Responding to unauthorised arrivals

Budget Review 2015–16 Index

Harriet Spinks

The primary area of interest in the Immigration Portfolio budget over recent years has been the costs associated with irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs). Spending on this issue grew exponentially between 2009–10 and 2013–14, and a key Coalition election commitment was to end the ‘budget blowout’ in this area.[1]

The Abbott Government’s second Budget shows a further reduction in spending in on IMAs, reflecting the fact that the flow of IMAs to Australia has all but ceased. Only one asylum seeker vessel has arrived in Australia since the Coalition began turning boats around under its Operation Sovereign Borders policy, and all the passengers on that vessel were transferred offshore for processing.[2]

The savings announced as a result of the halt in the flow of IMAs will be achieved through various consolidations and efficiencies across the immigration detention network, including: $326.0 million through the closure of detention facilities on Christmas Island and in Darwin, $66.0 million due to the reduced use of charter flights between detention facilities, and $112.0 million in logistics and service costs across the detention network.[3] Total savings are expected to be $554.3 million over five years.[4]

Spending on irregular maritime arrivals

While $554.5 million in savings over five years is certainly significant, spending on IMAs remains high, at an estimated $2.3 billion in 2015–16.[5] Expenditure on IMA onshore management is expected to decline from almost $2.0 billion in 2014–15 to $1.5 billion in 2015–16. The savings in IMA offshore management are expected to be more modest, from $912.6 million in 2014–15 to $810.8 million in 2015–16. Further savings in both programs are expected over the forward estimates, with total spending on IMAs expected to decline to just over $1.0 billion by 2018–19.

However, it is also worth noting that actual spending on IMAs has been higher than anticipated every year since asylum seekers began arriving in large numbers in 2008–09.[6] For instance, the $2.9 billion spent in 2014–15 was higher than the $2.7 billion anticipated in the 2014–15 Budget. Spending on IMAs can vary considerably in response to fluctuations in the numbers of arrivals and changes in detention and processing arrangements. While these factors appear to be stable for now, it remains to be seen whether the Government can continue to keep spending down in this expensive, and often unpredictable, policy area.

Tracking spending

Tracking spending on IMAs over the last several years is complicated because the outcomes and program structure for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) have changed for the second year in a row. The change to the outcomes structure in 2015–16 is the result of the impending merger of the DIBP with the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service from 1 July 2015.

Under the new structure, spending on IMAs is captured under two programs: Programme 1.4 IMA Onshore Management (for IMAs who remain in Australia) and Programme 1.5 Offshore IMA Management (for IMAs who have been transferred to a Regional Processing Centre in Nauru or Papua New Guinea). In the 2014–15 Budget, IMA spending was spread across four programmes, with two each for onshore IMA management (Programmes 3.3 and 3.4) and offshore IMA management (Programmes 3.5 and 3.6).[7]

Refugee Resettlement

The 2015–16 Budget provides $389.6 million over two years for refugee resettlement arrangements for IMAs in offshore processing centres who are found to be refugees, and for the removal of those found not to be refugees.[8] This funding will be directed towards building the capacity of Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia to deliver settlement services to refugees. Some of the funding will come under Programme 1.5 IMA Offshore Management (which includes assisting partner countries in returning people to their country of origin and in managing the settlement of refugees). The measure also includes $141.9 million in capital funding to provide infrastructure (such as accommodation, health and education facilities) to support refugee resettlement in partner countries.

It should be noted that under the the terms of the agreements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea for the transfer and settlement of asylum seekers to those countries, and with Cambodia for the resettlement of people found to be refugees in Nauru, the Australian Government is responsible for the full cost associated with resettling those found to be refugees, with no time limit placed on the period over which these costs may be incurred. The funding announced for refugee resettlement in regional partner countries is provided over two years, but it is likely that resettlement support for IMAs in partner countries will continue to require funding well into the future.

Adult Migrant English Programme

Also of relevance to IMAs, the Budget provides $14.5 million in 2015–16 to extend the Adult Migrant English Programme (AMEP) to refugees on temporary substantive visas (Temporary Protection Visa, Safe Haven Enterprise Visa or Temporary (Humanitarian Concern) Visa).[9] These will be people from what the Coalition has termed the ‘legacy caseload’—around 30,000 people who arrived in Australia as IMAs under the Labor Government, but whose claims for protection had not been processed when the Government changed in 2013. Following the passage of the Migration and Maritime Powers Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Act 2014, people in this cohort are only eligible for a temporary visa, not a permanent protection visa.[10] Temporary protection visa holders are generally not eligible for the full range of government-funded settlement services.

This budget measure will allow people who arrived in Australia as IMAs, who have been found to be refugees and granted a temporary visa, to access the AMEP, which sits in the Education and Training Portfolio, and provides up to 510 hours of English language tuition. However, funding is provided for 2015–16 only, with no resources allocated over the forward estimates. In December 2014, then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, stated that the Government intended to process the legacy caseload within three years.[11] Such a timeframe would mean that many in this cohort will not be granted a temporary visa until later than 2015–16 and will, therefore, miss out on the one year of access to the AMEP provided for in this Budget.

[1].          Liberal Party of Australia and the Nationals, The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy, Coalition policy document, Election 2013.

[2].          P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), New Australian Border Force strengthens Operation Sovereign Borders, media release, 12 May 2015; T Abbott (Prime Minister) and P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), Budget dividend from stopping the boats, media release, 4 May 2015.

[3].          P Dutton (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), op. cit.; Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2015–16, p. 119.

[4].          Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2015–16, op. cit.

[5].          The budget information in this article has been taken from the following document unless otherwise sourced: Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2015–16: budget related paper no. 1.11: Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio.

[6].          For an overview of spending in this area over the past several years see H Spinks, C Barker and D Watt, Australian Government spending on irregular maritime arrivals and counter-people smuggling activity, Research paper series, 2013–14, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 4 September 2013. See also H Spinks, ‘Responding to unauthorised arrivals’, Budget review 2014–15, Research paper series, 2013–14, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2014.

[7].          Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2014–15: budget related paper no. 1.11: Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio.

[8].          Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2015–16, op. cit., p. 124.

[9].          Ibid., p. 75. 

[10].       For detail, see: E Karlsen, J Phillips and H Spinks, Migration and Maritime Powers Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014, Bills digest, 40, 2014–15, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2014.

[11].       S Morrison (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), Transcript of press conference: Parliament House, Canberra: 3 December 2014: Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014, transfer to Darwin, transcript, 3 December 2014.


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