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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 7067

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (5:44 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak this evening on the Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009. It is becoming increasingly apparent that holding people liable for their immigration detention costs is simply no longer justifiable—in fact, I understand that we are the only country in the world that holds people liable for their immigration detention costs. I am happy to be first for a lot of things in the world, on behalf of Australia, but that is not one that I am happy with. I am quite surprised to hear some of the speakers on the other side of the House defending this. I am a bit ashamed that we are the only country in the world that holds people liable for their immigration detention costs.

In the past four financial years, 17,355 detainees have been billed for time spent in detention, amounting to a total of over $170 million. However, a relatively small percentage of this debt has actually been recovered. In 2004-05, 5,542 detainees were invoiced for their time in detention. The total of this debt was approximately $65 million. The total debt recovered, both onshore and offshore, was $1,253,995. In percentage terms, this was merely 1.9 per cent.

In 2007-08, the number of detainees subject to monetary charges for time in detention was 2,386. These reduced numbers reflect the fact that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship was detaining far fewer numbers of people than was the case in 2004-05. Nevertheless, out of a total bill of approximately $23 million, only $870,830 was recovered, representing only 3.2 per cent of the total charged. Given these figures, it is apparent that the cost of administering the system of detention debt recovery is greater than the amount that is actually recovered. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans, has remarked:

It does seem to be a crazy situation to run a system to raise debt when it costs us as much to raise the debt as it does to generate income from it.

The majority of immigration debts have been written off because they are uneconomical to pursue, while a very small number of these debts have been waived in exceptional circumstances. However, not only is the recovery of detention debt uneconomical; it is also unjust. It is punitive and it has been found to cause emotional strain to former detainees and their families.

As I pointed out earlier, Australia is the only country that holds detainees liable for their detention costs. Not only are we the only country to hold detainees liable but as Azadeh Dastyari, of the Castan Centre for Human Rights, has noted, there is no other form of detention in Australia that imposes a charge on a person who is detained or incarcerated. Ms Dastyari stated:

Citizens and non-citizens who are detained as punishment for crimes are not made liable for the cost of their detention… Other detainees subjected to ‘administrative detention’ such as individuals suffering from mental health issues who are detained pursuant to the Mental Health Act 1983 are not required to reimburse the Commonwealth for the cost of the deprivation to their liberty. Nor are detainees detained for quarantine reasons pursuant to the Quarantine Act 1908 (Cth), required to pay for their segregation from the Australian community. Detention of non-citizens pursuant to the Migration Act 1958 remains the only form of detention in Australia that requires the detained to pay for their own detention.

The costs of detention are high, and these high costs tend to place emotional strain on both detainees and their families. The cost of one day in detention is $125.40. For one month this balloons to $3,762. For one year the cost is $45,144, and for five years it is $225,720. For families who are kept in detention, the figure is much higher—for example, an Iranian family who spent three years in Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia were advised by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship that they owed approximately $200,000 for their time in detention. There is the example of another family who were advised that their debt was more than $340,000. This amount of money will buy a house for a family in any of the outer stretches of suburbs of any of the Australian capital cities. Imagine the strain and stress of a debt that size facing a family.

The Joint Standing Committee on Migration noted the adverse effects of detention debt, stating:

…detention debts are a source of substantial anxiety to ex-detainees, and may impede the capacity of the ex-detainees to establish a productive life, either in Australia or elsewhere.

The Joint Standing Committee on Migration also commented on:

… the limited earning capacity of many people on their release from detention, and the financial hardship that substantial debts caused.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has also expressed his concerns, noting:

Complaints to the Ombudsman’s office indicate that the size of some debts cause stress, anxiety and financial hardship to many individuals who are now living lawfully in the Australian community, as well as for those who have left Australia.

For many people who are currently burdened with these debts, the carriage of this bill will give them the chance to start life afresh and make a significant contribution to society.

The extinguishment of these debts will not be retrospective—that is, if any debts have already been paid, they will not be refundable, unless exceptional circumstances apply such as if the person was unlawfully detained. As I said, the amount of money involved is not that high anyway. Also, people who are removed from Australia will still be expected to pay for their own travel costs. Whilst detention debts will be abolished for many people, this bill will retain and clarify provisions of the Migration Act which relate to the liability of convicted illegal foreign fishers and convicted people smugglers for detention and transportation costs, contrary to the inference of the previous speaker. Additionally, section 262 in division 14 of part 2 of the act will be amended to allow the minister to determine the daily amount for keeping and maintaining a person in detention at a specified place in a specified period. This will ensure that the detention costs of illegal foreign fishers, convicted people smugglers and liable third parties are clearly specified.

Unlike many people who enter Australia and are detained, illegal foreign fishers and people smugglers have no intention of residing in Australia or make any contribution to this country—therefore, by continuing to charge these people for their time in detention, the Australian government is sending a clear message to these people that their actions will not be tolerated, whilst supporting the integrity of Australia’s border security regime. Since being elected, the government has taken a number of steps to improve Australia’s immigration policies. The decision to abolish detention debt for most of Australia’s detainees is a welcome step. I commend this bill to the House.