Australia’s current asylum seeker framework, which includes mandatory detention and offshore processing, has cost Australian taxpayers $9.6 billion since 2013, and will cost them a further $5.7 billion over the next four years, a major new report by Save the Children and UNICEF Australia reveals.

The ground-breaking report - At What Cost? - lays out the full human, economic and strategic toll of Australia’s deterrent immigration policies, and provides a plan for how the Turnbull Government could embrace a more humane and effective alternative that would afford greater protections for children and other asylum seekers and refugees.

Nicole Breeze, Director of Policy and Advocacy, UNICEF Australia said: “Refugee and asylum seeker children and families are in chronic need of essential services and protection, and this report provides a clear plan for the Turnbull Government to shift towards an effective regional protection framework.

“At What Cost highlights the failings of policies adopted by successive Australian Governments to protect asylum seeker children, and opens possibilities for new ways of working. It’s time to replace deterrence with mutual commitment and cooperation with partners across our region.”

The report also details the likely result if there is no reform of Australia’s current approach. Beyond the billions of dollars needed to maintain the system, the report finds that if the Turnbull Government does not change tack, it can expect children transferred to Nauru to suffer ongoing mental health problems, abuse and neglect.
In addition, thousands of asylum seeker children living precarious lives across South East Asia, and who are in need of protection, will continue to face danger and harm. Alongside this, Australia’s global reputation and foreign policy interests will continue to deteriorate.

Save the Children Australia chief executive, Paul Ronalds, said the findings confirmed that Australia’s current framework was neither a humane nor economically sustainable model for how the rest of the world should respond to the current global refugee and migration crisis – the worst in recorded history.

“Australia’s immigration policies are expensive, inhumane and blunt. They have caused significant harm to some of the most vulnerable children and adults on the planet, and have eroded the hope, dignity and safety of people fleeing persecution and war in places like Iraq and Syria,” Mr Ronalds said.

“The Turnbull Government has endlessly trumpeted its immigration policies, but at the same time sought to hide their true costs through secrecy laws which criminalise whistle-blowers who disclose human rights violations, protocols of operational secrecy and a refusal to establish adequate independent monitoring mechanisms.

“These findings will allow the Australian people to understand the full effect that the actions being carried out in their name have on the lives of vulnerable children and their families, the budget bottom line, and our broader strategic interests in the region and across the globe.”

Ms Breeze added that the Australian Government has an opportunity to pivot its framework towards a durable regional solution, which would address the human and strategic toll of the current approach and be more cost effective for taxpayers. 

“Asylum seeker policy has been a perennial concern for Australian Governments.  We know that there is no such thing as a ‘once and for all’ solution to complex policy questions.  This report aims to readjust ways of understanding the current picture and open dialogue with government on credible and cost effective changes that can be made as a matter of urgency,” Ms Breeze said.

Save the Children and UNICEF are calling on the Australian Government to find safe and sustainable resettlement options for refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island as an urgent priority. This should include immediately taking up New Zealand’s offer to settle 150 refugees a year from Nauru and Manus Island.

The report also urges the Australian Government to proactively support the establishment of a regional protection framework for asylum seeker and refugee children and families across South East Asia. This would mean refugees and asylum seekers would have protected legal status, so they are not arbitrarily deported or detained, as well as access to basic rights, services and support to enable them to live a sustainable and dignified existence while a durable solution is found. This would be coupled with an increase in Australia’s annual humanitarian intake to 30,000 by 2018-19 to further encourage people seeking refuge to embrace safe and regulated resettlement pathways.

The report also reveals how Australia’s deterrent immigration approach has taken a heavy toll on asylum seeker and displaced children including exposing them to a wide range of dangers and hardships while in Australia’s immigration processing system, including on Nauru; potentially returning them to harm in countries they have fled; leaving them to face danger, persecution and discrimination in their home countries, or a multitude of hardships in countries of transit or first asylum. 

Mr Ronalds said in light of these findings, it will be hard for the Prime Minister to mount a credible argument that Australia is a compassionate and constructive player in the global refugee and migrant crisis. 

“In less than a week, the Prime Minister will fly out for the United Nations General Assembly meeting where the world will attempt to address the massive refugee crisis before it,” Mr Ronalds said.

“The Prime Minister should use this moment to redirect Australia’s approach to refugees and asylum seekers and embrace greater regional cooperation and provide protection for some of the world’s most vulnerable children. 

“This would allow Australia to phase out boat turn-backs, restore some global credibility and begin to repair our relationship with Indonesia, one of our closest most important strategic partners,” added Mr Ronalds.

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The estimated economic cost of Australia’s immigration policies draws together the budget impact of maintaining offshore detention centres, onshore detentions centres, boat-turn backs and the failed Cambodia resettlement agreement. But it does not capture other costs, such as the numerous reviews and inquiries into the system, the government’s defence of legal challenges, and compensation for employees and contractors who have suffered damage while working at the frontline of the asylum seeker response.

Alone, maintaining offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea costs $400,000 per asylum seeker, per year. Alternatively, onshore immigration detention costs $240,000 per person detained. By comparison community detention and bridging visa options have a much lower cost of around $90,000 and $33,000 respectively.

The United Nations estimated that there were over 65 million forced migrants across the planet last year, about half children. 3.8 million are in the Asia-Pacific region.

Of the planet’s 21 million refugees, just 107,100 were able to access resettlement places in 2015.

Analysis of UNHCR statistics reveal that the refugees and asylum seekers living in key transit and host countries – Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia – has increased by 35 per cent over the last three years.• At the United Nations General Assembly meeting, which begins on September 19, countries are expected to adopt a new global agreement to bolster international cooperation in addressing migration and refugee issues.

On September 20, US President Barack Obama will also host a migration summit for world leaders, who are being asked to bring new commitments to ease the global humanitarian crisis, including offers of increased resettlement pathways.

For more information please contact:

Unicef UK Press Office, 00 44 (0) 207 375 6030

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