By : Dominique , Brayden and Ashley.
The Government of Australia’s “Pacific Solution” was implemented in response to the growing number of refugee-seekers arriving in Australia via irregular means, most notably by small-vessel over the open-ocean. In order to maintain public support for the highly-controversial policy, the Australian Government has sought to portray refuge-seekers in largely two ways: as either threats to Australia’s national security, or as economic migrants simply aiming to take advantage of Australia’s policies towards refugees (Bem, 12). Regardless of how refugee-seekers were portrayed, the Government has argued that the cost of the “Pacific Solution” is not only cheaper than processing and settling refuge-seekers domestically, but that it also helps keep Australian citizens safe. Both of these claims are false.
In 2002, following the Tampa incident and the implementation of the “Pacific Solution”, the Government of Australia released to the public what it anticipated paying to implement the operation. A$129.3 million was allocated to maintain their offshore processing centres, with an additional A$26.5 million committed in extra aid to secure Nauru’s cooperation, and A$19 million budgeted to purchase the capital necessary to deter and interdict incoming vessels (Parliament of Australia). That same year, the estimated average cost for reception, processing, and detention of an unauthorised arrival in Australia was about $29,000. Based on the 1,515 people detained on Nauru and Manus Island at that point, the estimated cost jumps to A$44 million for the year (Parliament of Australia). These figures add up to roughly A$218.8 million dollars, but they demonstrate the Government’s efforts to hide the true costs of the program by distributing funds to a collection of government agencies.
Nonetheless, the Government anticipated receiving 4,500 refuge-seekers per year to be detained and processed through the offshore processing centres. Based on that estimate, the budgeted per person cost for offshore processing was roughly comparable to processing refuge-seekers domestically. However, that estimate did not include the considerable capital cost of the new facility on Christmas Island, health services, or any Defence Force expenditure (Parliament of Australia). Once all of these additional expenditures are accounted for, over the roughly 5 year span between the implementation of “Pacific Solution” and its suspension, the program cost over A$1 billion to process only 1700 refuge-seekers. This meant that the Government was paying just under A$600,000 to process an individual refuge-seeker. In comparison, if the Government had processed asylum seekers in a mainland centre, the Department of Immigration estimates that this could have been done at roughly 3.5% of the cost (Bem, 4).
At the time, the Government sought to justify the exorbitant costs by highlighting the deterrent value of the “Pacific Solution” and pointed to the substantially lower numbers of detained refugee-seekers than initially estimated. However, the UNHCR delegitimized this claim by showing a worldwide drop in the amount of people seeking-refuge in Western states due to “improved conditions in some source countries”, such as Afghanistan (Bem, 13). Consequently, soon after the report, the Government of Australia announced that it would be suspending its Pacific Solution – until 2012, when the new Labour Government resumed operations.
In May of 2012, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship estimated that the cost of running offshore detention centres for the 2012-2013 financial year would be over A$1.3 billion dollars (Merope) – more than the cumulative cost of the prior operation over the span of 5 years. By February of 2013, the estimate had nearly doubled to A$2.124 billion (Merope). These estimates ballooned rapidly due to the greater than anticipated costs for staff, air transport, and health services. What is not included, however, is “capital expenditure”. Due to the lack of infrastructure on Nauru and Manus Island, the Department of Immigration estimated capital expenditure of A$316 million to construct the necessary facilities on Nauru to hold 750 people, with an additional A$230 million allotted to construct facilities on Manus Island. With all expenditures factored in, the Government of Australia estimated that the cost of establishing and maintaining the detention centre on Nauru alone for four years would cost A$1.9 billion dollars – all to detain up to 750 refuge-seekers in conditions described as “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” by Amnesty International (Merope).
While excessive, the costs to the Australian Government do not end there. Nauru charges an additional A$1000 a month in “visa fees” for each refuge-seeker detained on the island, and the additional costs incurred to the Department of Defence for their surveillance and interdiction operations cannot be measured (Merope). The long-term expenses for mental health services will not be apparent until years down the line, but they too are expected to be quite costly. The devastating impacts of long-term detention are already apparent amongst many of the refuge-seekers, but many health care workers also witness suicide and self-harm on a daily basis, which takes a toll on their mental health as well. It is estimated that for each asylum-seeker settled in Australia, as well as for many healthcare workers, the Government will incur charges of over A$25,000 for mental health services over their lifetimes (Ward, 1).
From 2013 to 2016, the Government of Australia spent over A$6.5 billion dollars, amounting to over A$390,000 to detain each refuge-seeker – an amount more than twice what any other Western nation pays to process refugee-seekers in offshore detention (Taylor). The economic cost of A$6.5 billion dollars is quite obvious, but less apparent is the wider, long-term economic impact of the “Pacific Solution”. The anti-refuge-seeker rhetoric that surrounds the “Pacific Solution” has shifted attitudes towards legal immigration as well. Subsequently, conservative governments are increasingly turning to restricting immigration as a means to maintain public support (Taylor). However, Australia has a rapidly aging population, and higher rates of immigration are vital to maintaining Australia’s economic success both in the short and long term. Nonetheless, in the most recent election, Prime Minister Morrison announced that Australia would begin reducing the number of immigrants allowed into the country by 30,000, or almost 16%, over 4 years (Taylor). While the economic costs of this decision may not be apparent now, in the long-term Australia will have to deal with the ramifications of a labour force incapable of funding all of the social programs necessary for an aging population.
It is important to note, however, that these costs are not necessarily inevitable. Ironically, Australia has already demonstrated that a different approach can be vastly more successful. While refuge-seekers who arrive via boat are detained in offshore detention centres, refuge-seekers who arrive with a valid visa, such as for business or tourism, and who make a claim for asylum once on Australian territory, experience a wildly different process in which they are detained in the community (Merope). A 2011 UNHCR report estimated that offshore detention would cost roughly A$339 per refuge-seeker per day. In comparison, the community-based model of detention (Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme) provided A$438.41 per fortnight/every 2 weeks, equal to roughly A$31 per day. NGOs estimate a mere 30% of asylum-seekers living in the community use these benefits (Merope). Thus, community-based processing would save A$308 per person per day – but those savings would only apply to the 30% who use government benefits. The other 70% of refuge-seekers would result in savings of A$339 per person per day for the government.
Advocates of the “Pacific Solution” have often argued that hidden amongst the refuge-seekers are threats to national security, but statistically speaking the community-based approach to processing poses minimal risk to the public. Refuge-seekers going through this model have strict monitoring requirements, and from 2011 to 2013 (the time period just before the re-implementation of the Pacific Solution), out of the 12,100 refuge-seekers released into the community, only five had been charged with a crime – meaning that refuge-seekers were 45 times less likely to commit a crime than a member of the general public (Hall). What this means is that the Australian Government has been operating an alternative model of refuge-seeker processing that is not only more humane, but also substantially less costly both in the short and long-term.
Bem, Kazimierz. A Price Too High: The Cost of Australia’s Approach to Asylum Seekers.
“Chapter 11 – Pacific Solution: Outcomes and Cost.” Parliament of Australia, 9 Jan. 2014,
Hall, Bianca. “Few Asylum Seekers Charged with Crime.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Mar. 2013,
Merope, Sienna. “The Economic Cost of Our Asylum Seeker Policy.” Right Now: Human Rights in
Australia, 27 May 2016, rightnow.org.au/opinion-3/the-economic-cost-of-our-asylum-seeker-
Taylor, Jack. “Smoke and Mirrors.” Harvard Political Review, 2 Oct. 2019,
Ward, Tony. “Long-Term Health Costs of Extended Mandatory Detention of Asylum Seekers”. Yarra
Institute for Religion and Social Policy, Oct. 2011, http://www.socialpolicyconnections.com.au/wp-
REFUGEE STORIES, PERSPECTIVES AND AGENCY
Finding stories about the refugees on Nauru is, as we have continuously mentioned, very difficult due to media censoring. It is also difficult to paint a clear single picture of the refugee because asylum seeking is never a single story. This aside, the stories that do come from Nauru are as shocking as they are interesting and telling of Australian and world politics.
THE STORY OF THE REFUGEE BEFORE NAURU: MEDIA AND STORY SILENCING
As we have previously mentioned, asylum seekers on Nauru are sent there by the Australian government, as an alternate option to having them land on mainland Australia. The asylum seekers on Nauru are not a singular group; they do not all come from the same country of origin and they are not all fleeing the same persecution. This means that every refugee is coming to Nauru with a different story of fear, persecution, trauma and needs. Primarily these asylum seekers are coming from countries in the Middle East (such as Iran and Afghanistan), Pakistan and some from East Africa (such as Somalia) (UNHCR). It is very difficult to describe a story of these asylum seekers before their arrival on Nauru, due to this diversity. Their only real common link is that they arrived by boat in Australian waters and were turned to Nauru instead.
The Guardian, a British newspaper that covers global news affairs has worked hard on uncovering certain details about the refugees on Nauru, especially through the media censorship on the island. In the article linked below, 5 asylum seekers on Nauru briefly explain their lives on the island, but also touch shortly on their lives prior to Nauru, why they sought asylum in Australia and why they felt the need to flee their country of origin. However even here the focus is on the stories coming from Nauru, rather than the plight of these refugees prior to Nauru.
In a personal side note before continuing, I feel this relates to what Nayeri was describing as the having to give up your personal story prior to becoming a refugee. Despite the diversity of the people living on Nauru, there is relatively little information about the things these people have experienced prior to their detention on the island. I suppose it is, at least, productive that there is a focus on their story in Nauru, however this focus comes more from the inhumane conditions and treatment they are experiencing, and not out of wanting to let refugees tell their own stories.
THE STORY OF THE REFUGEE ON NAURU: A MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS
Due to extreme censoring politics on Nauru, many asylum seekers living there do not have access to resources which would allow them to narrate their own stories. The authority to tell stories rests primarily in the hands of the Australian and Nauruan governments to narrate the lives of these asylum seekers. As we’ve explored in previous presentations, the Australian government uses specific conservative political language to express that this is the “best option” to protect Australian borders (Government of Australia). Similarly the Nauruan government writes that “the increased temporary resettlement of refugees will be good for Nauru” (Government of Nauru). Interestingly, in both these discussions the asylum seekers are not active participants nor are their needs at the front of the discussion. It shows that there is a privilege to being able to tell stories, an autonomy that the asylum seekers on Nauru are missing.
Over the years some special groups have gained access to Nauru for various reasons. It is primarily through these groups; of journalists, human rights activists, doctors and lawyers, that the asylum seekers’ stories begin to take centre stage (although they are still not always telling their own stories outright, rather having them told through a third party).
What comes to light through these means is a story of abuse and crisis. Especially as media censorship has lightened ever so slightly (it is still very difficult to gain access to Nauru, although the media has given it enough attention that there are more efforts to find work arounds to this access issue, even if very few of them succeed). Mental illness, depression and suicide are on the rise in camps on Nauru, and from what can be gathered this is due to the lack of care and treatment that asylum seekers are receiving and have access to on the island. They risked so much, and did not find the asylum they were hoping for.
Linked below is a podcast (transcript available as well) of an Australian reporter discussing with a child on Nauru via Skype about her experiences. This was a rare access to information, and the story told is heartbreaking. Maya, a young asylum seeker describes her daily life and struggles and speaks out about the difficulties her family and friends are facing living on Nauru.
Another project that was shocking to discover was the All We Can’t See initiative. A group of activists and journalists have come together to create an exhibition which demonstrates, through creative expression, the abuse and neglect of asylum seekers on Nauru. It is based on leaked files from Nauru detailing many cases of assault, sexual abuse, self-harm and child abuse which were protected by Australian and Nauruan officials. It is a great effort at providing a link between the asylum seekers individual stories and the public (especially Western audiences). The link to the files is below.
THE STORY OF THE REFUGEE AFTER NAURU: SUCCESSFULLY RESETTLED?
While this is the final part of my discussion on the topic of stories, I warn against saying that this is the final part in a refugee’s story. Especially in light of course readings we can collectively agree that a refugee’s story does not come to a conclusion after resettlement, it is just another stage. However, resettlement does represent a perceived end to a story, and a new beginning.
The actual number of asylum seekers who have been resettled is relatively low. Again in recent years the government of Australia stated that they have no intention of accepting any of these refugees onto the mainland, and would instead prefer they be resettled elsewhere.
Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, a legal centre based in Australia provides some details regarding the asylum seekers on Nauru. In 2017 54 refugees were settled in the United States. As of March 2, 2020 there were 211 asylum seekers remaining on Nauru.
The resettlement of asylum seekers from Nauru is still very recent, so there are not a lot of stories being published, although I would expect that it is possible for the resettled population, and those still being sent to Nauru will have more autonomy and opportunity in the coming years to become storytellers in their own right.
** Some of the Above links were unable to be posted here, Brayden will create another post with those links so they are available to you ! Thank you ! **
The summative argument for these presentations has been clear and simple; that the international laws surrounding refugees and asylum seekers specifically migrants arriving by boat are unclear and can create inhumane conditions. Specifically focalized on the island of Nauru these laws meant to protect, failed many. What happened on Nauru should not be ignored, the conditions on the island of Nauru were and are a bi product of these international laws, as highlighted in the immigration laws of Australia. Countries can be vague and veil the true nature of their policies whilst being within their legal rights. As Itmar Mann touches on within his book “in confronting these events, I will argue, the formalism of rules, indeed, does not give us suﬃcient guidance”( Mann, Pg 3) . The international law is designed to fail, it does not create a set structure of operating conditions for countries and allows behaviours such as Nauru to continue as in every technically they are not violating any condition of the refugee act. These refugees were not being sent back to where they were being persecuted and are being processed, albeit very slowly. These past presentations intended to highlight the issues surrounding Naru in a global manner, there is a global responsibility that surrounds refugees and in the refugee age we must come to terms with this responsibility in a manner that can institute and protect these stateless people. The economic benefits for Nauru as discussed previously in this presentation highlight the exploitation of these stateless peoples for economic gain, they are treated as simply a bargaining chip. The Tampa highlights, just as the exodus did, a human rights encounter and in the case of Nauru the authorities have chosen the wrong path, rather than sympathizing with this idea of a broader connecting humanity they chose to distance themselves and remove the power of the refugee in the encounter all together, through interception measures and removing refugees from Australia and placing them out of sight out of mind.
Itmar Mann, Humanity at Sea, Page 3 .
Itmar Mann,Humanity at Sea, Page 55.
8 thoughts on “Economic Benefit/Cost to Host, Refugee Perspective, Stories/Agency , Final Argument.”
From an economic standpoint, it baffles me why Australia would pursue offshore processing instead of mainland processing. Are the costs associated with offshore processing really worth the alleged security threat posed by refugees? I found the stories in the Guardian article deeply upsetting. It is disgusting how security personnel bartered sex in exchange for access to basic necessities. Two phrases in the article stuck out to me. The first was that women detainees slept in jeans to make it harder to be raped. The second was, “I don’t have any plans for my future right now because I still feel that I’m captured. I still feel that I’m not human after a year and a half.” I also listened to the “Five years on Nauru” podcast and was heartbroken to learn about the prevalence of resignation syndrome amongst children on the island and how this condition is exacerbated by family separation, like in Haneen’s case. No woman or child or anyone for that matter should live this way. Thank you for including these links!
I’m glad you listened an appreciated them. It was really hard for me to register what I was reading and listening to because of how upsetting it really was.
I just have a general comment for the class that I found everyone’s projects incredibly eye opening and it was fascinating and heartbreaking to hear about the things that have gone on and continue to go on in the world without us knowing or being entirely aware.
I fully agree. In an era of rising government debt, spending billions of dollars on any sort of unnecessary government policy is at the very least questionable, but spending billions on a policy that treats some of the world’s most vulnerable people in such an inhumane manner is unjustifiable from a moral perspective. Contextually though, Australia is a particularly wealthy nation – from the sources I’ve seen, their debt-to-GDP ratio is less than half of Canada’s, for example – and with national debt substantially less controversial than in other countries it is easier to justify unnecessary spending to the public. Factor in that the Australian public is at best split on the subject (at worst, in favour of the Pacific Solution), and it becomes clear that spending billions of dollars on the Solution is actually a politically “smart” move to galvanize their base. At this point, it seems that if the Government of Australia were to change course and implement the community-based model for the detained refuge-seekers due to economic logic, then that would actually cost them political support. And so, to get back to your question of if the costs of offshore processing are justified based off of the alleged security threat of refugees, I think it’s pretty obvious that in many peoples’ eyes it isn’t – but, I would argue that security threats were never the main motive behind the policy, political interests were and still are.
Thank you for presenting the economic cost in a very accessible way – showing that offshore detention facilities were unnecessary in that the processing could’ve been done at 3.5% of the cost was it done domestically really shows that the “economic burden” posed by refugees is entirely constructed by the rhetoric of ‘national security’. It’s interesting that you say that international law is “designed to fail”, as very clearly it does not achieve the protection of refugees and asylum seekers while at the same time failing to attribute any agency to them except making the claims about their helplessness. National security seems to entail economic components (the argument made to promote the Pacific Solution included those two as the justification) even though the economic agency of refugees seems to be non-existent in regards to the cost of their processing.
The guardian article is truly heartbreaking. Often we discuss how holding refuge/asylum seekers in detention centers is unjust and inhumane, specifically with regards to how people are kept within confined spaces unable to leave. What really struck me is how Annisa preferred staying in the detention centers because outside the detention centers is less safe. Really, the island of Nauru itself acts as a detention center, even when refugees are not behind a fence. I also found it interesting that the Australian government outsources their security to private companies. As security guards on Nauru who are not working for the Australian government, it seems unlikely that they could be accountable to Australian law.
Thank you for the information you have shared, it was definitely informative and puts the “Pacific Solution” into context. I found it interesting to read about the way in which the Australian government, as a way to maintain public support for the Pacific Solution, has placed a label on refuge-seekers either as threats to national security or as economic migrants. I think this is a common trend that has affected migrants and refugees across borders, as more and more refugees are painted as security threats or illegitimate economic migrants. Secondly, I also enjoyed reading the portion where you mention the cost to maintain the Pacific Solution. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s estimate of A$1.3 billion for 2012-2013 shows the weakness of economic motivations to keep migrants out in this case. I can also trace parallels between this and North America, where the cost of funding ICE and Customs and Border Protection to stop migrants is also very high. Finally, I was also happy to see that there are still ways that refugees on Naura have been able to tell their stories despite efforts to reduce their agency and voices.
This was an incredibly sobering post, thank you for speaking to the economic, political, and social implications of detention for Australia, Nauru, and stranded refugees. The Australian Government wrongfully claiming that the “Pacific Solution” lowered numbers of detained refugee-seekers speaks to how policymakers and their constituents do not recognize a “human rights commitment” to those stranded on Nauru. Rather, efforts made to invest several billions of dollars into the offshore refugee holding programs shows how much a host country is willing to invest in pushing away those that are seeking help. Also, the lengths to which the Australian government went to portray the refugees as terrorists and criminals (compared to the actual statistics of their crime rates in community- centered resettlement programs) was horrifying.
The Guardian article brought me to tears. How slowly and painfully these detainees saw the life they imagined for themselves in Australia be stolen from them every day that they woke up in the detention centre was heartbreaking. One quote that the father of Ali told him before he left struck me: “‘Democracy and human rights is a joke. No one will respect you in Australia or any other western country. Stay here and die with honour.”
I really don’t have any questions. Thank you again for this, I learned so much.
This post was very understandable, despite the large amount of content covered. Was it hard to find information on the economic cost for these centres?
It was difficult to understand how much protection must go in to censoring the abuses that happen in centres. The censoring of refugees within these centres create a controlled narrative. This post reminded me of the United States ICE detention centres. In both cases by controlling the narrative and withholding the stories of people inside, the general public loses interest, information, and this means that governments are not held accountable.