All the data in this project comes from official government sources. They include answers to questions at Senate estimates, annual reports, Operation Sovereign Borders public updates, submissions to parliamentary inquiries, answers to questions at parliamentary inquiries, weekly statistics from the Department of Home Affairs released under freedom of information laws, and monthly detention statistics and other documents periodically published on the department’s website. A small number of the statistics on release from detention in Nauru are sourced from Nauruan government media annoucements.
Some of the statistics publicly provided by the Australian government are inconsistent. Where an inconsistency arose, we generally preferred the later document. Data on returns is often inconsistent and we have dealt with our method separately below. The statistics are also incomplete. The types of data published by the government has changed over time. Where there was a gap in data for a period of time, we have left the number at the last known number rather than making a guess.
One exception to this approach is in third-country resettlement. The vast bulk of third-country resettlement is to the US, though a small number of people have gone elsewhere. Throughout 2017 and 2018, the government has shared the numbers of people resettled in the US month by month but not the numbers resettled in total. We only know what year resettlements to Germany, Norway and other countries occurred; we do not know what month. Rather than suggest that no resettlement was happening at all by leaving the number static because we did not have an official total number, we included an approximated guess with a small margin of error.
The last data included in the timeline is from 14 October 2020 as that is the last date for which data on most categories was provided, in the latest Senate estimates session.
This project focuses on the 3,127 people sent to offshore detention after 19 July 2013. At the time of that announcement, there were already a number of asylum seekers detained on Nauru and on Manus Island. Some of those people necessarily appear in our early population counts of Manus and Nauru, as the government data does not distinguish between people who were transferred after 19 July and people who were there before. But the government quickly transferred the vast majority of the people who were already there back to Australia to make room for people who arrived after 19 July. The exception was a small number of people facing criminal charges or serving sentences. Those people were all returned by April 2015.
We are grateful to the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and the Refugee Council of Australia for their assistance in locating and understanding the data.
The least consistent and reliable data is in relation to returns. Australian Border Force provided figures on returns to home countries in its Joint Agency Task Force Operation Sovereign Borders monthly update and in its regular Operations Sovereign Borders monthly update. Those numbers were consistently different to each other — sometimes by up to 17, but more often by two or three. Those numbers are different again to numbers measuring the same thing provided to Senate estimates in 2018. We have preferred the Senate estimates data as it is more recent.
Government data on returns is presented in two ways: a global number of returns or the number of returns that occurred in each month. This project examines what occurred after 19 July 2013. In the month of July 2013, there was one return from Nauru and 15 from Manus Island. To approximate the numbers of returns since 19 July 2013, we have assumed that the Nauru return happened after 19 July 2013. We assumed that 10 of the Manus Island July returns occurred before 19 July and that 5 occurred later. The result is that the numbers of returns presented in the project are approximate but within a fairly narrow margin of error.
Where the government provides a global number of returns, it is generally measured either since regional processing resumed in 2012 or since Operation Sovereign Borders started in September 2013. Neither of those categories measures what this project looks at: what has happened since 19 July 2013. Only once or twice have the numbers of returns been provided for the exact cohort this project looks at.
In a statement provided on 5 December 2020, the Department of Home Affairs said that since 2012, 644 transitory persons in Papua New Guinea and 111 transitory persons on Nauru have voluntarily returned to their home country.
The Papua New Guinean government did not respond to a request for the number of returns from PNG. The International Organization for Migration, which facilitates many of the returns, referred a request for data to the Department of Home Affairs.