As the Albanese government prepares to finalise a Nauru contract with an American prisons operator, the cost of the brutal enterprise has stretched into billions of dollars. By Mike Seccombe.

‘I am hopeless now’: Australia’s $9.65 billion torture camps

An aerial shot of Nauru.
An aerial shot of Nauru.
Credit: Robert Szymanski / Shutterstock

Last year, the Morrison government spent at least $3.4 million making Ali’s life miserable. In the eight years prior to that, many, many more millions were spent imprisoning the young man who, as a 17-year-old fearing for his life, fled Afghanistan and took a boat to what he hoped to be a better future in Australia, only to end up on Nauru.

The outcome of all that cruel spending is clear in his flat, uninflected voice, coming down the bad line from the island on Tuesday. He says he wants to end his life but, in a way, his words suggest it has ended already. For what is life without hope?

“I am hopeless now,” he says.

Ali has given up on joining his uncle, who made it to Australia in 2001 and now is an Australian citizen. He has given up on his aspirations to go to university and find a job. He has given up on the prospect of resettlement in any third country, given up imagining any future different from his present.

Putting aside the human cost of this system, the financial cost involved in the policy is extraordinary.

Since 2013, when then prime minister Kevin Rudd declared no asylum seeker who came here by boat without a visa would ever be settled in Australia, enormous sums have been spent on the offshore detention of people such as Ali.

Analysis of federal budgets by the Refugee Council of Australia shows total spending from July 2013, when Rudd made his vow, up to and including this year’s budget, is $9.65 billion.

The true cost is likely several billion dollars higher, according to analysis by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney, because it is unclear to what extent, if at all, it covers things such as aid and development assistance provided to Nauru and Papua New Guinea to secure their ongoing offshore processing agreement.

Nor does it appear to include the expense of detaining or meeting the needs of the more than 1100 people who have been transferred back to Australia on a temporary basis for medical or other reasons, charter flights and escorts between countries, and so on. What is clear is that the per-person cost of this system has grown as the number held offshore has diminished. Of just over 3100 people who arrived after June 2013 and were originally put onto Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, more than 900 were subsequently forced back to the country from which they fled, often to face significant danger. Others died while in detention.

Up to another 1250 are subject to a resettlement agreement established with the United States in 2016, a deal senate estimates was told in April would be completed by the end of this year. Almost 1000 people had already been resettled and a further 230 had received notification of their provisional approval.

About 50 people have gone to other countries – including Cambodia, which was paid an estimated $55 million to resettle seven people, and Canada, which has for decades allowed citizens to privately sponsor refugees, in addition to the official national intake.

New Zealand has agreed to take 450 over three years. This offer was first made in 2013, but the Morrison government refused it until March this year, when it felt threatened by the raft of teal independent candidates for the upcoming election. No one has yet gone to New Zealand.

According to the most recent official figures, there were only 104 asylum seekers left in Papua New Guinea and 112 on Nauru. There are fewer than that now, although exactly how many is hard to say because the relevant government department, now called Home Affairs, is highly secretive and obstructive about its ongoing efforts to export people who, under international law, should be Australia’s responsibility.

An example illustrates the point. On Wednesday Ian Rintoul, of the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, told The Saturday Paper he believed eight people were due to be flown from Papua New Guinea for resettlement in the US this week. A similar number were expected to fly from Nauru to the US next week.

Rintoul’s understanding was not based on any formal notification from the department to him or anyone else in the advocacy network. It was based on communication with the refugees themselves, who have been notified their departure is imminent.

When he spoke to The Saturday Paper, Rintoul was still trying to confirm whether the transfers were taking place.

When this paper sought confirmation from the department, the emailed response was that Australia and the US were “committed to maximising resettlement outcomes for persons under regional processing arrangements”. Hundreds of individuals, it said, “continue to explore United States resettlement opportunities” and US government decisions “effect resettlement departures at regular intervals”.

Why the department couldn’t give a straight answer to an easy question is perplexing, although Rintoul notes: “It wouldn’t be the first time, particularly with PNG, that people have been promised resettlement and it hasn’t eventuated.”

Nonetheless, he and other refugee advocates suggest the numbers held offshore could be soon in the dozens rather than hundreds. Which prompts the question of why the government persists with offshore detention at all.

“Why not bring them back?” asks Dr Graham Thom, refugee adviser with Amnesty International Australia.

“If they’re on a pathway somewhere, why not do it from here? Why are you putting them through this horrible situation in PNG, who don’t want them there? Or spending large sums of money to keep them on Nauru?

“Yet they’ve just given the contract to a new organisation to look after the refugees who are left on Nauru.”

He is referring to the US-based Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which has been selected by the department to take the provision of “facilities, garrison, transferee arrivals and reception services” from Canstruct International, which had run the offshore processing regime on Nauru since 2017.

Inquiries to the office of the minister for Home Affairs, Clare O’Neil, elicited a terse response: “As the tender is yet to be finalised, we are not able to provide any further details related to the process.”

The department response was longer but not much more informative, referring to the contract as “proposed”. It also claimed “no transferees are in detention” and all lived in “community accommodation”.

MTC is an operator of private prisons, the third largest in the US. An investigation by Guardian Australia this week detailed a “litany of security breaches and custodial failures” by the company leading to alleged rape, murder and wrongful detention.

The suitability of the new contractor is one issue; the cost of the contract is another. Nothing has yet been made public. In any case, initial contract prices for immigration detention are far from reliable. Data analysis by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) of major contracts awarded to nine companies for both offshore and onshore operations found that on average actual costs were about double the initial agreement: $12.74 billion, of which $6.6 billion was in amended costs.

The Morrison government’s last budget, delivered in March, two months before it lost the election, allocated $482.5 million for offshore processing in 2022-23, which seems extraordinary considering no one has been sent to offshore processing since 2014, and so few remain on Nauru.

“Given the hoped-for moves to the US, Canada and New Zealand, there’ll be only a very small number by the end of the year, so what exactly will this organisation who specialises in locking people up be doing on Nauru?” asks Thom.

Answer: not much, except for continuing an exercise in performative punishment. Both major political parties have long argued offshore detention of asylum seekers deters people smugglers. However, the evidence suggests the measure that has actually stopped the flow has been intercepting and turning back boats.

“The current system is a moral and financial black hole,” says Ogy Simic, acting director of advocacy and campaigns at the ASRC.

“Since 2013 there have been 14 deaths as a result of offshore detention. There is overwhelming documentation of serious abuses, including child sexual abuse, medical negligence and high levels of self-harm under the offshore detention system.

“The agreements with New Zealand and the US along with Canada and other European countries will offer a pathway to many of those held offshore. They can wait for the process to complete in the community in Australia.”

It might be a better solution, but it is far from ideal, says long-time refugee campaigner Pamela Curr. Sending people for resettlement in other countries – particularly to the US – brings other problems.

She cites a few. One is a woman who suffered internal injuries during a difficult birth on Nauru. She was unable to access badly needed surgery here, and now has gone to the US, sure she won’t be able to get medical care there but prepared to suffer for the sake of her children. Another is a man who was flown without knowing where he was going and ended up penniless and lost in Las Vegas when the American caseworker who was supposed to meet him didn’t turn up. She mentions a woman who is eligible for the US program, but her husband and their Australian-born child are not.

“We are shovelling people into America,” Curr says. “They’re supposed to get a caseworker for three months, then they’re basically on their own. Some of them will survive and some of them are ill-equipped. There’s already been three deaths. One guy recently was in a restaurant at night and somebody shot him, one of those random shootings in America. Came off Manus, winds up dead in America.”

There are simply not enough resettlement places available to accommodate the couple of hundred still held offshore, as well as some 1100 people already onshore, having been medically evacuated or otherwise brought to Australia from Nauru or PNG.

Even if the US and New Zealand offers are fully subscribed, says Curr, there are at least 600 people with no place to go. “And the Labor government is saying they can’t stay here.”

This leaves hundreds of people in a similar situation to Ali, categorised as “transitory”, but with nowhere and nothing to transit to – except they are in Australia, instead of PNG or Nauru.

The costs here are also significant. It costs more than $450,000 a year to keep people in what are called alternative places of detention, which means hotel accommodation. For those in onshore detention centres, the cost is more than $360,000. Community detention costs almost $47,000 a year.

“That’s where they’re provided with housing, given a small stipend to live on, have their utilities bills paid but are not allowed to work,” says Curr. “There are now around nearly 600 people in community detention, including, I think, 172 kids. Seventy-five per cent have been in community detention for five years or more.”

Another cohort is on bridging visas with work rights, at a much lower cost of $4400 per person per year.

But while that option is cheaper for taxpayers, it is still punitive. Even though the great majority of these people have been determined to be genuine refugees and therefore Australia’s responsibility under international law, the government refuses to grant them permanent protection and they remain here on a “temporary” basis. Bridging visas are precarious and there is no path to permanent residency or citizenship.

“I’ve spoken to the government about getting people off Nauru and PNG and they say, ‘Yes, we’re taking action, but these are complicated situations.’ I understand that. But we need to move hard and fast on this,” says Allegra Spender, the independent member for Wentworth.

“There are still many thousands of people in Australia who are not able to work. When we have such a well-documented skills and labour shortage, these are people that we should absolutely be putting to work and giving them the opportunity to build their lives here.”

Another independent, the veteran Andrew Wilkie, introduced a private member’s bill last month, the Ending Indefinite and Arbitrary Immigration Detention Bill 2022, that would end offshore immigration detention, which he described as “abhorrent, cruel and in clear breach of refugee and international human rights law”. The bill provides for detention in only very limited circumstances.

Of course, Wilkie says, the logical and humane thing would be to let asylum seekers stay and give them a path to citizenship. But he knows politics is the art of the possible, and what his bill proposes already is “pretty ambitious”.

In the remote chance that it were to pass, Wilkie’s bill would see Ali brought to Australia. It would let him work. But he would still be “transitory” or “temporary”, potentially removable at some unspecified future date. The security he hoped to find in this country when he fled Afghanistan nine years ago is still denied to him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "‘I am hopeless now ’: Australia’s $9.65 billion torture camps".

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