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What are Senate estimates?

The Australian government include estimates of what it expects to spend in the legislation that funds the government’s work (known as the ‘appropriation bills’). This usually happens once in May with the budget, and again in October. The October session is known as the ‘supplementary estimates’. The estimates process is an important opportunity for the Parliament to find out information about the work of the government, and to make them accountable for it.

Eight Senate committees examine the estimates of different Departments. The Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is responsible for examining the estimates of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. The Community Affairs Committee is responsible for examining the estimates of the Department of Social Services, which runs settlement services and multicultural policy.

The estimates process gives Senators a chance to ask questions of public servants relating to proposed items of expenditure. Ministers also usually attend to respond to questions of policy.

If the public servants do not know the answer, they may take the question on notice (‘Questions on Notice’). As well, Senators can table questions for which they want to receive information, often of a detailed nature. The answers to questions on notice are published and often contain very useful information.

For more information, read the Senate Brief on Senate estimates.

The estimates process in October 2016

In 2016, the examination of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection took place on 17 October and the Department of Social Services on 20 October. Answers for questions taken on notice for both Departments were due by 2 December (although a number remain unanswered).

What did we learn?

The Refugee Council of Australia has reviewed the transcripts of the hearings and the answers to the questions on notice. You can view and download our analysis of this  information, categorised by subject and by whether the requested information was provided.

The statistics provided by the Department are for different dates, generally between September and October. Please refer to the full analysis to find the exact date.

Harm caused by offshore processing

Most of the questions related to offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island. A major topic considered in the estimates was the leak of 2,123 incident reports made on Nauru to the Guardian newspaper, commonly referred to as the ‘Nauru files’. The incident reports included:

  • 69 reports of ‘actual self-harm’
  • 59 reports of assault
  • 58 reports of assault on a minor
  • 170 reports of concern for a minor
  • 22 reports of sexual assault
  • 1 report of ‘sexual assault on an adult’
  • 336 reports of threatened self-harm, and
  • 20 cases of voluntary starvation.

Of those incidents, 38 involved allegations service providers, and 525 involved residents interacting with other residents.

The Department also reported on the current number of incident reports in Nauru and Manus. Since 1 April 2016 to 30 September 2016, there have been another 1,381 incident reports in Nauru, and 1,547 in Papua New Guinea. These include:

  • 222 major or critical incidents in PNG (three of these were critical, and 28 involved assaults)
  • 317 major or critical incidents in Nauru (one of these was critical, and 21 involved assaults)
  • 49 incidents of self-harm in PNG
  • 10 assaults in the Manus RPC and ELRTC between 1 April and 30 September 2016, five against service provider staff.

Costs of offshore processing

This is how much we are spending on offshore processing:

Table illustrating costs of offshore processing from Senate estimates October 2016

We also learnt the Australian Government is:

  • building, at a cost of $21 million, a transfer facility in Bomona, Papua New Guinea, for around 50 people to be held when they are being removed from Papua New Guinea. This could include people who have been found not to be refugees on Manus Island.
  • paying $429,660 a month to lease a hotel
  • paying a monthly $2,000 visa fee for every recognised refugee on Nauru, and $1,000 for those not recognised as refugees. We have so far paid for 205 refugee visas. Service providers also must pay $1,050 annually for visas
  • has spent $11 million on the medical clinic in Nauru’s detention centre, $26.5 million to upgrade the Nauru hospital, and $2.7 million to build a surgical facility
  • has spent, over two financial years, $6.4 million on the costs of medical escorts, including medical evacuations and other medical transfers.

Where people are

We also found out some figures about where people are that are not included in the Operation Sovereign Border statistics, including:

  • 388 people are in Australia having been transferred from Nauru for medical treatment, and 47 people are in Australia having been transferred from Manus for medical treatment. This includes 115 children in Australia for medical treatment or accompanying parents, and 220 people who have an undertaking that they will be given notice before being returned.
  • There are 17 men from Manus in Port Moresby for medical treatment, and 14 others were transferred from Manus to Australia during 1 April and 30 September for medical treatment.
  • The average length of stay in Australia for medical treatment is around 590 days.
  • A woman in Nauru who was reported in the media as having her transfer to remove a breast lump cancelled has had the operation in PNG

393 people are still living in the centre on Nauru, including 145 recognised refugees. There were 122 children recognised as refugees on Nauru, 11 of whom were in the centre and the rest in the community in Nauru. Another 34 children, not yet recognised as refugees, were also in the Nauru centre. There were 16 babies born to refugee parents also living in the community in Nauru.

The 45 children still housed in the Nauru detention centre have spent an average 828 days there.

Two people have returned after being ‘resettled’ in PNG to the transit centre in East Lorengau. On Manus, there are still 193 people who have not yet received a final determination of their refugee claim, of which 39 are people in Australia.

Stateless people spent on average 1097 days in detention in PNG, and 869 days on Nauru.

Workplace health and safety in offshore processing

There has been some controversy about the application of Australian workplace health and safety legislation to offshore processing. The Department’s view, stated at estimates, was that the legislation:

applies to its undertaking at [offshore processing centres] to require it to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable the health and safety of its employees while working at the [centres]. The Department considers that the WHS Act has limited if any application to its undertaking at [offshore processing centres] insofar as the health and safety of contractors is concerned

Fast-tracking and temporary protection

Until recently, there was no information on the public record as to the progress of asylum claims made by people who came by boat. Some further information was provided through the Senate estimates, but more information is now available on the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s website.

However, the Senate estimates included some statistics which are not available in this data, including:

  • 21,276 had been invited to apply for a Temporary Protection visa or Safe Haven Enterprise visa.
  • 3,656 people have submitted an appeal at merits review
  • 1,486 people had sought judicial review of the refusal decision.
  • the longest time taken so far to process a ‘fast-track’ application (489 days)
  • 485 decisions have been made by the Immigration Assessment Authority (the new paper review process), with 385 affirming the decision and 96 being remitted back to the Department for further consideration. Four decisions have been otherwise finalised.

The Senate estimates also revealed that:

  • $2.387 million has been paid to Primary Application Information Service (PAIS) providers for providing legal services to 1,997 people.


During the 2015−16 financial year,  7,494 people were taken into immigration detention.

The Department provided some generalised information regarding several policies, including:

  • restrictions on access to mobile phones for people in detention: people who have come by boat are not allowed access to mobile phones “to address the risk of [them] passing on sensitive operational information to contacts outside of the detention environment, particularly during the peak boat arrival period”, and because “mobile phones have been used to organise contraband, facilitate escape attempts and coordinate disturbances affecting the good order of detention facilities”
  • the policy of transferring between detention centres, known as the National Detention Placement Model, which was implemented in July 2015.

The Department also revealed that its mistaken transfer of one person to Christmas Island was the result of the contracted provider failing to complete identity checks during the charter process.

Visa cancellations

We learnt that, since the legislation was changed in 2014:

  • 1530 non-citizens have had their visas cancelled and 488 people have been refused a visa under the character provisions
  • 599 New Zealand citizens have been detained
  • the average length of detention was 274 days, and
  • the average time taken for the Minister to consider revoking the mandatory cancellations for cases in 2016 was 259 days.

Resettlement from Indonesia

While it has been announced previously that people who arrive in Indonesia and are registered as refugees by UNHCR after 1 July 2014 would not be able to be resettled in Australia, it is now clear that even if people registered before that date they will not be accepted if they have a spouse who came by boat.

Resettlement from Central America

The announcement at the New York summit by the Australian Government that it would participate in an arrangement to resettle refugees from Central America took Australians by surprise. Questions were asked about the origins, negotiations and likely outcomes of the agreement, but there was little detail forthcoming.

What we do know is that the request was made on 19 March 2016, that the Protection Transfer Arrangement (as it is called) was publicly announced on 26 July 2016, and that people will only come voluntarily and probably in small numbers. These people will be resettled within the existing Humanitarian Program.

Additional Syria/Iraqi intake

Statistics were provided as to the numbers who had been already granted visas and settled in Australia, although these are updated monthly. We also found out that, at 30 September 2016, of the 5,045 Syrian and Iraqi Humanitarian Program entrants that formed part of the additional 12,000 places, 1,630 were women and 1,952 were children.

Information was asked, but not answered, as to the likely timeframe for processing the rest, the average time taken to grant a visa, and the reasons why other countries have managed to process more refugees in the same time.


The Refugee Council of Australia has previously reported on the prolonged delays being experienced by many former refugees in getting citizenship. Some statistics on citizenship were provided, including:

  • in the last three years, 32,415 humanitarian entrants have become citizens
  • the median number of days from passing the test to acquisition of citizenship for people who acquired citizenship from 1 July 2016 to 31 October 2016 was 119 days, with a median of 47 days for the 10% processed the fastest, and a median of 259 days for the people processed the slowest
  • there were 64 people currently subject to a ministerial determination deferring their citizenship (after successfully passing the citizenship test), with the average time since approval of the permanent visas being approximately six years.

Legal matters

We also learnt that it is still planned to allow lawyers to register as migration agents without completing a migration course, although the Bill for this has not yet been put to Parliament.

Figures were also provided for the 4,492 administrative law matters being managed by the Department, of which 2,340 related to refugees. This included 2,047 cases before the Federal Circuit Court, 225 before the Full Federal Court, and 54 cases before the High Court. The average number of days (across all cases) to resolve a matter at the Federal Circuit Court was 333 days.

Employment checks in the Department

Approximately one third of the Department’s workforce (including contractors) have been subject to some form of employment screening. 12,731 individuals are yet to undergo any form of employment suitability check.

Family visas

The Department also provided information about the average waiting time for visas for family members under the Migration program:

  • for partners, between 15-18 months, with more than 35,000 taking longer than year, and the longest one 9 years
  • for children, over 200 days in the major category (subclass 101)
  • for contributory parents (temporary) visa applications, 26.22 months, and for contributory parent (permanent) visa applications, 23.24 months.


The Department spent $282,501 on media monitoring in 2016, and more than $6 million on advertising and information campaigns including for people smuggling activities.

What we did not learn

There are still many questions we do not know the answers to. Most importantly, no further information was given about negotiations for people to be resettled in third countries (although the deal for resettlement to US was announced later). We also did not learn anything about the timeframe for closing Manus, although we did learn there has been no allocation of funds for its closure.

For a complete listing of things we did not learn from Senate estimates, please see our full analysis.