October 02, 2013
The latest deaths off the coast of West Java mark a grim milestone: the number of asylum seekers who have drowned while trying to reach Australia has now passed 1500.
The figure emerges from a Fairfax Media investigation of more than 1100 boats and nearly 70,000 people who have set out since 1989. Forty of those trips have resulted in known drownings.
The worst single event remains the October 2001 foundering of the SIEV X, which left 146 children, 142 women and 65 men dead.
Friday’s sinking near the Javanese coastline has claimed the lives of two children, but more children are expected to be among more than 20 people who remain missing.
The investigation into nearly a quarter-century’s worth of boat arrivals, largely from Indonesia – a matter dismissed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the weekend as a “passing irritant” – compares the rate of boat journeys per 100 days and drownings per 1000 passengers under each prime minister.
It shows the latter years of Bob Hawke’s time in office and the era of Paul Keating were quiet, with only a handful of boats arriving in any year and no passengers drowning.
Under John Howard, boat arrivals crept up to about six per 100 days, with a mortality rate of just shy of 26 per 1000 passengers. The deaths were almost exclusively from the sinking of the SIEV X.
From there, the rate of boat arrivals tripled during the first term of Kevin Rudd, although the rate of deaths declined to just shy of 22 per 1000 people.
The three years of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership saw the rate of boat arrivals jump to more than 55, with the mortality rate roughly unchanged.
Mr Rudd’s three-month pre-election return brought the rate of boat arrivals to their peak – an average of one boat every day – but with a lower mortality rate of seven people per 1000 passengers.
Mr Abbott’s prime ministership has so far involved eight incidents (57 boats per 100 days) and an estimated 56 drownings from last week’s events (155 per 1000 passengers). Mr Abbott’s short time in office so far, however, means the rates are as likely a coincidence of history as a meaningful comparison.
The project also shows the link between the policies tested under various governments and their effects, with a long hiatus in boats under Mr Howard ending when his successor, Mr Rudd, allowed asylum seekers to appeal decisions about their status as refugees, while abolishing a policy of making the arrivals pay for their own detention.
The surges in boat arrivals are not due to policy changes alone. Few people arrived until 1994, when Indo-Chinese asylum seekers produced a brief spurt. Other surges followed political events such as the rise of the Baath party in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The two-month project also found that while the present government’s strategy of providing weekly briefings of asylum seeker boat arrivals has attracted criticism, the previous Labor government’s approach was not without flaws.
Under Labor, press releases were issued by either customs or the Home Affairs Minister whenever the navy or customs officers responded to an event. However, these too were incomplete, with Fairfax Media discovering duplications and errors in the press releases – all of which were immediately corrected by the federal departments.