Some people in immigration detention could be asked to pay for their own incarceration, as part of a new border protection policy announced by the Coalition on Friday.
The government has indicated “foreign criminals” awaiting deportation will be the main targets of the policy. This is an ambiguous statement given the government’s propensity to criminalise refugees and asylum seekers. But it likely refers primarily to people whose visas have been cancelled on “character grounds” under provisions in the Migration Act. This includes many people who have no serious criminal history.
The proposal would see detainees charged $456 for each day they’re detained. With average detention times currently exceeding 680 days, the debts could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This isn’t the first time the Coalition has sought to charge immigration detainees for their time in detention. Morrison’s policy closely resembles a Howard-era scheme that was dismantled by the Rudd Labor government in 2009.
This time, however, Labor has backed the plan.
Whatever political thinking underlies the major parties’ positions, charging detainees for their incarceration is a bad move. Beyond cynical political calculation, this is a policy with no redeeming features.
Nobody is ‘free riding’ in detention
According to Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, making detainees pay for their detention is necessary to prevent “free riding”.
Hawke said on Friday:
We don’t believe foreign criminals deserve free rent, food and medical treatment while we go through the process of deporting them.
The idea that people in detention are living comfortably at taxpayers’ expense is far from accurate. Having researched immigration detention for years, I can attest that conditions in detention are far from hospitable.
People in detention endure constant surveillance and minimal privacy. Access to health care, recreational facilities, and legal support is highly limited. Detainees are regularly moved between interstate detention centres without warning or explanation. Friends and family members in the community struggle to visit. Frequent changes to internal rules breed instability, and centre guards sometimes use excessive force.
A wealth of evidence links immigration detention with psychological injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Rates of self-harm in Australian detention centres are alarmingly high.
Read more: Self-harm in immigration detention has risen sharply. Here are 6 ways to address this health crisis
People in detention do not choose to remain there as a lifestyle preference. If they elect to endure these conditions and fight their deportation in the courts, they typically do so because returning to their country of citizenship isn’t a viable option.
In some cases, detainees come from refugee backgrounds and fear violence or persecution in their country of origin. In others, detainees have spent years in Australia and don’t wish to abandon their lives and loved ones for a country that’s no longer “home”.
The right to appeal these deportation decisions is fundamental for justice. Yet pressuring detainees to leave Australia swiftly seems to be a key rationale for the policy change.
Read more: New Zealanders have a right to be angry when Australia deports a 15-year-old
Recovering funds may prove impossible
Until now, the Coalition hadn’t sought to revive its previous scheme. One likely reason is because the Howard government’s measures simply didn’t work. Howard’s debt recovery program cost more to administer than it raised in revenue.
Part of the problem with a model where detainees pay is that many debtors will ultimately be deported to or resettled in a third country. This makes debt recovery difficult.
Another issue is that people in detention often have few financial resources. It’s both futile and cruel to ask people with almost nothing to pay for the privilege of being held against their will.
Speaking to these challenges last week, Hawke indicated funds would be recovered by seizing detainees’ assets in Australia. This is a troubling proposition, not least because Australia’s immigration detention system is officially administrative not punitive. That is, people in detention are not held as part of a criminal sentence. Legally speaking, detention isn’t supposed to be a punishment.
Seizing assets certainly appears punitive. It would compound the social and financial pressures detainees already face as a consequence of their incarceration. And it would impose serious collateral harm, punishing detainees’ children, partners, parents and families.
Read more: 'People are crying and begging': the human cost of forced relocations in immigration detention
Is this all just an election ploy?
Coming just one week before the election, the political calculation of Morrison’s policy revival is difficult to ignore. “Border protection” has traditionally been a vote winner for the Coalition, and the polls aren’t looking good for the incumbent prime minister.
In 2001, Howard famously came from behind to claim electoral victory on the back of the Tampa Crisis and the Children Overboard Affair. If last week’s Murdoch media headlines are any indication, Morrison may be hoping to achieve a similar boost through his own border rhetoric.
Read more: Issues that swung elections: Tampa and the national security election of 2001
If the exorbitant costs of detention are a concern for the government, one viable solution would be to only use detention as a last resort.
For its part, Labor has been accused of performing an about-face on its previous position. This policy shift speaks to Labor’s apparent fear of being wedged on the issue of immigration.
Labor and the Coalition therefore head to the election with remarkably similar policies on immigration detention and border security. Both support offshore processing and boat turn-backs. And both seem intent on tightening the screws on people already suffering in Australian detention centres.