Fact check: Does Australia spend more on offshore processing than the UN spends on refugee programs in South East Asia?
Updated 21 Jul 2015, 11:09am
Human rights advocates are challenging the Abbott Government's spending on offshore processing.
- The claim: Daniel Webb, director of the Human Rights Law Centre, says Australia is currently spending "more than five times the United Nations refugee agency's entire budget for all of South East Asia" on offshore processing of asylum seekers.
- The verdict: Although difficult to pinpoint a final figure, current spending for the 2014-15 financial year based on Senate estimates is comfortably over $1 billion, while the UN's budget for the South East Asia region is $US157 million in 2015. Mr Webb's claim checks out.
In May lawyers acting for asylum seekers detained offshore launched a High Court case that challenges, in part, whether the government has the power to spend public money on the policy.
Daniel Webb, director of the Human Rights Law Centre and a lawyer involved in the case, said money spent on offshore detention could be much better spent on developing "safe pathways to protection" for refugees.
"We're currently spending $1 billion a year detaining asylum seekers offshore. That's more than five times the United Nations refugee agency's entire budget for all of South East Asia",he said when the proceedings began on May 14.
How does Australia's offshore processing spending compare to the South East Asian budget for the UN refugee agency? ABC Fact Check takes a look.
Asylum seekers are processed by the country they arrive in to determine whether they can gain the protections of refugee status.
In August 2012, the Gillard Labor Government introduced legislation that meant all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat are now sent to offshore processing facilities.
According to the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales, the government began transferring asylum seekers to two overseas centres shortly afterwards – to Nauru in September 2012, and to Manus Island, a part of Papua New Guinea, in November 2012.
As of May 2015, there were a total of 1,577 men, women and children in regional processing centres: 635 on Nauru; and 943 on Manus Island.
The cost of running offshore processing centres
Fact Check asked Daniel Webb from the Human Rights Law Centre for the basis of his claim about "current spending".
He referred to Senate estimates hearings for the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio from the 2014-15 federal budget - specifically from October 2014.
Mr Webb made his comment two days after Treasurer Joe Hockey handed down the 2015-16 budget, which contained updated figures for 2014-15, and forecasts for the four years of the forward estimates.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection refers to the costs of offshore detention as having three components: operational "administered" expenditure on Manus Island and Nauru, which includes paying the private contractors who run the centres; expenditure by the department itself; and capital expenditure offshore.
At a Senate estimates hearing on May 26, the department's chief financial officer, Steven Groves, said the administered and departmental costs combined for July 2014 to April 2015 came to $821 million. He said that there was also capital expenditure offshore in that period of $286 million.
Together, these amount to $1.1 billion in the first 10 months of the 2014-15 financial year.
The department's portfolio budget statements released with the 2015-16 budget anticipate the full year's administered costs for offshore processing in 2014-15 to be $858 million and the departmental costs to be $54 million, a total of $912 million.
Any capital expenditure would be in addition to this figure, but no specific number was outlined for this expense offshore in the budget statements .
Mr Groves was also asked at Senate estimates in May about comparable figures for the previous two financial years.
He said in 2013-14, operating expenditure was $922 million and capital expenditure was $391 million, a total of $1.3 billion.
The previous financial year, when the processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru were opened, the operating expenditure was $205 million and capital expenditure was $139 million, a total of $344 million, he said.
Does the Government expect the costs to fall?
The budget papers predict that these figures will drop sharply over the coming years.
The head of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Michael Pezzullo, told the May 26 hearing that "Operation Sovereign Borders, in effect, has led, in bureaucratic terms, to a reduction in what is called demand."
Fewer people meant less money was needed, he said.
The department's budget statements give a breakdown of operating expenses, but not capital expenses.
They show that administered and departmental expenses on offshore management of asylum seekers are expected to be $811 million in 2015-16, about $100 million lower than in 2014-15.
The statements project that this figure will more than halve the following year to $349 million, and remain at about that level in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
While the portfolio statements do not give a specific figure for the capital expenditure on offshore processing, they do show that the department's overall capital expenditure over the forward estimates is projected to be lower that the capital expenditure on offshore processing alone has been in recent years.
In 2015-16, capital expenditure across the immigration department is expected to be $203 million before falling away to around $20 million in each of the following three years.
It is unknown what proportion of this will be spent on offshore processing facilities.
Together, these figures indicates that while the combined operational and capital expenditure on offshore processing could be close to $1 billion again in 2015-16, the Government expects it to fall to a less than $400 million a year after that.
These numbers include resettlement costs for asylum seekers moving into the community on Manus Island and Nauru, or taking up the option of transferring to Cambodia.
Where is the money spent at offshore processing centres?
In the October 2014 Senate Estimates, Mark Cormack from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection provided a breakdown of where money was allocated on Nauru for 2014-15:
The UN refugee agency
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (or UNHCR) was set up in 1950 in the aftermath of World War II.
It allocates money globally to four programs: refugees; statelessness; reintegration; and internally displaced persons.
Its work is carried out through several regional offices, including one in Bangkok covering Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
How much does it cost to run the agency in South East Asia?
According to UNHCR's website, the budget for the South East Asia region was $US159 million for 2014 and is estimated to be $US157 million for 2015.
The budget breakdown for the South East Asia region is as follows:
How does the UN spend its budget?
Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman from the UNHCR regional office in Bangkok, told Fact Check the South East Asia budget is used to cover over 200,000 refugees, half a million internally displaced people and nearly 1.4 million stateless persons in the region.
She said the exact expenditure within these programs varies across countries "depending on the needs and what we are authorised to do".
As a general guide, the refugee programs focus on providing relief supplies in the region's refugee camps, and ensuring access to basic services such as water, sanitation, health care, education, and camp management, she said.
The UNHCR's refugee program also "pursues durable solutions for refugees", aiming to resettle vulnerable populations in other countries, or return them to their own country when it is safe to do so.
Money spent under the internally displaced persons budget is used to "promote community co-existence, self-reliance and livelihoods to enable IDPs to return home eventually".
The statelessness programs work to prevent and reduce the number of people without a nationality by "engaging the authorities on relevant laws and policies on citizenship" and aiming towards law reform, birth registration and documentation to prevent the problem.
The Thailand breakdown shows $36 million out of the total $37.2 million allocated in 2015 is to be spent on refugee programs, with much of this going towards basic needs and essential services, and working towards "durable solutions" such as voluntary return and resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers.
Is it a useful comparison?
In his May 14 media release, Mr Webb explained why he compared Australia's offshore processing budget with the UNHCR's South East Asia budget.
"Instead of using costly and cruel measures to stop the boats, Australia should be working with the United Nations to address why people get on them in the first place," he said.
"We should be using our resources and our influence to develop safe pathways to protection for people who need to seek it."
The Refugee Council of Australia has also used a similar comparison.
In a recent submission to the Productivity Commission, the council contrasted government spending on asylum seekers with the total expenditure of the UNHCR in 2014.
It said the agency spent $3.72 billion worldwide "with which it did its best to respond to the needs of around 46.3 million refugees, internally displaced people and stateless people under its mandate.
"Clearly, there is a strong argument to be made that the money spent on Australia's asylum seeker policies could be put to far better use," the submission said.
Lucy Morgan from the Refugee Council told Fact Check: "If the Government instead channelled this money into improving protection and achieving solutions for displaced people overseas, it could help to resolve the issues which compel asylum seekers to undertake dangerous boat journeys in the first place."
Jane McAdam, director of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales, told Fact Check there is a point in comparing the amount of money Australia is spending on a few thousand people in offshore detention versus UNHCR's budget to show "how disproportionate it is (and where Australia's money could actually make a real difference to alleviating displacement)".
Mr Webb uses the comparison between offshore processing and the UN's refugee agency to argue government money could be better spent elsewhere, in light of the recent case launched in the High Court.
Offshore processing expenditure varies between years, and forward estimates suggest the overall costs needed to run Nauru and Manus Island will start to decrease sharply within the next two years.
Although difficult to pinpoint a final figure, current spending for the 2014-15 financial year based on Senate estimates is comfortably over $1 billion while the UN's budget for the South East Asia region is $US157 million in 2015.
Using the exchange rate at the time of Mr Webb's claim, Australia is currently spending more than five times the amount on offshore processing than the UNHCR spends in South East Asia.
Mr Webb's claim checks out.
- Human Rights Law Centre, High Court Challenge to Offshore Detention, May 14, 2015
- Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, Offshore Processing: Conditions, April 7, 2015
- Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary, May 2015
- Department of Immigration and Border Protection, 2015-16 Portfolio budget statements, May 2015
- Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, October 20, 2014
- Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, May 26, 2015
- Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
- UNHCR, Global Appeal 2015 update, South East Asia
- UNHCR, Global Appeal 2015 update, Thailand
- UNHCR, Global Appeal 2015 update, Myanmar