Six years ago this week a Norwegian cargo ship named the Tampa sparked a diplomatic dispute between Australia, Norway and Indonesia as well as worldwide controversy when it came to the aid of 438 asylum seekers whose dilapidated fishing boat started to sink 85 nautical miles off the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
Border security loomed large in the public consciousness as refugees from the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussien’s Iraq sought to flee to asylum in countries around the world, sparking fears of many arriving on Australia’s shores.
Rather than explaining the reasons for their flight, the Government, on the eve of the 2001 election, refused the refugees rescued by the Tampa entry to Australian territory. Shortly afterwards the Federal Government announced that unauthorized arrivals by boat into Australia would be processed in offshore detention centres on Nauru, Manus and Christmas Island, aiming to keep them out of sight and out of mind. This came to be known as ‘The Pacific Solution’.
This week a report published by A Just Australia and Oxfam Australia found the consequences of The Pacific Solution are dire. It has so far cost the Australian public $1 billion, operates without transparency or scrutiny by Parliament, caused unnecessary suffering and mental illness to hundreds of traumatized people as well as tarnished Australia’s international reputation as a champion of human rights. Hardly a glowing report card for a system aimed to keep our borders ‘safe’.
It beggars belief, but so far the cost of the Pacific Solution is $500,000 per person to process fewer than 1,700 asylum seekers. And yet there’s clear evidence that it’s cheaper, more effective and humane to process asylum seekers here on the mainland. It makes no economic sense whatsoever to house a detainee offshore at a cost of $1,830 per day when it can be done here on mainland Australia for as little as $238 per day, according to the latest estimate by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
There are concerns too at the level of Australia’s overseas aid budget that has been redirected away from poverty eradication to help shore up Nauru’s creaking infrastructure to assist in the detention of asylum seekers. Between 2001-2006 Australia’s aid to Nauru increased five fold to $123 million.
And then there’s the $2 million annual taxpayer funded bill to maintain Manus Island detention centre, which has been empty since 2004 as well as the $5 million it cost last year to charter flights to move asylum seekers offshore. Not to mention the undisclosed millions it costs to regularly ferry people to mainland hospitals for medical treatment and back again. Make no mistake The Pacific Solution has been an unaccountable and gross waste of taxpayer’s money.
Meanwhile, medical studies and testimonies have painted a shocking picture of psychological damage for people who are held in offshore camps. Some people were detained for years exacerbating existing trauma at the hands of the Taliban, or their ilk in other countries. The full impact will most likely never be known, as many people chose ‘voluntary’ return to situations of danger in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than continuing to live in abject conditions. Of the Nauru returnees, 42 of them were unaccompanied children, most of whom returned to an active war in Afghanistan.
Asylum seekers held offshore are denied a ‘fair-go’ because they do not get the independent legal representation that people automatically get in Australia’s impartial onshore processing. Recently The Department of Immigration went so far as to refuse to process the applications for the seven Burmese asylum seekers currently held on Nauru. Only an appeal to the High Court made the Department beat a hasty retreat and agree to review their applications for asylum.
Unlike the detention centres on the mainland, which were reformed in the wake of the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon scandals, offshore processing facilities allow for indefinite detention on Nauru. Australia’s position is that people held offshore will never be allowed to settle in Australia. Instead, the government has sought to shirk responsibility by finding another country to take them in order to live up to its promise that they will never set foot on mainland Australia. Statistics, however, show this promise to be false as only 4.3% of refugees from offshore centres were settled outside of Australia and New Zealand.
Six years after Tampa, the Australian National Audit Office should investigate the full financial cost of the Pacific Solution. It’s inhumane, extremely costly and there’s something seriously wrong with a tax payer funded offshore prison system which evades independent or parliament scrutiny. The Pacific Solution is unaccountable to the Australian people.
A Just Australia
This opinion piece was published in The Courier Mail and ABC Online on 30th August 2007