Humanitarian alternatives to offshore detention


How And Why It Works If We #BringThemHere

September 2017

4 minute reading time:

For many Australians, an understandable question might be: how does bringing people seeking safety here actually work in practice and why is it also good for us?

After six years, there are still no concrete or sustainable solutions on the table for the government to resolve the future for the remaining refugees and asylum seekers still held in PNG and Nauru. Although Australia is wholly responsible for the welfare of everyone who seeks asylum, the only outcome to date has been psychological damage and the creation of further despair.

So what are the alternatives? The most obvious option that complies with our aspiration to be a tolerant and caring society, is to bring these vulnerable people here, to Australia. The UN, human rights organisations, advocates and health professionals have been calling for the Federal Government to evacuate those offshore and bring them here where they can be supported properly until they are resettled.

Detention in isolated and unsupported environments is stressful, harmful and pointless. Detainees cannot work, be educated, make plans or engage in activities that create some sense of normal daily existence in order to to sustain hope and dignity. Detention is not a solution. The only sustainable answers are humanitarian approaches that focus on support and positive engagement within local communities rather than enforcement and virtual imprisonment.

Remember, bringing the refugees back to Australia does not grant them any additional right to settle here permanently. But while that process runs its course, their safety and personal welfare is indisputably Australia’s responsibility. 


When we visited Greece and Jordan, we saw first hand a range of successful approaches to support refugees that helped them cope while they remain trapped in virtual limbo. The key element in all these approaches was humanitarian intent: if government authorities and organisations designed their solutions from a place of respect, compassion and understanding, positive relationships between refugees and local communities were created. Although common sense, we observed this as a practical reality operating in every case, despite the pressure of numbers and the fact that refugees often arrive already traumatised. Open, transparent and collaborative efforts to support other human beings in need are powerful and can also create stronger, more tolerant host societies in the process. 

Research also shows clearly that humanitarian approaches operate at a fraction of the cost of detention. 

A study released by Save The Children and Unicef identify the cost of keeping the remaining asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island and Nauru at a staggering A$400,000 per person per year. In six years, our government has spent over 10 Billion dollars of taxpayers money to detain this relatively small number vulnerable people in brutal and isolated conditions. Compare that $400,000 per person to just A$33,000 per year for those refugees and asylum seekers on bridging visas living within the Australian community. 

Although bringing the detainees here would cost just 10% of the cost of offshore detention, this number excludes the impact of collaborative approaches where NGO's, authorities and local communities are directly involved in resourcing and supporting asylum seekers. Introducing those partnerships not only drops the cost further but creates a bedrock of humanitarian support. Outside the dollar costs, the value of approaches that support and rebuild the lives of human beings unquanitifiable and the costs associated with tearing lives apart under the current system are beyond measure.

Here are two examples from our recent experiences. Remember- offshore detention costs the taxpayer A$400,000 per person per year.

1/ In City Plaza in Athens, 400 refugee families are supported in an abandoned hotel near the centre of the city. The Solidarity organisation that opened and operates the centre relies entirely on donations of supplies and money and the dedication of volunteers. It is an upbeat, well organised and respectful space that shares responsibility of the operation between refugees and local people. The cost is less than A$4000 per refugee per year.

Features of Successful Refugee Support Arrangements

• Safety and protection
• Adequately resourced housing, sanitation, and drinking water
• Positive relationships with the authorities
• Regular engagement with local communities
• Ability to access education, work and meaningful activity
• Shared responsibility for community decisions
• Access to information about the status of asylum claims
• Adequate legal, medical, psychological and social services
• Timelines to plan expectations


2/ We spent a week in Jordan visiting the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, Zaatari. The camp hosts 80,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the neighbouring civil war and half the residents are children. After a difficult beginning in 2012, changes were made and its residents now exist in a safe and supportive environment, managed by the UNHCR and administered by the Jordanian authorities. Zaatari has 16 schools, birthing centres, medical services and a range of community organisations. There are established processes for dispute resolution. There is regular engagement between the refugee and local Jordanian community, a crucial factor in maintaining good relationships and sustaining the mental health of refugees. There are 2500 refugee-run businesses in Zaatari. The refugees we met universally expressed gratitude for the security and support that has been provided by Jordan, as well as the opportunity to work, study, and contribute to their immediate community. 

The wonder of Zaatari is that all that was required to find a successful humanitarian solution was a decision to look for one.

Zaatari encourages collaborative humanitarian projects and enjoys the direct and energetic engagement of 36 committed foundations, NGOs as well as other countries who have provided infrastructure, resources and people on the ground.

We can do the same with ease.

It reportedly costs A$240 million a year to operate the Zaatari camp plus resourcing and contributions made by its humanitarian and nation state partners. That equates to $$3000 per person per year. 

Zaatari has been in operation the whole time that our detainees on Manus and Nauru have experienced a tragically opposite daily existence. The refugees in both places have exactly the same uncertain futures, but those in Zaatari experience a sense of normality and have lives with meaning and purpose.

We found two important principles behind the positive outcomes we witnessed:

Firstly: regular personal exposure almost always eliminates the fear and prejudices that might exist in the minds of people when refugees are simply an abstract idea. 

Meet those people as individuals and hear their stories- you soon realise that they are people not very different to us. The difference is simply the extreme and difficult circumstances they are facing which were not of their own making. 

Second: The first gesture of welcome and hospitality is powerful and is naturally reciprocated, creating positive constructive relationships between local communities and refugees. 

In Greece, where over one million refugees arrived by boat from Turkey during 15 months beginning in 2015, the first response by the Greek people was to extend to them welcome and assurances of safety. In the small village of Skala Sikamineas in northern Lesvos where we spent 5 days, the 120 residents experienced arrivals of 500,000 people in just 15 months during 2015 and 2016. There were few incidents and virtually no incidents between the refugees and the local population.

The benefits of humanitarian approaches are not limited just to the refugees, but also the individuals directly involved in supporting them. Those people are some of the most fulfilled people we have ever met. 

If we close the camps and bring the detainees here with a genuine intent to respect and support them, just watch Australians pile in and meet the challenge. The task is simple, humane and inexpensive. Our exposure to this massive global issue is minimal. 65 million people are currently displaced, a third outside their own country. We cannot justify shirking our global responsibilities either as a mature country or individually as compassionate people with a history of helping others. The fearful and negative rhetoric warning of the unspecified threats that refugees represent is entirely without basis. Refugees and asylum seekers are human beings. To end the cruelty and adopt humane approaches, it's simply a question of deciding to. 

Helping vulnerable human beings get back on their feet so they can contribute to their families and communities again is a task that can make us both proud, set an example for others and enrich the values our whole society.

Emma Pearse & Angus McDonald


Further reading

At What Cost- Save The Children: September 2017


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