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Time for a commonsense detention policy

By Tim Martyn - posted Monday, 4 April 2005

The “flood” of asylum seekers entering Australian territory illegally has finally dried up. Whether this is as a result of a global downturn in the number of individuals seeking asylum overseas, a crack down on Indonesian people smugglers, or Australia’s aggressive immigration policies is uncertain. What is certain is that Australia’s present policy of keeping asylum seekers behind bars, sometimes indefinitely, while their claims are being assessed, continues to fail the large majority of genuine refugees, as well as taxpayers. It’s time we adapted our immigration policies to meet the needs of this changed environment.

In 1999-2000 (pdf file 33KB), 4,175 unauthorised asylum seekers arrived on Australia’s shores; in 2002-03 there were no unauthorised boat arrivals; and in 2003-04 there was 1 boat carrying 53 asylum seekers. There are now approximately 900 people in Australian Immigration Detention Facilities: 195 of the 900 detainees have active asylum applications.

According to DIMIA, during 2001-2002 the average length of time spent in detention by people who arrived by boat was 155 days (approximately five and a half months). As of the of December 31, 2004, 18 per cent of those detained in immigration detention had been there for two years or more.


While the overall costs of detention have decreased in recent years (from $300 million a year in 2001), the cost of detention per detainee, per day has increased markedly. In 2003, when the number of detainee “days” fell by 49 per cent, the operational costs of detention fell by only 2.6 per cent.

The policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers while their claims are being assessed, costs the Australian taxpayer anywhere between $111 and $725 per person per day. Yet the true costs of asylum detention don’t stop there.

For those eventually successful in their asylum cases, the Australian community faces additional costs from the trauma suffered by long-term detention, both in direct medical costs and in difficulties adapting to community living. The effects of prolonged detention on children are particularly pronounced. Long-term detention often means they miss out on formative influences in their development. This includes consequences for their health (including mental health), education and ability to develop in a normal environment.

While it is necessary to check the identity, health and security status of new arrivals - especially those without appropriate documentation - these checks can be completed within 30 days - as they are in Britain. Beyond the time period required to conduct these checks, ongoing mandatory detention is unnecessary.

There is no evidence that maximum-security detention is an effective strategy for preventing asylum seekers from absconding while their claims are being assessed. Rather, ongoing incarceration provides a motive for asylum seekers to abscond. On the other hand, individuals already residing in the community have nothing to gain and everything to lose by abandoning their claim for asylum to live “underground”.

The overseas experience of community assessment is that where participants have an incentive to continue to participate in the assessment process, abscondments are almost zero. Case management, by assisting participants to understand their situation rather than feel punished for a crime they didn’t commit, helps to keep morale high and therefore absconding rates low.


To date, not one asylum seeker has absconded from one of the Department of Immigration’s community trials. In comparison, hundreds have absconded from the maximum-security environments of Australia’s Immigration Review Processing Centres. The introduction of several accommodation options for asylum seekers, along with a risk evaluation mechanism early in the assessment process and case management, would help reduce the financial and psychological toll imposed by the current policy.

The results of the Woomera Alternative Detention pilot, indicate that community-based assessment is secure. Over the period of 6 months, 47 asylum seekers resided in low-security, community accommodation. During that period, there were no escapes or attempted escapes, and nobody was returned to immigration detention.

Community-assessment is also much cheaper. The Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme, another contemporary example of community-based assessment, costs taxpayers only $44 per person, per day. This program could easily be extended to all low-risk asylum seekers, after their release from health and security checks.

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About the Author

Tim Martyn is a regular writer for, is the theme editor for the Department of Victorian Communities YouthCentral site and as his day job is a Policy and Research Officer for Jesuit Social Services.

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