The cost of Australia's asylum policy

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The exact financial cost of Australia’s asylum seeker policy can be very difficult to establish. This is because expenditure ranges across a number of government programs and portfolios. Sources detailing expenditure in this area of policy are listed below.

How much does it cost to detain asylum seekers?

In April 2014, the National Commission of Audit reported that between 2009-10 and 2013-14 annual expenditure on the detention and processing of asylum seekers who arrived by boat increased from $118.4 million to $3.3 billion. 

The Commission reported that it costs:

  • $400,000 a year to hold an asylum seeker in offshore detention; 
  • $239,000 to hold them in detention in Australia; 
  • less than $100,000 for an asylum seeker to live in community detention; and,
  • around $40,000 for an asylum seeker to live in the community on a bridging visa while their claim is processed

A 2015 report by the International Detention Coalition on alternatives to detention found that Australia spends twice as much detaining an asylum seeker onshore than the United States, Canada, or countries within Europe, at an estimated $655 per person per day. A 2011 study indicated that the cost of mental health care over the course of one person’s lifetime can increase considerably – by up to 50% more than the average person, or $25,000 – if that person has been held for a lengthy period in immigration detention.

Some additional details on expenditure for individual detention centres, both onshore and offshore, can be found through Senate Estimates transcripts and related documents, and through federal budget papers. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Library has a guide to terminology and concepts in the Budget, and a publication outlining costs of asylum policy. 


Reports from committee inquiries relating to asylum policy may include references to the cost of services or facilities. Examples include

  • Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Serious allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers in relation to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, and any like allegations in relation to the Manus Regional Processing Centre, 2017 report
  • Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre on Nauru, 2015 report
  • Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Incident at the Manus Island Detention Centre from 16 to 18 February 2014, 2014 report
  • Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network, 2012 report 

What economic contribution do refugees make to a community?

Studies have shown that refugees can bring material, cultural and demographic benefits to the communities in which they settle. While refugees may find it difficult to get jobs initially, over time their labour participation rate increases and they can make a significant economic contribution. This contribution can be facilitated by appropriate policy responses. Studies examining the economic contribution of refugees are listed below. 

Australian resources

  • A 2017 study led by Professor Jock Collins of the University of Technology Sydney, titled From Refugee to Entrepreneur in Sydney in Less than Three Years,  examines the success of refugee entrepreneurs who took part in Settlement Services International’s ‘Ignite Small Business Start-ups Program’, an initiative which facilitates business creation for people from refugee backgrounds who are keen to establish a small business or expand an existing one.
  • A 2017 report by the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), Settling Better: Reforming Refugee Employment and Settlement Services analyses the data from a longitudinal study carried out by the Australian Institute of Family Studies -  Building a New Life in Australia, which follows the experiences of humanitarian migrants spanning from their early months in Australia through to their eligibility for citizenship.
  • A 2016 ‘factcheck’ in The Conversation, authored by Dr Lisa Hartley and Dr Caroline Fleay of Curtin University, examines some myths and questions around labour market outcomes for refugees and government spending on refugee resettlement.  
  • The National Centre for Longitudinal Data has found that the vast majority of newly resettled refugees are literate in their own language and just over half understand spoken English on arrival: Building a New Life in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Humanitarian Migrants, initial findings, September 2015 
  • According to an analysis by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, humanitarian entrants to Australia are more entrepreneurial than settlers arriving through other streams of the immigration program: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Linking Migrant Settlement Records to Personal Income Tax Data: Report on Personal Income of Migrants, Experimental, Australia, 2015 
  • A study of Karen refugees in the Victorian town of Nhill found their resettlement helped to address labour shortages and demographic decline, and boosted the local economy by $41.5m: AMES and Deloitte Access Economics, Small Towns, Big Returns: economic and social impact of the Karen resettlement in Nhill, AMES, March 2015.
  • A 2013 paper produced for the Multicultural Development Association by social researcher Richard Parsons explores existing research on the economic contribution of refugees to the Australian community, and finds that refugees ‘do make significant economic contributions to Australia, although substantial barriers may be constraining and delaying contributions’: R. Parsons, Assessing the economic contribution of refugees in Australia, Multicultural Development Association, 2013.
  • A 2016 article also authored by Parsons, titled Refugees: Economic Burden or Opportunity?, provides an updated overview of studies assessing the economic impact of refugees on Australia, as well as some studies concerning other countries of resettlement, including the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.
  • A study commissioned by the Department of Immigration found that refugees who settle in Australia are a young and entrepreneurial cohort: G. Hugo, A Significant Contribution: the economic, social and civic contributions of first and second generation humanitarian entrants: summary of findings, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2011

International resources