Advocates for an increase in Australia’s refugee intake, including through asylum seekers arriving on boats, claim that it is Australia’s moral duty and that it provides aid to the dispossed and foreign poor. For example, Julian Burnside said
We diminish ourselves by the way we treat them [asylum seekers]. Once we recognise that these people are human beings, we will see that the problem is in truth a moral problem and that we have made a profound mistake in the way we have handled it.
Yet there are clear costs to Australia from an increased number of asylum seekers arriving, including processing costs, detention costs, social security costs, and so forth. Some estimates of the cost of the Rudd and Gillard governments change in policy place it around $1 billion in 2011-12.
Why not treat this cost as part of Australia’s foreign aid and take it from the aid budget? Is it not for the same purposes as foreign aid (according to advocates)? If the government has decided to spend some of the aid budget on asylum seekers, so be it. That’s a policy decision which can be analysed for its efficacy: does the $1 billion spent on asylum seekers in Australia lead to greater or less poverty alleviation than an equivalent amount spent on some aid project overseas?
But did the Government outline that it was increasing its aid budget in two ways: first by targeting an increase in the official development assistance (ODA) to Gross National Income (GNI) ratio from 0.34% in 2009?10 to 0.5 per cent by 2015?16, and second by changing policies to encourage more asylum seekers to enter Australia. The latter should be counted as ODA.
Recognising that the definition of ODA is fairly static, the Government could announce on 8 May 2012 in its Budget that its target for ODA is to be changed to 0.5 per cent by 2015-16 less any legitimate expenses relating to processing and caring for asylum seekers.