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FactCheck: have more than 1000 asylum seekers died at sea under Labor?

“More than 1000 asylum seekers have perished at sea since Labor relaxed its policies in 2008 - a move it now concedes was a mistake.” - The Australian, 18 July. Asylum seekers drowning on their way to…

More and more asylum seekers are risking their lives at sea. AAP Image/Supplied by NATSAR

“More than 1000 asylum seekers have perished at sea since Labor relaxed its policies in 2008 - a move it now concedes was a mistake.” - The Australian, 18 July.

Asylum seekers drowning on their way to Australia was cited as one reason why the Rudd government announced its policy to send all those who arrive by boat to Papua New Guinea for assessment and resettlement if they are found to be refugees.

There were two more tragedies recently. A suspected asylum seeker boat capsized off Christmas Island last week, killing at least four people. It came a few days after nine people, including a baby boy, died on their way to Australia.

No official records are kept by any government agency as to how many people trying to reach our shores to seek asylum are dying en route. The most reliable open source data is kept by the Monash Australian Border Deaths Database which “maintains a record of all known deaths associated with Australia’s borders since 1 January 2000”. Deaths include those who perish at sea attempting to reach Australian shores, those who have committed suicide within Australian detention centres and those who have died of natural causes within detention. The database is assembled from “official sources, media reports and lists of deaths collated by non-governmental organizations”. It is one of the most comprehensive, independent databases.

Between 2000 and 2007 (the period which includes the introduction of the “Pacific Solution” for asylum seekers travelling by boat under the Coalition government), the database documents 746 reported deaths of asylum seekers. Of those, 363 asylum seekers died at sea while on their way to Australia. As well, 350 were presumed dead (their status is missing at sea with status unknown); 22 died in detention (the majority of those cases were suicide, but there were some deaths of natural causes); and 11 people were returned to Afghanistan and reportedly murdered for being “Australian spies”.

Between 2008 and July 2013 (under Labor), 877 asylum seekers have reportedly died. Of those, 15 committed suicide or died of natural causes in detention centres. So during this period, approximately 862 individuals died trying to reach Australia’s mainland to seek asylum.

During the 2000-2007 period of Coalition government, 363 died, with the status of additional 350 individuals unknown.

This is a tragedy that has occurred under both political parties, especially so since 90% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat have been found to be genuine refugees.

Verdict

The 1000 deaths of asylum seekers at sea figure regularly cited by politicians and the media is broadly correct. The best official figure is just under 900, but there is no doubt that deaths at sea have occurred and have not been recorded.


Review

Surprisingly, the government does not keep statistics on deaths related to claims for asylum in Australia as is noted in the article.

The article points to the best estimates we have outside official figures. On those figures to conclude that 1000 deaths is “broadly correct” when the best figure is 877 seems generous - it is more reasonable to round 877 up to 900.

Nonetheless, the inflation in the numbers in no way diminishes the tragedy of deaths occurring as a result of attempts to claim asylum in Australia. - Alex Reilly

The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to this year’s federal election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.

Request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

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23 Comments sorted by

Comments on this article are now closed.

  1. John Perry

    Teacher

    How many people die violently in their home countries because they were deterred from seeking asylum in the first place?

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    1. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to John Perry

      Should the Australian government set up a means of determining and recording this too John?

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    2. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to John Phillip

      Because it's very easy to assert that, under Howard, refugees were deterred from seeking asylum in Australia and therefore "lives were saved" because people didn't drown. But if that means people aren't able to escape ....?

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    3. Marilyn Shepherd

      pensioner

      In reply to John Perry

      What do this nation care? Tony Burke just wants to pretend that he can see them drown from almost 6,000 km away in Sydney.

      He doesn't watch the news so he doesn't see them die at all in any place.

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    4. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to John Perry

      John P. That is a fair point. I would argue against it though on the basis that, unless you adopt a totally open borders policy, the country wants to (needs to?) control or limit the number of asylum seekers it accepts. We have increased our number to 200000pa. (Whether that should be increased further is another discussion.) This policy won't change that - we will continue to settle 20000 refugees pa. What will change is, if the policy stops people getting on crappy boats to get, there will be fewer deaths. Additionally, it could be argued that those arriving by boat have already escaped the immediate threat from their home country in order to be in a position to leave Indonesia.

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    5. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to John Phillip

      Thanks for your reply. A policy that could stop people getting on crappy boats is for Australia to NOT destroy all boats that arrive in this manner and to start distinguishing between seaworthy and unseaworthy vessels. And punish operators on the basis of their using the latter, rather than the former. If anyone operating such a vessel knows for certain, in advance, that their boat will be scuttled after it is confiscated, they are more likely to use a crappy, disposable boat.

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  2. Marg Hutton

    Independent Researcher

    I have been researching asylum seeker drownings at sea since 2002. According to my research more than 1,000 people have drowned on boats en route to Australia since 2009. See my fully referenced table. 'Drownings on the public record of people attempting to enter Australia irregularly by boat since 1998' (with hyperlinks to source documents): http://sievx.com/articles/background/DrowningsTable.pdf.

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    1. Marilyn Shepherd

      pensioner

      In reply to Marg Hutton

      Yes they have drowned at sea, but 5,000 Syrians a week are being slaughtered, 3,000 Iraqis are being slaughtered, 25% of all Afghan kids dies before they are 5, and Marg some of these people died north of Indonesia and just because they were coming here does not mean they are an Australian death toll.

      In the same period as 1,000 refugees drowned since 2009 about 35 million kids under 5 have died of starvation and preventable disease.

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  3. Darin Ritchie

    logged in via Twitter

    "During the 2000-2007 period of Coalition government, 363 died, with the status of additional 350 individuals unknown.

    This is a tragedy that has occurred under both political parties, especially so since 90% of asylum seekers who arrive by boat have been found to be genuine refugees."

    I believe the original author has shifted into commentary under the guise of fact checking with these statements, and is essentially attempting to subtly challenge the argument being made by The Australian editorial…

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    1. Liz Minchin
      Liz Minchin is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Queensland Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Darin Ritchie

      Hi Darin, thanks for your post, that's an interesting point.

      One of my colleagues did most of the editing on this article but when I read that sentence while check subbing before this was published, I read the 'tragedy' line as simply saying it was a tragic situation - rather than trying to imply that it was an equally tragic situation under Howard vs Rudd/Gillard.

      But I can see how it might be read a different way and we're very aware of trying to keep commentary out of these fact checks, so we're very happy to take that constructive criticism on board.

      I'm not sure of Sara's availability to come on and reply to this: our authors give up a huge amount of time to write for free for the site, so they can't always keep logging back in to keep up with comments. But I'll drop her a line now and pass on your post. Thanks again.

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    2. Sara Davies

      Senior Research Fellow, International Relations at Griffith University

      In reply to Liz Minchin

      Hello,

      Thanks for comments. First, regarding my use of the word 'tragedy'. Liz's comment is the same as mine - I attached the word tragedy to the loss of life and not to the policy of either government.

      Second, I did not consciously shift my argument, that is because I don't know if deaths at sea can be solely attributed to the policies of either government. The presumption is that deaths at sea is solely caused by the 'pull factor' of Australia's government policies for onshore arrivals…

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    3. Darin Ritchie

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Sara Davies

      Hi Liz and Sara, thank you for your response, it was not expected but is appreciated.

      I am happy to accept that a perception of commentary on my part was not the result of conscious action by the author. I would also readily accept that the limitations of space and time necessitates constrained arguments and explanations which can lead to unintended impressions.

      I would argue that push and pull factors are complex and change over time, location and for each individual. And while more research…

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  4. Bruce Tabor

    blogger

    A gross distortion of the evidence. Your headline asks the unqualified question, "Have more than 1000 asylum seekers died at sea?" A reasonable estimate would be 1575 deaths at sea since the Tampa affair, when the hysteria started (746 + 862 - 22 suicides - 11 presumed murdered returnees).

    Instead you implicitly accepted the interpretation of "The Australian", that deaths under the Howard don't count, whilst deaths under Labor do. Both "fact checkers" them quibble that 1000 drownings is close but a bit high. The qualification "under Labor" is not mentioned in the Title, the Verdict or the Review. This article falls as far short of The Conversation's mission statement of "ACADEMIC RIGOUR, journalistic flair".

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    1. Peter Banks

      retired Civil Engineer

      In reply to Bruce Tabor

      Do you really believe, Bruce, that all relevant facts and bases for evaluation are included in headlines? Surely reading the statement by the The Australian, cited at the head of the article and referred to throughout, makes it abundantly clear that the fact being checked is "more than 1,000 asylum seekers have perished at sea since Labor relaxed its policies in 2008".

      But I also would argue that the assessment should be FALSE. A number of "more than 1,000" is an exaggeration of at least 14% over the 877 figure quoted.

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    2. Liz Minchin
      Liz Minchin is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Queensland Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Bruce Tabor

      Hi Bruce, I've just added 'under Labor' into the headline, you're quite right that it needed some qualification in terms of the time scale we were fact checking.

      Having said that, and as Peter Banks has pointed out too, the actual detailed factual claim in bold at the start of the article does clearly say: “More than 1000 asylum seekers have perished at sea **since Labor relaxed its policies in 2008** – a move it now concedes was a mistake.” – The Australian, 18 July.

      Hopefully now with the…

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    3. Liz Minchin
      Liz Minchin is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Queensland Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Peter Banks

      Thanks for your post Peter. Like you I thought what we had before was OK, but was happy to add 'under Labor' in the headline to be even clearer.

      The verdicts on these can be tricky, and the most subjective part of this fact checking process. In this case, because there's no proper record keeping, it does become more of an estimate, and the reviewer Alex Reilly agreed with you about a 1000+ estimate, arguing 900 would be more accurate.

      I think that's why having the blind second opinion is a valuable thing, because not all our reviewers agree with our authors. It makes it a slower process - much more work for us editors too - but useful... I think Sara and Alex both gave good reasons for their different take on the numbers though, was an interesting piece.

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    4. Bruce Tabor

      blogger

      In reply to Liz Minchin

      Thanks Liz,
      This is a somewhat emotive issue and academics are just as capable - if not more - of having an axe to grind. That's OK in an opinion piece, but FactChecks should be dispassionate and clear about the context like a scientific journal article.

      With FactChecks, if I'm busy, I'll read the Title, the Verdict and the Review, just like I often just read the title and abstract of a publication - plus look at the figures.

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  5. SHEREEN

    logged in via Twitter

    The whole question of asylum seekers as to whether how many die at sea is that "who cares" because if they die at sea they don't get here and we don't have to worry about them, and if possible it may act as a deterrent to anybody else trying to seek asylum from these countries. Australia has enough problems with people living on the streets, how about giving aid and comfort to our own instead of worrying about people from other lands who I might add are not willing to change their ethnic roots and culture and I believe can't be trusted.

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