Budget immigration costs: Australia will spend almost $3.4m for each person in offshore detention

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Jason Oxenham/AP</span>
Photograph: Jason Oxenham/AP

Australia will spend nearly $812m on its offshore immigration processing system next year – just under $3.4m for each of the 239 people now held on Nauru or in Papua New Guinea.

On the figures presented in Tuesday’s budget, it costs Australian taxpayers $9,305 every day for each person held offshore.

The home affairs portfolio budget papers forecast $811.8m to be spent on offshore management next financial year, before dropping to a little over $300m annually the following year.

There are now 239 refugees and asylum seekers held offshore by Australia – 109 on Nauru and 130 in Papua New Guinea – putting the budget spend at $3.39m for each person next year.

Related: Migrants forced to wait four years for benefits in Australian budget’s biggest cost-cutting measure

A further 1,199 refugees and asylum seekers have been medically transferred from Australia’s offshore centres to onshore detention centres and community detention. No new asylum seekers or refugees have been sent to PNG or Nauru since 2014.

Guardian Australia reported last month that Canstruct, a Brisbane company whose owner is a Liberal party donor, has been paid more than $1.4bn over five years to run the offshore processing regime on Nauru, with seven consecutive amendments increasing its contract from $8m to $1.4bn.

The chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power, said the continued commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to offshore processing was a waste of taxpayers’ money and was being used to punish people.

“To know that this allocation takes the amount spent by the current government over the past eight years to $8.3bn is appalling – $8.3bn spent to punish a group of people that at its peak was 3,127 people, and the great majority of whom have been found to need refugee protection.”

Power said people would be shocked that Australia’s offshore policy was still costing hundreds of millions of dollars, and nearly eight years after the 19 July 2013 cut-off mandating that people be sent offshore, more than half of the people who have arrived by boat have still not had their status resolved.

“There is no consistency in the government’s public position,” he said. “Somehow letting people out of detention, medically evacuating people from PNG and Nauru sent a message to people smugglers, whereas the US resettlement deal that has seen 900 people resettled in America sent no message at all.

“This policy has diminished Australia in the eyes of the world and has reinforced the most negative perceptions of this country.”

Australian citizens are privately working to reduce the numbers of people held offshore and in onshore detention.

The Refugee Council has received $2.6m in donations from Australians as part of Operation Not Forgotten, which privately sponsors refugees from Australia’s offshore system to resettle in Canada.

That money has been allocated to sponsorship applications for 236 people – 140 refugees originally sent to Manus Island and Nauru, along with 96 family members – for resettlement in Canada. It costs $18,000 to privately sponsor a single refugee to resettle in Canada: a family of four about $30,000.

In 2020-21, the government underspent the offshore detention budget by $367m – spending $818m against a budget of $1.19bn.

But historically the actual costs of offshore detention has generally outstripped the budget estimates.

In every other year back to 2014-15, the actual cost has exceeded budget forecasts, generally by hundreds of millions of dollars, including by more than three-quarters of a billion dollars in 2017-18.

The onshore detention system now holds 1,527 people, about half of them non-citizens who have had their visas cancelled by the government, 442 are classified by the government as illegal maritime arrivals (though not all arrived by boat – some are children born in Australia).

The onshore budget has been fractionally reduced from nearly $1.28bn spent this financial year to $1.27bn next year. The out years show a further reduction to around $1bn.

The budget papers state $464.7m will be spent on increasing the capacity of the onshore immigration detention network, including Christmas Island, because of “ongoing capacity pressures … as a result of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the ability to remove unlawful non-citizens from Australia”.

Australia maintained its humanitarian settlement intake at 13,750 places for next financial year, though it remains unclear when resettlement will be able to resume at that level.