23 Oct 2012

Asylum seeker deaths estimated at 1000

1:00 pm on 23 October 2012

The number of asylum seekers who have died trying to reach Australia in the last decade is moving closer to a grim milestone of 1000 people.

Professor Sharon Pickering of Monash University in Melbourne believe the actual number of deaths could be three times higher, but say it's impossible to know, since no official record is kept by any government agency.

Professor Pickering has been compiling a database of Australian border deaths since 2000.

"We have basically trawled all publicly available information in relation to those people who have died after leaving places like Malaysia and Indonesia en route for Australia," she said.

"So that includes incidents of maritime tragedy, such as the Christmas Island shipwreck, but also a whole range of other maritime disasters where we know people died.

"It includes some estimates of boats that have left but have never arrived. However, we very much admit as academic researchers that we may not have access to all available information.

"That's one of the reasons that we believe there needs to be an official government-sanctioned count of those people who have attempted to enter Australia and perhaps have died."

Onshore deaths not recorded either

However, deaths that occurred in immigration custody are not recorded officially. Professor Pickering says that has to change.

"When we identify and chart the patterns and trends in relation to deaths in custody, we are better able to prevent them," she said.

The ABC reports one of these trends is suicide. In one month alone in 2010, three people killed themselves at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney.

In fact, Villawood counts for 11 of the 27 deaths. The ABC reports it would be held to more account if the federal government ratifies a UN treaty.

At the moment, a proposal to put The Optional Protocol on the Prevention of Torture in place is before Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.

The Human Rights Law centre says the protocol would provide for "independent monitoring, inspection and oversight of places of detention".

The ABC reports ratification would mean more eyes and ears watching over detention centres.