Menu Close

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

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.


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.


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 Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 181,700 academics and researchers from 4,934 institutions.

Register now