As the cruel policy of mandatory detention is gradually relaxed (though we should remember that Nauru is still holding prisoners on our behalf), it’s worth considering the claim that the policy was necessary in the crisis situation of 2001, and can be relaxed now because of the Howard government’s border protection measures. To respond to this, it’s necessary to consider what would have happened if we had pursued a different policy, without reliance on mandatory detention or exploiting our neighbours as prison camps.
As an alternative, I’ll consider the option of seeking to discourage boat arrivals through negotiation with Indonesia, and using a system akin to bail, in which only asylum-seekers judged to be at risk of absconding would be subject to detention.
What can we say about this policy? First, the large flow of refugees that caused the crisis in 2001 would have ended anyway, because the fall of the Taliban regime greatly reduced both the flow of refugees from Afghanistan (in fact, many went back) and the chance of making a successful claim. Similarly, although it appears that there is still a net flow out of Iraq, the fall of Saddam has made it very difficult for Iraqis to claim political asylum. It seems reasonable to suppose that we could have obtained the co-operation of the Indonesian authorities with a commitment of diplomatic and financial resources no greater than that required for the Pacific solution, though of course without the kind of instant compliance available from a dependent client like Nauru.
Overall, I’d guess that an alternative policy would have resulted in perhaps 10 000 more boat arrivals, and maybe a similar number of people arriving in other ways. Given that the direct cost of the Pacific solution has been estimated at $500 million, that means that the cost of deterrence is about $25 000 per person, or $100 000 for a family of four. Of course the moral cost of the crimes committed in our name, and with our electoral endorsement is far greater.