Another death in Villawood


On January 9, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released its report into mainland immigration detention facilities, based on HREOC visits to detention centres in August and November. The report noted a number of improvements in the system of immigration detention. However, there was yet another death in detention just days after the report was released.

A 62-year-old Iranian immigration detainee who was being held in Sydney's Villawood detention centre died on January 13 after being taken two days earlier to the St Georges Private Hospital.

Fellow detainees reported that he had to walk 100 metres uphill each day to the centre's dining room from his room using an umbrella to assist him to walk. He was often too exhausted to eat. When he was finally taken to hospital, he collapsed and died two days later from a heart attack.

The man was not a refugee. He had been found guilty of drug-related offences and had served his sentence in the Australian prison system. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) then ordered his deportation on "character grounds", under Section 501 of the Migration Act (1958). But when he was found to be medically unfit to fly, he was placed in Villawood rather than in a hospital.

His death highlights the inadequate medical care that detainees have suffered for years, resulting in the deaths of 18 detainees, according to refugee advocates.

A DIAC spokesperson, interviewed on radio following a protest outside Villawood on January 15, claimed that the deceased Iranian had been convicted of drug-related offences. But this does nothing to negate his basic human right to medical care.

Villawood is Australia's largest immigration detention centre, holding almost half of Australia's 580 immigration detainees. It is administered for profit by GSL Limited, a prison management corporation with a long history of deaths in custody in the facilities it runs.

HREOC's report noted that physical health services at all of Australia's immigration detention centres are contracted out to International Health Medical Services Pty Ltd. "All of the detention centres have a IHMS nurse on-site Monday-Friday, with on-site access to GPs at certain clinic times. Hence, detainees appear able to see a nurse on the day that they have a complaint, but may have to wait several days to see a doctor unless it is an emergency. For emergencies, detainees are taken to external hospitals."

Clearly this isn't working. As was with the case of mentally ill detainee Cornelia Rau, the concerns of other detainees over the health of a fellow detainee were ignored yet again. This time the consequences were fatal. Why is it that medical regulations for boarding a plane are more stringent than those for being held in an immigration detention centre?

A 1998 HREOC report, Those Who've Come Across the Seas, noted: "Detention is especially undesirable for vulnerable people such as ... those with special medical or psychological needs."

Villawood remains the most prison-like of all immigration detention facilities. The latest HREOC report describes the atmosphere at the centre as "security-driven and tense". It described the high-secutity section of the centre as a "disgrace" and recommended it be demolished.

The report also notes that HREOC was refused permission to inspect the Australian immigration detention facility on the Pacific island-state of Nauru.

On January 7, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pledged to close the Nauru facility, and to bring all asylum seekers there to the Australian mainland.

The latest HREOC report has yet again recommended that Australia's mandatory detention laws be repealed. However, the new Rudd Labor government has vowed to continue this system, which was first instituted by the Keating Labor government. Using a dead man's criminal history to justify a system that kills doesn't bode well for a government that has promised change.

[Mira Wroblewski is a member of the NSW Greens.]

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