's international duty of care obligations to asylum seekers. Or, to put it another way, more money than the government will spend on Mental Health reforms over the next five years.

But these costs do not reflect the entire picture and omit other hidden costs. The Nauruan government, for example, charges the Australian government $1000 per month, in "visa" fees, for each refugee detained there. This amounts to an extra cost of $14million dollars. And it's probable that other "financial inducements" have been given to the Nauru and PNG governments in return for them agreeing to host Australia's offshore detention centres.


More importantly, there are a number of insidious costs that are harder to quantify, such as the long term mental health costs of refugees in these kinds of inhumane conditions. It's practically impossible to be able to put a precise figure on the costs of mental health deterioration, however research suggests that it amounts to an extra $25,000, per person, in health costs over their lifetime. The costs of prolonged detention on children are particularly pronounced, as they miss out on normal development influences in critical formative years. There are also significant health impacts on staff who work in offshore detention facilities, a lot of whom burn out and develop mental health issues as a result of the harsh living and working conditions and witnessing the trauma to those detainees caused by these conditions.

Whether or not the policy of mandatory offshore detention has "stopped the boats" is irrelevant. These costs are completely unnecessary and a terrible waste of tax payers money. Despite the media invented hysteria about the threats to safety, jobs and national security posed by refugees arriving by boat, all the evidence demonstrates that processing these refugees in the Australian community poses none of these risks. For example, of the 12,100 refugees released into the community since November 2011, just five have been charged with a crime. The widely held belief that processing asylum seekers in the community comes with a significant risk of them absconding, particularly if their claims are unsubstantiated, is also a falsehood. Absconding rates, to date, are almost zero. The cost of processing refugees in the community is a mere $442 per person per fortnight, or $31 per day. This is based on the government's Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme figures, a program that provides financial support and healthcare to eligible asylum seekers, living in the community, until their claims are processed. If the cost of processing asylum seekers on Nauru is $1369 per day then processing them in the community instead would save the taxpayer $1338 per day. This would equate to a saving of almost $570million dollars this financial year alone, before factoring in the cost savings from closing down the Manus Island centre as well as onshore detention facilities. $570 million + dollars that could instead be used towards pressing infrastructure and education projects such as High Speed Rail and implementing the Gonski reforms.

Community processing is vastly cheaper and all of the evidence has proven that it works. That the government remains steadfast in its commitment to happily blow billions of dollars to deter and punish a few thousand people who are fleeing persecution, on the premise of a xenophobic fiction and an invented policy problem should concern Australian taxpayers much more so than it does.

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About the Author

Toby O'Brien holds a BA in Psychology & International Studies.

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