The cost of Australia's asylum policy

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  Download factsheet: The cost of Australia's asylum policy - A guide to sources

This factsheet provides a guide to sources on the financial cost of Australia’s asylum policy, as well as information regarding the economic contribution of refugees.

How much does Australia’s asylum policy cost?

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. 


National Commission of Audit

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

Senate Estimates

Some details on expenditure for individual detention centres, both onshore and offshore, can be found through Senate Estimates transcripts and additional documents. Recent figures include operational, capital and/or health care costs for the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre; Nauru Regional Processing Centre; Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre; and Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre. 

Federal Budget

The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2015-16 showed increased expenditure on the offshore detention, processing and settlement of asylum seekers and refugees. Under the 2016-17 Federal Budget, total funding for the detention and processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru is estimated at around $880.5m for 2016-17. In relation to the management of asylum seekers who arrived by boat and are in Australia, total expenses for the last financial year 2015-16 are estimated at $1.2b. The 2016-17 budget provides for the closure of three mainland detention facilities and capital works on other centres, as well as additional funds of $39.8m to support asylum seekers who arrived in Australia with a valid visa during the processing of their protection claims. 

In addition to the cost of detention and processing discussed above, there are additional areas of expenditure for the maritime interception of asylum seekers and measures to combat people-smuggling. These include:

  • Department of Immigration and Border Protection funding for the placement of Australian Border Force officials in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.  
  • Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade funding for an Ambassador for People Smuggling and Human Trafficking, and taskforces and high-level meetings related to the Bali Process. 
  • Department of Defence funding for Operation Resolute, which contributes to the protection of Australia’s border and maritime interests, including the maritime interception of asylum seekers. 

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Library has a useful guide to the terminology and concepts in the Federal Budget, as well as a factsheet outlining costs of asylum policy.

Committee inquiries 

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

  • Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network, 2012 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

Studies of detention costs

  • 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.
  • A 2007 study jointly published by Oxfam Australia and A Just Australia estimated that processing asylum seekers on Manus, Nauru and Christmas Island during the period 2001 and 2007 cost around $1 billion. 

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

International resources