Data shows close to 30 asylum seekers have died in Australian detention centres over the past decade. However, these fatalities are not included in the Australian Government's 'deaths in custody' records.
Researchers at Melbourne's Monash University believe the actual number of asylum seeker deaths could be higher but warn that it's impossible to know, since no official record is kept by any government agency.
Professor Sharon Pickering works at the Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University and has been compiling a database of Australian border deaths since 2000.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speakers: Professor Sharon Pickering, Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University.
PICKERING: That figure is our best estimate that we've been able to gather by trawling all publicly available information that we're able to cross-check in terms of people who have died on route to Australia, for example while waiting in Indonesia or in maritime incidents, such as the Christmas Island shipwreck and other tragedies that have occurred, but also in terms of deaths in Australian immigration detention, and also in migration custody. And when I say immigration detention, I of course mean both onshore detention facilities and offshore facilities as well.
COCHRANE: You mentioned that the figure included people who were waiting to migrate in Indonesia, so that is just to be clear before they might have even stepped onto a boat trying to get into Australia?
PICKERING: Look I probably wouldn't use the term waiting to migrate, these are people who are looking to get aboard asylum seeker boat to come to Australia for the purposes of claiming asylum, not people that are just sort of a general migration process. However, I must say there have been relatively few reports of deaths in those circumstances, but I guess what I'm trying to point to is that when people irregularly cross borders they can die in a whole range of contexts. So we're not trying to look at just one part of that, but look at that entire environment where people die in relation to attempting to cross borders irregularly.
COCHRANE: Ok sure. Now you've pointed out in your research that no government agency is responsible for keeping track of people who do come to grief in that journey. I mean that is quite surprising I think to a lot of people. What do you think would be the appropriate department to be looking into this?
PICKERING: Well Australia is actually well behind the game in relation to this. For some time, the US government has kept account of all those people that die attempting to cross their borders. Mexico even keeps account. In Europe a number of major NGOs keep very large databases of all known deaths. Australia until very recently had no official or indeed NGO count of people that had died. Now I think it's a question for the government, which department would best be put in charge of such a tally. However what we're calling for is simply for this to occur, that given there has been particularly this year in the lead-up to the establishment of the Houston panel, such an outcry and such an amazing public response to the numbers of asylum seeker deaths that have occurred between Indonesia and Australia, it just seems to us enormously strange that Australia wouldn't make an official publicly available count. And the point I would make is it may be the case that some Australian agencies or some government department had their own tally, but it is not publicly available. And given the attention on this issue, and given the way that the entire border control policy of Australia, the entire asylum processes have been reconfigured over the past few months, in an effort for greater accountability and transparency it would seem a very commonsense step for Australia to get in line with nations such as the US and actually have a publicly available official count of those who die crossing borders.
COCHRANE: Do you think the lack of information, of clear information and credible information about this has an impact on policy makers and the decisions that they make?
PICKERING: Well I think that all good policy makers want all available evidence at their disposal so that they can make the best informed decisions for whatever end it is they're trying to achieve. I certainly think that the more that we can keep track of these deaths, the better able we are to see the pattern and trends in relation to them, the better able we will be able to prevent them. And I think there are very few people that would disagree that reducing the number of deaths certainly should be a core part of what Australia's doing in this arena.
COCHRANE: I want to narrow the focus down a little bit to the group of people that you've found have died in custody, in immigration detention of some sort or another, 27 people over 12 years. Can you tell us how these people have died?
PICKERING: They've actually died in a range of ways. Unfortunately a significant proportion, we estimate around about 11 of those, have died from suicide in immigration detention. Another particularly disturbing figure, they've also died of what some people, what we refer to as natural causes. While these deaths are often subject to coronial inquiry, which of course is a very, very important part of this system, unfortunately there's no system of understanding these deaths in relation to one another. Australia actually has a place where we record that data and where we try to make sense of it, and that is with the National Deaths in Custody Monitoring program, which the Australian Institute of Criminology runs. Since 1992 that program has been setup to record all deaths in custody. However they've come to this funny position, and it's unclear whether it's the AIC or it's the government that's come to this position, of saying we don't count deaths in immigration custody, we don't consider that custody for the purpose of this program. Now that's what seems to be a very strange position to occupy given that Australia's immigration detention system has housed up to five-thousand people in the last 12 months, it's one of the most significant parts of the Australian custodial environment now, and we're not counting deaths that occur in them. So what we're calling on the AIC to do is to start including these deaths so that we are better able to understand the patterns and trends in relation to them, so we are better able to prevent these deaths. So there's no need for a new system, there's no need for a whole lot of other things to happen, other than the decision be made to start counting these deaths.
COCHRANE: Do you think that by not counting these deaths in Australia's official deaths in custody tally, there's a risk that the government dehumanises asylum seekers and their role and their vulnerability in detention?
PICKERING: I think that certainly is a risk and I think the other thing is that it means that we are in many ways kidding ourselves if we don't recognise that this is a very large custodial environment in our community now, where harms can and indeed do occur, and where deaths can and do indeed occur. And I think that we need to be understanding that these are places where people are detained for often indefinite periods. Unlike a prison environment where people know with some certainty how long they're going to be there, for many people in immigration detention it is subject to an administrative process, so there is great uncertainty. And as we have seen over the past 12 years, there have been periods of enormous hopelessness where conditions for self-harm and for suicide have been exacerbated. So it's really important that we recognise that these are sites where deaths can and do occur, and that we simply get on with sorting ourselves out and getting these incidents counted.
COCHRANE: I'm speaking with Professor Sharon Pickering, from the Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University. Professor Pickering we have put some of these questions to the Immigration Department of the Australian government, they referred us to the Australian Institute of Criminology, that institute also declined to comment on record about this issue. You mentioned that they are the body that looks at deaths in custody more generally speaking. Have you had any response from either the government or this institute in relation to your research?
PICKERING: No look we haven't had any official response. I think the important thing is indeed I am a criminologist and therefore this is an issue that's enormously important to me. The Australian Institute of Criminology is the leading national body in relation to Australian criminal justice, studying Australian criminal justice agencies and importantly understanding incidents and issues of crime. And their national monitoring program of deaths in custody has been an enormously important contribution to our national understanding of deaths in custody, therefore they are ideally placed to include these deaths in their database. The quality of the research that they are able to produce is enormously important to policy makers, it's important for researchers, and importantly it's important to the general public to actually understand what is occurring in custodial settings, and importantly to be able to make sure that we're thinking about ways to effectively prevent these deaths. So I think the AIC is really well placed to do this, and I'm really hoping that they're going to be willing to announce that they will include these deaths in their monitoring program.
COCHRANE: As well as those domestic mechanisms for checks and balances basically on what's going on, there are also international mechanisms. Can you tell us about the 'optional protocol on the prevention of torture' and how that might improve the systems in Australia?
PICKERING: The optional protocol is a really important initiative, one that we're patiently waiting for the Australian government to ratify. What that can potentially put in place will be increasing the accountability and oversight of immigration detention and other facilities that the optional protocol deals with. So if you like that has a broader focus about increasing the accountability of these environments, and indeed we're hoping that Australia will actually take the decision to ratify the treaty that it signed. I understand it's before the treaty committee at the moment, so we're certainly urging the government to get on with that as well.