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FactCheck: did 1200 refugees die at sea under Labor?

The number of refugee deaths at sea is on the rise internationally. AAP Image/Scott Fisher

The Rudd government’s dismantling of the Howard government’s successful border protection policies directly resulted in more than 51,000 illegal maritime arrivals, including more than 8400 children, while it has been estimated that at least 1200 people (including hundreds of children) perished at sea. - Senator George Brandis, statement tabling the The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention report, February 11, 2015.

An accurate picture of the number of refugees dying at sea is an important part of asylum seeker policy in Australia. Successive governments have argued that tougher policies such as boat turn-backs and offshore detention will “stop the boats” and thereby reduce the number of people drowning.

Several newspaper columnists have said that more than 1200 refugees died under Labor. That time period covers six years, from the swearing in of Kevin Rudd on December 3, 2007, to the swearing in of Tony Abbott on September 18, 2013.

So, how many refugees drowned under Labor? What does the data say?

Elusive data

Estimating asylum seeker deaths at sea is a difficult and imprecise exercise. There are no clear criteria as to who is counted, how they are counted and where they died. Any “accurate” statistics are also unrealistic given the clandestine nature of people smuggling and irregular movement of people by sea. What is clear is that the actual number of deaths is very likely to be higher than those shown in available data.

When asked by The Conversation for a source to support the statement that 1200 refugees had perished as a result of Rudd government policies, Senator Brandis’ spokesperson directed the question to the office of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

A spokesperson for Mr Dutton said the figure of 1200 referred to the number of refugees who drowned at sea under Labor but said those figures, or any detail on them, were not publicly available online. The spokesperson also directed The Conversation to Monash University’s Australian Border Deaths Database.

The number of asylum seekers dying at sea has been the subject of a previous FactCheck, which drew on figures from the Australian Border Deaths Database to estimate that around 900 asylum seekers had drowned between 2008 and July 2013.

In August 2012, the Expert Panel Report on Asylum Seekers received information from the Department of Immigration and the Australian Border Services that, since 2000, an estimated 946 people had died while attempting to reach Australia by boat. Of this, 609 deaths had occurred since October 2009, the report said. (Labor took power in late 2007.)

After this report, it is difficult to find any official statistics from government sources. There appear to be two other sources of information whose figures are broadly consistent with those given to the Expert Panel. Both rely upon collating data from a range of official, media and non-government organisation sources:

  • The Australian Border Deaths Database is maintained by the Border Crossing Observatory, a research network based at Monash University. The database records deaths associated with Australia’s borders since January 2000. The database contains incidents involving people who have died en route to Australia on boats. Estimates from that source are that between 2000 and December 2013 there were around 1900 deaths, of which approximately 1138 occurred during the Labor government.

  • An activist-run website called, set up after the sinking of the vessel designated as SIEV X in 2001, claims that between 1998 and December 2013 there were between 1550 and 1560 confirmed and probable deaths by drowning, approximately 1124 occurring during Labor’s time in office.

So the best available data, from these two websites, puts the number of refugee drownings under Labor at somewhere around 1100.

Combining the data from these two online sources also shows that under Coalition governments between 400 and 760 people died en route to Australia.

Deaths at sea internationally

While the Australian government states that it has stopped boats coming to Australia, a recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that in 2014 more people than ever took to the seas in search of asylum – an estimated 350,000 people.

The UNHCR and other agencies estimate that last year more than 4000 individuals, including hundreds of children, did not survive these journeys.

In our region of Southeast Asia, the same UNHCR report estimated that last year 54,000 people undertook terrible risks on smugglers’ boats, the majority of whom left from the Bay of Bengal fleeing towards Thailand and Malaysia. Hundreds of others were moving further south in the Indian Ocean. This figure for 2014 represents a 15% increase over the same period in 2013, and more than triple the estimated number of departures during the same period in 2012.

The majority of these are ethnic Rohingya fleeing ongoing violence in Burma’s Rakhine state. UNHCR estimated that last year 540 people died during these journeys, due to starvation, dehydration and beatings by crew members. UNHCR reports that those who do make it to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia face detention, exploitation and violence.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has pointed out that maritime movements are a growing phenomenon, which requires a range of responses including: effective search and rescue, proper systems to deal with arrivals and identifying those with protection needs. What is also required is identifying why people are fleeing and what is preventing them from fleeing by safer means.

In a speech last year, Guterres said:

But one thing is clear: focusing only on border control and deterrence will not solve the problem. It is the duty of any government to ensure security and to manage immigration, but these policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up becoming collateral damage… One cannot stop a person who is fleeing for life by deterrence, without escalating the dangers even more. Any effective response must also address the root causes of this phenomenon.


The figure of 1200 deaths of asylum seekers at sea under Labor regularly cited by politicians and the media is broadly correct. The best available data appears to put those estimates at closer to 1100. Globally and in our region, however, more asylum seekers than ever are leaving their country by boat.


This is a sound analysis of the evidence available to document asylum seeker deaths at sea. It is correct to note that the tragedy near and in Australian shores is being replicated around the world, sometimes in greater numbers than what Australians have witnessed over the last decade. The rising number of deaths at sea is taking place in a global environment where humanitarian crises are becoming protracted. In Jordan, Syrian refugees are having to decide whether to stay a fourth or fifth year in refugee camps such as Zatari, which hosts 85,000 refugees; amongst all refugees in Jordan, two-thirds live below the poverty line. In Central African Republic, ongoing political violence is separating children from their parents and populations are desperate to be re-united. – Sara Davies

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