The true cost of reopening the Christmas Island detention centre

Australian Border Force has announced plans to reopen Australia’s immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, citing capacity issues in the onshore detention system. Global COVID-19 measures such as reduced flights and border closures, the ABF says, have delayed numerous deportations; this has placed Australia’s onshore immigration detention network under increased pressure and necessitated the reopening of the Christmas Island facility.

Crowding is certainly an issue within the detention system, and urgent action is needed to reduce the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak. Reopening the Christmas Island detention facility, however, is not the solution. Safer, more humane and more fiscally responsible alternatives exist.

Mandatory detention has been a cornerstone of Australia’s response to people seeking asylum since 1992. Australia’s Migration Act requires the detention of all non-citizens who are in Australia without authorisation, until they are removed from the country or granted a visa. This policy has seen thousands of asylum seekers transferred to Australia’s offshore processing facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, or detained within Australia’s onshore immigration detention network.  

There are currently six operational detention facilities on the Australian mainland. These are prison-like centres, most of which are located on the outskirts of our capital cities. Additionally, numerous Alternative Places of Detention (APODs), including hotels, are being used for detention purposes.

Government statistics indicate there are around 1,458 people in Australia’s onshore detention network. This includes approximately:

  • 130 people who have overstayed their visas;
  • 799 people whose visas have been cancelled (in some cases due to criminal convictions); and
  • 505 irregular maritime arrivals, including nearly two hundred refugees and asylum seekers – medical evacuees from Australia’s offshore processing facilities – held in APODs. Many of these individuals have been detained by Australia for over seven years.

The ABF’s concerns about overcrowding in the onshore detention network are certainly valid. Detainees have been raising the alarm for months regarding the impossibility of adhering to COVID-19 physical distancing requirements within the centres. Some fear it is only a matter of time before an outbreak occurs.

Internationally, numerous detention centres have already become COVID-19 hotspots. Countries such as the UK, Canada and Spain have responded to the threat by releasing a portion of their immigration detention populations. Yet the Australian government has so far ignored calls from health experts, academics, human rights organisations and the Commonwealth Ombudsman to reduce its own immigration detention population. Instead, it is doubling down on its hard-line policy of indefinite mandatory detention.


What reopening Christmas Island would mean

Australia’s immigration detention centre on Christmas Island has frequently been used to detain asylum seekers. Indeed, the Biloela family is currently detained on the island (though not in the centre itself).

The ABF has insisted, however, that no refugees or asylum seeker will be transferred to the Christmas Island facility upon its reopening, but only ‘those convicted of criminal offences’. Yet the ABF has also indicated that moving higher-risk detainees to Christmas Island will allow the redistribution of other detainees within the network.

This is a cruel development, and the human and economic costs will be considerable.

Most obviously, expanding Australia’s detention network at a time when institutions are becoming hotspots for COVID-19 is a dangerous move. The prospect of a virus outbreak at the Christmas Island facility is particularly concerning given the limited healthcare available there.

Relocations within the detention network will also harm detainees’ mental health. Immigration detainees are already at serious risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Rates of self-harm in detention are alarmingly high. Forcibly moving detainees within or beyond the mainland will damage vital lifelines to friends, family members, legal representatives and health professionals. This will compromise the already fragile wellbeing of detainees, and is particularly concerning in the context of government efforts to deny detainees access to mobile phones.

Reopening the Christmas Island detention facility will be very costly, with the price expected to run into the tens of millions. Moving detainees between existing facilities on the mainland will add further expense. In 2018-19, the Department of Home Affairs spent $6.1m flying detainees between onshore immigration detention facilities. Given the scale of the proposed relocations, this year’s travel bill will likely be even higher.

The ongoing operational costs also warrant consideration. According to figures from the Refugee Council of Australia, it costs Australia:

  • Over $346,000 per person, per year, to hold someone in an immigration detention facility;
  • $103,343 per person, per year, to hold someone in community detention; and
  • $10,221 per person, per year, to support an asylum seeker living in the community on a bridging visa.

Immigration detention facilities have never been justifiable on economic grounds.


The alternatives

If the government is serious about addressing capacity issues in Australia’s onshore immigration detention network, better options are available.

The most humane and affordable solution would be to grant detainees bridging visas while their substantive visa applications are processed. This is not a novel suggestion. Government statistics from May 2020 indicate that 12,545 asylum seekers are already living in the Australian community on bridging visas. Many detainees have family and friends in Australia who could ease their transition into community life. Those detainees who have already been found to be refugees could similarly be granted protection visas.

A second option would be to release detainees into community detention. Detainees in immigration detention facilities and APODs are under constant guard and are unable to leave their place of detention. In contrast, those in community detention live in parole-style conditions within the community. These detainees are not given a visa, and must comply with requirements such as sleeping at a specified residence and regularly reporting to authorities.

Australia’s immigration detention population is diverse, and it would be naïve to suggest that community arrangements would be appropriate for all detainees. But suggestions that Australia’s onshore immigration detention facilities are filled with dangerous criminals are simply untrue.

Many detainees have no criminal history and pose no threat to the Australian public.

The stakes are too high for a bloody-minded commitment to hard-line immigration detention policies.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Michelle Peterie

Dr Michelle Peterie is a Research Fellow at the University of Wollongong.

More by Michelle Peterie ›

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  1. This is a great article. It is noticeably in line with the advice given to the Government by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, The Human Rights Commissioner, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry, the Academy of Child and Adolescent Health, and 1183 Health professionals who signed a letter by infectious diseases expert Dr David Isaacs.

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