[Extracted from Senate Legal & Constitutional Legislation Committee Estimates, 17 October 2011]
Senator CASH: In a press conference on 11 October, Dr Andrew Leigh MP claimed that there were somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people who had drowned while trying to reach Australia. Can the department confirm the accuracy of that figure? What was the figure based on?
Mr Metcalfe : My understanding is that that is a correct figure. We know what we know. We know that 363 [sic] people on SIEV-X drowned. We know that scores of people on SIEV-223 [sic] drowned 10 months ago. There have been a number of other tragic incidents that involved deaths over the years which collectively add up to around 500 or so people. If you would like a more detailed listing of those particular tragic incidents that we know of, I could probably have that material made available to me to provide to you.
We also know that there are reports of other boats that have gone missing. It would appear there is reasonable information that people did set out to Australia and never arrived. Quite often it is known that people are setting out because family members or contacts in Australia or elsewhere provide that information. So the figure of up to another 500 people possibly having drowned I would regard as reasonably accurate. As I am sure you and I would agree, this is one of the evils associated with this method of travel. It is a very risky way to come to Australia. I know there are other views, but to work in a public policy area where hundreds of people die and have died is very confronting for us. That is why we are so determined to find ways to prevent people having to risk their lives in this way.
Senator CASH: In relation to the figure of between 500 and 1,000 people, over what period of time are we referring to?
Mr Metcalfe : We are talking about the last 15 years or so—really before the last big wave that commenced in 1999. The last 12 or 13 years is where that sort of information has come from. We do know of course—it is a matter of record—that there were numerous drownings and deaths of Vietnamese boat people travelling in the 1970s and 1980s but the best recent information of the Middle Eastern and Sri Lankan caseload travelling to Australia a decade ago and presently would indicate that we know of about 500 people dying and suspect another 500 may well have died.
Mr Metcalfe: Senator Cash asked me earlier about mortality rates associated with irregular maritime arrivals. I can indicate that we have had two recent waves of arrivals. In 1999-2001 we had around 12,000 people arrive in Australia. In 2009 to current we have had just under that, about 11,500 so far. We know of the following documented tragedies. There was SIEV X, of course, in 2001 with a loss of 353 men, women and children. We know that several elderly asylum seekers near Ashmore Reef died in 2001 when their boat sank, we think as a result of sabotage. We know of SIEV 36 in 2009 when an onboard explosion resulted in five men dying. Several suffered serious injuries and burns and several Australian personnel received injuries narrowly avoiding death. We know that as many as 12 Sri Lankans died in 2009 in the Indian Ocean when their boat sank before they could be rescued by a commercial tanker sailing towards it in response to a distress call. We know that up to five men died when they left their stricken vessel in the Indian Ocean north of Cocos Island in 2010 and set sail atop an inner tube in an attempt to reach land, which was unsuccessful. We know that SIEV 221 in December 2010 crashed into the rocks at Christmas Island with a known death of 30 men, women and children and possibly as many as 20 more people.
There are also strongly credible reports of up to 100 people dying in 2009. Those reports are from refugee advocates regarding a people-smuggler vessel that sank shortly after departing Indonesia. That is around the 500 or so figure, Senator Cash, that I was talking about. We do know from broader rumours and reports that there are other vessels that have left or have not arrived, and I think that is where the figure of 1,000 comes from. Certainly, this is a very tragic area to work in, and that is why I think there has been strong commitment from many people to try and find other ways of responding to these issues.
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