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At what cost? The true cost of Australia’s refugee policies

What is the true cost of Australia’s refugee policies? UNICEF Australia and Save the Children recently released a report, ‘At What Cost?’, setting out the extraordinary human, monetary and reputational costs of our refugee policies.

Human costs

The report details some of the harms suffered by children on Nauru, including:

  • the harm of prolonged detention
  • the worsening mental health of children (the Nauru Files, for example, disclosed 30 reports of self-harm involving children, and 159 reports of threatened self-harm)
  • exposure to violence, abuse and exploitation (the Nauru Files disclosed seven reports of sexual assault and 59 reports of assault on children)
  • significant challenges in accessing education, including bullying and racism (with less than 15% of the children now attending school in Nauru)
  • significant challenges in getting health care
  • extended periods of family separation, and
  • harm to parents and their ability to parent.

The report also lists the human costs of Australia’s policies of deterrence, including the costs to people of being ‘turned back’ by Australian boats, of being forced to remain in host countries, and of being forced to remain in situations of persecution.

Financial costs

The report estimates that, in the past four years, the Australian Government has spent $9.6bn on its asylum policies. Offshore processing alone is estimated to cost over $400,000 per person, per year.

Strategic costs

The report also looks at the strategic costs for Australia, including:

  • damage to Australia’s reputation
  • effect on Australia’s candidacy for a position on the UN Human Rights Council
  • reduced influence in promoting human rights and addressing refugee issues, globally and regionally
  • undermining of the Refugee Convention, and
  • effect on our relationships with key neighbours and aid recipients.


The report made nine recommendations for the Australian Government to consider.

The report recommended the Australian Government immediately:

  • publicly affirm its commitment to the UN refugee convention
  • publicly commit to a timeline of resettlement for those on Nauru and Manus Island in an ‘appropriate’ third country
  • legislate against detaining children and find alternatives
  • normalise resettlement processes with Indonesia, including revoking the ban on resettling refugees who arrived there after July 2014, and
  • commit to fiscal transparency on the policy costs and hold a full audit.

The report recommended that the following recommendations could be implemented within three years:

  • increase the humanitarian intake to a flexible 30,000
  • support the establishment of a regional refugee protection framework in south-east Asia
  • phase out boat turn backs and reinvest offshore detention funding the search and rescue operations, and
  • improve access to non-humanitarian migration options for people seeking asylum.

Read the report

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