The Australian Customs and Border Protection vessel Ocean Protector waits on standby in Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island.
The Australian Customs and Border Protection vessel Ocean Protector waits on standby in Flying Fish Cove, Christmas Island. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Abbott government's failed attempt to return 157 asylum
seekers to India cost taxpayers more than $12 million, as passengers
were kept captive on the high seas for nearly a month before being
brought to the Australian mainland.

A cost analysis by Fairfax Media has revealed as much as
$12,020,778 was outlayed by the government to ensure the 157 Sri Lankan
nationals did not arrive on Australian shores to challenge Immigration
Minister Scott Morrison's resolve of "stopping the boats".

The government has consistently claimed it will save $2.5
billion by stopping the boats, by shutting down nine onshore detention
centres and dramatically reducing the number of asylum seekers arriving
by boat.

The costs

The cost of keeping the asylum seekers at sea, based largely
on Senate Estimates figures, includes the daily running cost of the navy
frigate HMAS Perth which first intercepted the boat that had travelled
from India, and the customs vessel Ocean Protector where the asylum
seekers were kept on board for 29 days.

It also includes the cost of accommodation at Cocos Island
for 14 immigration officials and Curtin detention centre for the 157
asylum seekers; legal costs associated with the High Court challenge
that was launched against the government; and Mr Morrison's last-minute
trip to New Delhi where he presented Indian officials with two cricket
bats worth $695 each.

The Cocos Beach Motel confirmed 14 immigration officials had
stayed on the island over three days in July, costing $5345, while the
transferral of the asylum seekers onto three chartered flights from
Cocos Islands to Curtin would have cost the government $600,000 based on
2012 Senate Estimates.

The five-star Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi also confirmed Mr
Morrison had stayed there on July 21 as he met Indian officials to
request the country take back the asylum seekers who had left from the
south of India in early June.

For the government to then defend the High Court case, where
lawyers had launched an injunction to stop the boat being sent back to
India, it would have cost around $136,500.

This includes "upper band" legal fees of a junior counsel and
QC Stephen Donaghue who charges about $7000 a day and spent 12 days
preparing and three days appearing at trial. This cost does not include
the team of lawyers from the Australian Government Solicitor service who
also worked on the case.

Until the court case, Mr Morrison had refused to acknowledge the existence of the boat, citing "on water" matters.

Labor immigration spokesman Richard Marles said Mr Morrison's handling of the entire month-long incident was a "farce".

"The Australian people have still not received a decent
explanation from the Immigration Minister as to why he kept 157 people
at sea for close to a month," Mr Marles said.

"He went to India armed with cricket bats and came back with
what he called a 'landmark' agreement that was in tatters before it even

During the 29 days, asylum seekers, who first spoke to
Fairfax Media on June 27, were separated into gender groups and placed
in windowless rooms where they were given only three hours sunlight a
day, according to court documents.

Once India had rejected Australia's plea to return the asylum
seekers there, Mr Morrison brought the group to Curtin detention centre
in Western Australia before transferring them to the offshore detention
centre in Nauru five days later.

Human Rights Watch said the cost was "outrageous and unnecessary".

"A cost-effective and rights-respecting response would bring
asylum seekers onshore in Australia and process their claims properly
and quickly, without detaining them longer than necessary," HRW
president Elaine Pearson said.

Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said the
financial cost could have been entirely avoided if the asylum seekers
had been taken straight to Christmas Island.

Do you know more? Email immigration@fairfaxmedia.com.au