NEARLY 1000 asylum seekers have died trying to reach Australia in the past decade, and 27 have died in Australian detention centres in the past 12 years, according to Border Crossing Observatory data. Monash University criminologist and Australian Research Council future fellow Sharon Pickering, who works at the observatory, warns those numbers could be higher but it's impossible to know, since no official record is kept by a government agency.
When [my colleague] Dr Leanne Weber and I began the Australian Border Deaths Database and made it publicly available, we noticed Australia was well behind Europe and North America in terms of identifying and responding to border-related deaths.
Europe and North America had been compiling significant data on the ways people die when crossing borders, and policy makers and academics have been asking key questions about the relationship between those deaths and increasing border controls at the edges of Europe and in North America, particularly at the US-Mexico border. We began the Australian database to establish the nature and extent of border related deaths and how best to respond and prevent these deaths.
How did you uncover the 27 deaths in Australian detention centres?
We trawled all publicly available information relating to border-related deaths, then we tried to crosscheck that information wherever possible. This is our best estimate — and that's one reason that in relation to deaths in immigration detention and migration custody we've called on the Australian Institute of Criminology to include these deaths in its National Deaths in Custody Monitoring program [running since 1992].
This is particularly important when the numbers in Australia's immigration detention system are increasing [the system housed about 5000 people in the past 12 months] and also given Australia is expanding its offshore detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Do you know how those 27 people died?
Worryingly, our estimates show that 11 people died of suicide in immigration detention. But there is a range of causes, including natural causes. Our concern is that without any official oversight of these deaths as "deaths in custody", we are not learning the lessons in terms of preventing deaths. So this is significant time when Australia needs to ratify the optional protocol on the UN Convention against Torture in relation to increased monitoring and oversight of custodial settings. We cannot stop deaths in custody unless we have robust reporting and recording mechanisms to chart patterns and trends in relation to these deaths — so that governments and civil society can better respond.
As criminologists, we want to be able to understand how they compare with deaths in other forms of custody for example: deaths in remand, deaths in police custody, or death in prisons. We are also calling for the inclusion in the AIC program of deaths in migration custody — that is, in the custody of immigration officials — to be made publicly available.
There is no agency responsible for keeping track of Australian border-related deaths?
No. But remember also we don't have an official, publicly available record of all border-related deaths — even with the Houston panel [the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, which released its report in August], when we had political and public attention focused on concerns around deaths of asylum seekers.
Could some agencies or departments have their own tally, not publicly available?
I don't know if any one place has that information. In the Houston report, there were references to data held by Customs and the Department of Immigration.
How does that situation compare with other nations?
One of the things we came up against when started our research for our book, Globalisation and Borders: Death of the Global Frontier, is that in the US and Europe you can simply click through to this information on the internet. In Australia, at best, it takes an awful lot of digging. We don't think the Border Crossing Observatory database should be the only one publicly available; indeed, we are calling on the government to establish its own.
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