There has been much discussion in both the media and political debate in recent times about the substantial and rising costs to the Australian Government of intercepting, detaining and processing asylum seekers arriving by boat. Criticism of these costs has come from many quarters, including refugee advocates and the current federal Opposition. Despite the volume of public comment on this issue, there is no comprehensive, publicly available source of data outlining the precise costs incurred in the interception, detention and processing of asylum seekers who arrive unauthorised by boat.
No Australian government has ever provided a single figure estimate of the total cost of these activities. This is, in part, because the costs are incurred across a number of agencies and portfolios, but also because costs are incurred across various programs, many of which have broader objectives than dealing with irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs). This means that it is often difficult or impossible to disaggregate these costs.
This research paper outlines the various programs and agencies involved in the interception, detention and processing of IMAs. In order to paint a more complete picture of the costs associated with people smuggling, and the Government’s efforts to curb it, the paper also examines the programs relating to counter-people smuggling activities, and the prosecution and incarceration of alleged people smugglers. It does not attempt to place a definitive figure on these costs. Rather, it highlights the available information on expenditure relating to these activities, as well as some of the difficulties in isolating expenditure that specifically relates to boat arrivals.