Costly Exercise: Asylum Seekers’ Private Jet Flights Cost $5.6 Million

Costly exercise: asylum seekers' private jet flights cost $5.6m

By Andrew Heasley and Yuko Narushima
The Sydney Morning Herald, May 12, 2010

The federal government is spending millions of dollars on private VIP jets to fly asylum seekers between Australian detention centres.

With each chartered flight typically costing more than $100,000, the Department of Immigration has spent $5.6 million to March 15 this financial year on 45 flights.

That compares with $3.6 million on 48 chartered flights the year before and $4.3 million on 119 flights in the previous two years, the department said.

Charters are ''used for the removal of unlawful non-citizens, transfers between detention centres, responses to irregular maritime arrivals as well as other requirements, including stakeholder visits to Christmas Island and medical evacuations'', an Immigration Department spokesman said.

Tender documents show one recipient of the charter contracts is the Brisbane aviation company Adagold Aviation, which has a long-standing arrangement with the government. Almost all flights were charters between Christmas Island and the mainland, where asylum seekers are either sent to other detention centres or, for those granted visas, for resettlement.

Among its services, Adagold organises VIP flights for celebrities. It also held a contract to supply flight services for the military to Afghanistan and Iraq from 2002-05, and it flew David Hicks, the Guantanamo Bay prisoner, back to Australia on a chartered Gulfstream jet at a cost to taxpayers of $578,000 in 2007.

A director of Adagold, Stuart Lee, declined to comment yesterday on the government charters.

An Immigration spokesman said he could not discuss charter specifics on the grounds of ''commercial-in-confidence''. But the department followed guidelines set for spending public money.

It was reported yesterday that the government had awarded the Palms Motel in Brisbane a $1.2 million contract to house family groups of asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, the government told a Senate committee yesterday that the Oceanic Viking mission that sparked a diplomatic stand-off between Australia and Indonesia cost taxpayers more than $3.7 million.

The Oceanic Viking's patrol of the northern waters became a political issue for the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, last October when it rescued 78 asylum seekers who then refused to leave the Australian customs boat in Indonesia. The government coaxed off the Sri Lankans with the promise of rapid resettlement, including people deemed by ASIO to be a national security risk.

Figures reveal the extent of the financial burden. The Oceanic Viking's 125-day patrol cost $3.7 million, not including the cost of leasing the vessel. Of that, $1.2 million was spent in the month refugees refused to leave.

This cost of more than $15,000 per refugee was $250,000 more than the government budgeted for. Six people from the boat remain indefinitely detained on Christmas Island in spite of Mr Rudd's promise of resettlement within 12 weeks, including a former gun-runner for the Tamil Tigers and two children.