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$9.6 billion spent on ‘turning back the boats’

Tuesday 13 September 2016 | Published in Regional

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AUSTRALIA – Australia has spent $9.6 billion in just four years on its asylum seeker policy – the majority on its offshore and mainland detention centres – according to a new report from Unicef and Save the Children.

The organisations found the current policy was expensive and unsustainable in its financial, human, and diplomatic costs.

It noted Australia’s expensive policies of deterrence simply pushed the growing number of displaced persons elsewhere, and caused damage to its international reputation and strategic ability to hold influence with other countries.

Analysing government data and expenditure, the report, At What Cost?, found taxpayers would likely spend another $5.7 billion over the next four years if nothing changed, and children transferred to Manus and Nauru would continue to suffer mental health problems, abuse and neglect.

In the report released on Tuesday, Unicef and Save the Children called for the government to urgently reinvest the money to create a strong regional framework to support asylum seekers, which incentivised “orderly migration” and undermined the business model of people smugglers.

Nicole Breeze, Unicef’s director of policy and advocacy, said the $9.6 billion included at least $3.6 billion on offshore processing, at least $5.6 billion on onshore mandatory detention, and at least $295 million on naval interceptions and boat turnbacks.

The remaining $112 million was spent on other programmess including the widely criticised Cambodia agreement and other efforts to find a third-party resettlement option.

The costs were based on the estimated 32,000 men, women and children in the asylum seeker processing system.

“The current system is unsustainable,” Breeze told The Guardian Australia. “It’s extremely expensive, it’s causing grave harm, it’s complicated and it’s opaque and difficult to assess its efficacy, cost and value for money.”

The report said the true cost was likely to be much greater than the $9.6 billion, once the costs of the government maintaining and defending its policy in courts and parliamentary inquiries and of workplace compensation incidents were factored in.

The human cost of Australia’s immigration policy, particularly the mental and physical harm to those held in detention, had been widely reported and subject to at least 10 inquiries, but there was very little known about what happened to people who were turned back, the report found.

The head of Operation Sovereign Borders, Major General Andrew Bottrell, argued in court last month that Australia’s policy of turning back boats at sea must be kept secret to protect the security of the commonwealth, because the information otherwise helped “educate potentially illegal immigrants”.

Tuesday’s report cited estimates of as many as 7000 children “trapped in transit” in Indonesia alone, “unable to access safe pathways to protection”.

“These children face the risk ongoing danger, persecution, discrimination and other serious harms and challenges while remaining in their home countries or countries of first asylum or transit,” said the report.

“The narrative in Australia often ends with that three-word- slogan around stopping the boats,” Breeze said.

“But we’ve found there is very little information about what people are in fact being turned back to.

“We have growing concern around the situation and the safety of people who have been returned back to their place of origin or where their journeys commenced.”

Unicef and Save the Children called for the government to “pivot its policy framework away from bilateralism and towards the establishment of a durable regional solution”.

“This report is building a case for serious investment in a regional refugee protection framework as a much more proactive policy measure than what we’ve got,” Breeze said.

- The Guardian/PNC