In recent years, political debate in Australia has raged about the best way to process asylum seekers that arrive on our shores illegally* by boat.
Currently, both Labor and the Coalition agree that the offshore processing, of unlawful boat arrivals, is the only solution. However the actual mechanisms are hotly debated.
But, setting aside the varying policy principals, what does it actually cost the Australian taxpayer?
Some facts and figures
While the processing of all who apply for asylum in Australia incurs a cost, it is the processing of those who arrive illegally boat, that is at the heart of the current political debate.
In the late 1990s, the growth in the number of refugees arriving by boat led the Howard government to introduce what is known as the Pacific Solution. This was the commencement of the offshore processing of refugees.
At the introduction of this policy, the volume of arrivals dropped from more than 5500 in 2001, to 1 person in 2002.
In 2007, with the change to the Rudd government the rate of arrivals via boats began again to rise. Policy changes by the government are credited with sparking this change.
In the seven years since the Labor government took power, more than 33,000 people have arrived or attempted to arrive in Australia via boat, 25,600 since the last federal election.
What does it cost?
Much like the proverbial saying, we are not strictly comparing apples with apples here. Policy changes and the ability to compare costs over time, inflation and other variables, means that the following data is, shall we say, flexible.
Under the Coalition policy
For the five years from 2002, about $1 billion was spent implementing the then refugee policy. These figures are from a report in 2007, commissioned by Oxfam and A Just Australia, two organisations that actively opposed offshore processing.
The $1 billion estimate from this report, A price too high: Australia's approach to asylum seekers, includes the costs of navy to intercept boats, detention centre infrastructure, detention centre running costs, aid packages to the Pacific nations hosting refugees off shore, transport and health services.
This also included building the 800-bed detention centre on Christmas Island. The cost of that alone was $400 million; initially it was budgeted to cost $200 million.
Under the Immigration and Citizenship portfolio the 2012-2013 budget had several key components listed as dealing with offshore asylum seeker management, administration and service delivery. In total, it amounts to an annual figure of just over $1.044 billion.
Immigration and Citizenship Budget 2012-2013, offshore estimated expenses
Offshore Asylum Seeker Management
Offshore Asylum Seeker Managemet - Service Delivery
Offshore Asylum Seeker Management - Policy Advice and Program Design
Refugee Status Determinations for Offshore Entry Persons
Refugee tatus Determinations for Offshore Entry Persons - Service Delivery
**As of February 2013 the Department of Immigration has revised this year's asylum budget from $1.1 billion to $2.2 billion.
Other departments expenditures are harder to quantify, as their scope of activity is naturally wider. However departments such as Customs clearly spend a large percentage of their budget on dealing with illegal immigration.
Official estimates indicate that Customs will spend at least $300 million directly in 2012-2013 for civil maritime surveillance and response. However the recent increase in illegal boat arrivals suggests that this figure will be much larger.
Estimating Defence expenditure is somewhat more difficult. When asked for a related cost breakdown we received the following statement from a Defence spokesperson, "Surface and surveillance assets and Defence personnel working for Border Protection Command are employed against several lines of operation concurrently." "Accordingly, it is not possible to separate costs to attribute in any accurate and meaningful way against distinct threats including Irregular Maritime Arrivals.
However, Defence did indicate that most support is drawn from the Navy’s Patrol Boat Group and the Air Force maritime patrol aircraft. In regards to specifics the full cost of an Armidale Patrol Boat is $36,000 per sea day. A much larger Anzac Frigate costs $568,000, while a Survey Ship has running costs of approximately $138,000 per sea day.
The report also indicated that two Patrol Boats and a third larger vessel, either a Frigate or Survey Ship, will be on permanent duty in the Christmas Island area. A potential daily spend of $650,000. This is not inclusive of any additional costs for AP-C3 Orion aerial surveillance or depreciation (wear and tear) of the respective vessels.
Taking just these expenditures to account, it can be estimated that Labor have now allocated at least $2.25 billion for offshore based costs for 2012-2013. An annual figure over 200 per cent of what was spent over the full five years of the previous policy.
The original 2012-2013 budget figure was based on around 450 people arriving each month. But the numbers have soared, with a record 17,270 illegal arrivals in 2013, an average of almost 1440 per month. And as indicated above, current estimates have the 2012-2013 financial year tracking expenditure at about $1.1 billion more than the allocated budget.
This means Australian taxpayers will be spending significantly more than $2.2 billion per year on costs associated with the current offshore refugee policy. And this is in addition to the existing refugee programs.
Since 2009-2010, or the last two and half years, the Labor government has exceeded its allocated budget for asylum seekers by $5.0 billion and climbing.
Regardless of your political persuasion, or personal opinion, it is clear that both major parties have responded with some form of "off shore" based solution to dealing with illegal boat arrivals.
Current government policy remains under criticism from many angles, from border control failures, to basic cost effectiveness and humanitarian concerns. It is also undeniable that it's spending is set to far exceed that of the previous Coalition government.
No matter which way you look at it, the refugee situation worldwide is ever growing. This is an indictment on both the political frailty that grips so many nations and the basic desire of many to seek a more prosperous life.
The resulting refugee situation, regardless of where and how they arrive, is not going to go away. Particularly as "pull" factors are proving almost irresistible to those able to scrape the funds necessary to buy a berth on an illegal boat.
Remove the "pull" factors and one would expect that the Australian taxpayer will be spared a significant burden.
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The views in article are those of the author, Matthew King and are not those of Telstra BigPond.
* The Australian Press Council Advisory Guidelines, indicate that the media should make it clear that unauthorised boat arrivals, "without a visa are entitled to seek asylum and, in practice, almost all of them do so. If the Government’s initial processing suggests they may have a valid case, they are classified as "asylum seekers" and allowed to stay in Australia while the claim is being finally determined. They remain "unlawful non-citizens" until their claim is approved (whereupon they get a permanent protection visa) or they receive a "bridging visa" pending finalisation of their claim. If their claim is rejected, they have not committed an offence but are liable to deportation.".