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Counting the costs of asylum: a purely financial account

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Immigration Counting the costs of asylum: a purely financial account Gareth Larsen Spending on activities associated with irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) is large and complex. The array of government agencies, portfolios and programs involved with responding to IMAs—but which also deliver many broader services, such as quarantine—means that no Australian government has ever provided a single figure estimate of the total costs involved.

Whilst the figures below are by no means a complete depiction of IMA-associated spending, a path is mapped across Commonwealth programs and coffers to provide policy makers and reviewers with a starting point for assessment.

Customs will spend around $342m (in 2013-14) on Civil Maritime Surveillance and Response, targeting threats including IMAs as well as illegal exploitation of natural resources, marine pollution, prohibited imports and exports, bio-security, piracy, robbery or violence at sea, and maritime terrorism. Responding to IMAs also factors into one-off costs associated with vessel upgrades in 2010-11 (estimated at $350m), and diversions by leased ships into northern waters to intercept vessels or to transport IMAs (a small proportion of the total spending of around $68m in 2013-14).

Customs Civil Maritime Surveillance and Response

(2013-14) $342m

One-off costs for Customs vessel upgrades

(2011) $350m

Diversions by Customs leased vessels in northern waters

(2013-14) $68m


“Operation Resolute”

(per year) $262m

Immigration - Offshore Asylum Seeker Management - PNG

(2013-17) $0.9b

Immigration - Offshore Asylum Seeker Management - Nauru

(2013-17) $1.4b

Regional Settlement Arrangement -PNG and Nauru


(over 4 years)


Onshore community and detention services

(2013-14) $91m

AFP ASIO Community Policing

and Response

(over 2 years) $54m

Security Assessments conducted by ASIO


Imprisonment: People Smuggling

(min 5 year term) $0.5m pp

Investigations and Prosecutions: People smuggling

(2013-14) $282m

Deterring People Smuggling

(over 4 years) $150m

Overseas development assistance - PNG

(over 4 years) $420m

Additional amount for re-establishing offshore facilities

(2012-13) $267m

Total spent across 19 operating Immigration sites, including Christmas Island

(2011-12) $629m


No Australian Government has produced a dollar figure on the cost of boat arrivals This is just some of spending involved Disclaimer: these costs may be estimates, or part of figures mentioned. Further detail is available in the Parliamentary Library research paper:

“Australian Government spending on irregular maritime arrivals and counter-people smuggling activity”

Chart shows Commonwealth spending on IMAs (estimates only).


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Defence targets similar threats through Operation RESOLUTE, which involves personnel, patrol aircraft, patrol boats, surveillance units, and a standby Navy Major Fleet Unit. Whilst Defence reports funding of around $10m (2013-14) for Operation RESOLUTE, the Lowy Institute has calculated the actual cost to be at least $262m per year.

Immigration costs associated with offshore asylum seeker management were estimated at over $2 billion in 2012-13. Re-establishing regional processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea has led to additional costs, including $267m in capital funding. The facility in PNG will incur operating costs of $0.9 billion over four years and Nauru $1.4 billion over forward estimates.

Other costs include security checks for asylum seekers aged 16 and over, which tend to be complex and extensive, and police services to respond to disturbances at detention facilities and maintain a community presence. Policing Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) are in place with the Northern Territory, Tasmania and Victoria, with the NT MOU alone involving $53m of Commonwealth funding. Funding for people smuggling investigations included under Australian Federal Police Program 1.3 Operations—Policing (which includes IMAs) is around $273m in 2013-14. Additionally, around $9m was allocated for people smuggling prosecutions in 2012-13. Imprisonment costs are estimated at $0.5m per convicted smuggler serving the minimum 5 years.

Prevention measures involve a host of initiatives which include: Australian-based personnel stationed overseas ($10m over 2 years); communications campaigns (around $4m over 2 years); working with regional law enforcement agencies ($3m in 2013-14); foreign affairs preventative initiatives (around $4m in 2013-14); immigration policy communication campaigns (around $4m over 2 years); and improving engagement with origin and transit countries (around $66m over 4 years).

For further information, refer to the Parliamentary Library Research Paper Australian Government spending on irregular maritime arrivals and counter-people smuggling activity, which considers all the issue and costs in detail and includes links to relevant source material.


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