A Sri Lankan Tamil whose refugee status had been confirmed was found dead, apparently by suicide, on the grounds of Lorengau Hospital, Manus Island in October. He was sent to the hospital after a previous suicide attempt. The Tamil joined Hamed Shamshiripour, 31, an Iranian male whose body was found in the forest near the Australian-run East Lorengau refugee transit centre on Manus on 7 August.
According to the Australian border death database, PNG police have said that the cause of Hamed’s death was “suicide, however his family have demanded an autopsy and inquest to determine the cause of death. Hamed was known to have suffered from acute and worsening mental health issues.”
Altogether, six Manus detainees have died, some of medical complications after being flown to Australia. According to the database, 50 people have died in onshore and offshore detention facilities since March 25, 2000. Detention centres are often compared to prisons, with a crucial difference being that detainees are not criminals and they are not serving a finite sentence. While the Australian Institute of Criminology has managed the National Deaths in Custody program since 1992, a monitoring scheme that gathers data about Australians who have died in custody (this includes police custody, prison and juvenile detention), the program has never included immigration detention centre deaths, either in the country or offshore. Deaths in this institutional setting are included in the border deaths database, as they are a broader part of the border management regime that extends from operations at sea, decisions made at Australian airports, and the management of non-citizens who are deemed to have breached migration law.
The Australian borders deaths database was set up in 2010 by Monash University criminologists Professor Sharon Pickering, who is also Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and Associate Professor Leanne Weber, who is Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Policing of Internal Borders. It's the only database that lists border-related deaths in this country. The information is collated from media reports, coronial findings and exchange of information through NGO networks. The key question the database seeks to answer is: How many lives have been lost in the name of border protection? If people die in immigration custody, or commit suicide after their release, or perish while attempting to cross a border, who can be held accountable?
No government authority collects information about the individuals who died after attempting to enter Australia without approved papers – whether they were seeking asylum from war or persecution, or wanting a better life. The database sets out to document who these people are, where they came from and how they died. It's a shocking record for many reasons – not least for its gaps.
The list of 1997 deaths begins in 2000, with the sinking of a vessel on March 25, 2000. The entry read: “220 passengers on board, believed heading to Christmas Island from the west cost of Java, Indonesia. The boat went missing at sea en route and all passengers are believed to have drowned. All passengers on board believed to be from the Middle East. It is known that the boat was carrying men, women and children, although a breakdown of these numbers is not known. Although the Howard government claimed that this boat went missing with all on board presumed drowned, none of these deaths have been substantiated/confirmed by the government.”
The most recent death was of an unnamed 29-year-old Bangladeshi man on Nauru, who died on November 2, 2017. The database reads: “The man died after the motorbike he was travelling on collided with another vehicle. Reports from sources reveal the man was run down on his motorbike on Fly Camp Road, Nauru, by a carload of Nauruans. There were no witnesses to the incident.”
In 2011, Weber and Pickering published a book on their research, Globalization and Borders: Death at the Global Frontier (Palgrave Macmillan). The book also examined border control practices at the US-Mexico border and at the edges of the European Union. At these sites travellers without authorised documents also risk deportation, detention and death.
The Australian database forms part of the Border Crossing Observatory, a Monash initiative that draws together an international network of criminologists and researchers. Other research conducted by members of the “virtual research centre” include irregular migration, human trafficking and labour exploitation, internal border control, global conflict and gender security.
Part of the Border Cross Observatory’s work is to interrogate the notion of borders, which, its contributors argue, can no longer be defined as lines on a map. In this age of globalisation, people trafficking and mass migration, borders have expanded to encompass “borderlands”, a growing category that can include refugee camps, people waiting to learn of their residency status, and detention centres.
Our neighbours across the Tasman can also find themselves in this risky territory. The database reports on the case of Matthew Taylor, who, on 7 June, 2017, “committed suicide in New Zealand a year and a half after his deportation under s501 of the Migration Act. He was in a desperate situation in New Zealand with limited support and ties to the country following his return. He moved to Australia with his family as a toddler and never left Sydney until his deportation following his prison sentence for a string of minor offences. He has a young child in Sydney and his immediate family still live there.”
Conditions in detention may, in turn, contribute to border-related deaths. A month after Matthew Taylor’s death, “Majid Hassanloo, 39 years old, Iranian male” was “found dead in the house he was minding in Sydney from a suspected drug overdose. Majid was released from detention in December 2015 but was not offered adequate support. His psychological deterioration was profound.”
The previous year on 20 November, Fereshteh, 38 years old, an Iranian woman, “was living in the community in Perth on a bridging visa. The mother of a two-year-old son, she threw herself from the sixth-floor balcony of her home.”
Associate Professor Marie Segrave, a Monash criminologist whose work examines trafficking and migrant labour exploitation, also contributes to the Border Crossing Observatory. She acknowledges that the database’s definition of a border death is broad. Counting the deaths is important, she says, but so is gathering “as much information as can be provided about who those people were”.
The database helps shine a light on the growing ranks of those whose lives are lost in the context of Australian border controls.
Human Rights Day is this Sunday, December 10.