Unlimited free phone calls for illegals detained in Australia -- a big hit on taxpayers

The figures below relate to only one of the many "detention centres" (jails) in operation

PHONE bills at the Scherger defence facility near Weipa have soared by more than a quarter of a million dollars in the first six months of the centre being used to house asylum seekers. The hidden cost is revealed in a bill for $259,455 that Defence sent to the Department of Immigration this month.

The revelations come as the Government faces a series of political attacks on its border protection policies, with the Opposition and Greens calling for inquiries into the way immigration detention centres are run.

Departmental staff will face a grilling from Opposition senators in Budget estimates hearings this week over an estimated $1.7 billion cost blowout in border protection.

Labor's plans to swap 800 asylum seekers with 4000 refugees from Malaysia will cost about $292 million. These costs are likely to increase, with the Government discussing similar deals with other countries, including Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Thailand.

The phone bill is outlined in a Government contract notice for the Scherger detention centre.

It comes after the temporary use of the Cape York centre as an immigration detention centre was extended for another year. Numbers of asylum seekers housed in the remote far north Queensland facility have almost doubled from the original capacity of 300. There were 591 detainees in the centre this month, according the most recent data.

About 100 Afghan and Sri Lankan detainees were involved in violent clashes at the centre last week, raising fears of overcrowding.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen declined to comment on the telephone costs. But a Department of Immigration spokeswoman said the costs related to all phone calls from the remote centre between October 2010 and March this year. "The figure is for the cost of all phone calls from Scherger immigration detention centre made by Defence, DIAC, Defence service provider... and local detainee phone calls," the department's spokeswoman said.

Opposition MP Jamie Briggs, who runs the Coalition's "waste watch" committee, demanded the Government provide a detailed breakdown of phone costs at Scherger and other immigration detention centres. "It appears to be an extraordinarily high cost," he said.

Mr Briggs said he did not oppose asylum seekers being able to call their families overseas, but said taxpayers should not be paying for "excessive" numbers of calls. He said he knew of examples of detainees running up large phone bills in other centres through daily calls to destinations including Iran.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison yesterday urged a wide-ranging inquiry into the immigration detention system.

The Greens and independent MP Andrew Wilkie have backed the inquiry but have called for it to consider scrapping mandatory detention.


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