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Did Greens leader Richard Di Natale quote the right cost for offshore detention in his National Press Club speech? Dean Lewins/AAP

Election FactCheck: Does the government spend $3 billion each year on the offshore asylum seeker detention system?

The Greens will reinvest the $3 billion the government spends each year on its cruel offshore detention centre regime. – The Greens’ leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, speaking at the National Press Club, June 23, 2016.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale used his National Press Club speech to highlight a key area of policy difference between the Greens and the major parties, describing as “cruel” the offshore asylum seeker detention system supported by the Labor and Liberal parties.

Di Natale said the government spends $3 billion each year on the “offshore detention centre regime”.

Is that right?

Checking the source

When asked for a source to support Di Natale’s figure of $3 billion, a spokesperson for The Greens readily admitted it was an error. She said Di Natale meant to say offshore detention cost about $3 billion over the forward estimates (the next four years).

A good catch by The Conversation. We’ve had a look and that was a genuine error in the speech. It should read “over the forward estimates” not “each year”. We’ll be correcting it online, to reflect our other materials here and here, which have the correct figure.

What are the real numbers on the cost of offshore detention each year?

How much does offshore detention cost?

For every federal budget, each government department produces a portfolio budget statement outlining its costs and spending plans.

The Portfolio Budget Statements 2016-17 for the Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio, shown in the table below, put estimated actual spending for offshore management of IMAs (illegal maritime arrivals, which is what the government calls asylum seekers who arrive by boat) at $1.078 billion for the 2015-16 financial year.

It is expected to fall to about $880 million in the 2016-17 financial year, the document says.

This table shows how much the department intends to spend (on an accrual basis) on some of the programs involved in achieving what it calls Outcome 1.

Outcome 1 is defined as:

Protect Australia’s sovereignty, security and safety by managing its border, including through managing the stay and departure of all noncitizens.

Some of the budgeted expenses for Outcome 1. Department of Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio Budget Statements 2016-17.

Please note that the above table is just a portion of budgeted expenses for achieving Outcome 1. You can see the full table on page 27 of the report. Total expenses for Outcome 1 for the year 2015-16 are budgeted to be about $4.15 billion.

Adding together the projected cost of offshore detention for the years 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20 gets you a figure of about $3 billion for the forward estimates.

That is the figure of “$3 billion” Di Natale’s speech referred to, but as his spokesperson points out, he erroneously described it as an annual figure instead of the cost over the forward estimates.

So the real annual cost of offshore detention is currently about $1.078 billion.

That estimate is supported by this Parliamentary Library document, which shows a figure of around $1.1 billion for offshore management of IMAs.

The latest annual report for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection puts the actual spending for offshore management of IMAs at $1.034 billion in 2014-15.

Onshore management

As outlined in the table above, the department also estimates that for the year 2015-16 it will spend about $1.24 billion on onshore management of asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

It’s worth noting that from July 2016 onwards, it will be harder to see at a glance how much the government spends on onshore management of asylum seekers. That’s due to budget restructuring, meaning there will no longer be a separate budget item called “onshore management of IMAs”. As the figure below shows, that funding will now be reported, together with some other costs, under the broader “Program 1.3 Onshore Compliance and Detention”.

How the Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio will report slightly differently in the 2016-2017 budget, compared to 2015-2016. Portfolio Budget Statements 2016-17, Budget Related Paper No. 1.11 Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio, page 25, CC BY

You can read more about that change on pages 24-25 of the Portfolio Budget Statement.


As his spokesperson readily admitted, Richard Di Natale was wrong to say that the government spends $3 billion each year on the offshore detention centre scheme. The figure is closer to $1.078 billion for the year 2015-16.

Spending on offshore management of boat arrivals is estimated to be close to $3 billion over the forward estimates. – Fabrizio Carmignani


This is a sound analysis of the budget for processing and management of asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. It is important to note that the government is also spending large amounts of money on other operations falling within Operation Sovereign Borders such as disruption of people smuggling operations, border patrols, interceptions and boat turnbacks.

Australia also contributes to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has said it is struggling to cover the cost of assisting high numbers of displaced people. – Mary Anne Kenny.

*Correction and Editor’s note: This article was corrected on July 1 to replace the figure of “$880,509” for offshore detention of IMAs for 2016-17 with the real figure of “$880 million”. We also corrected the figure of offshore cost of offshore management of IMAs in 2014-15 from “$1.034” to at “$1.034 billion”. The Conversation apologises for these editing errors and thanks reader Glenn Wilson for alerting us to them. The verdict remains unchanged. This story was updated on June 30 at 1:20pm to add additional information about how onshore management costs will be reported differently in the federal budget from July 2016 onwards (the section beginning with “It’s worth noting…”).

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