Hundreds attend funeral for Tamil asylum seeker

Flowers at the graveside. Photo: Tony Iltis.

Hundreds of mourners packed St Mary’s Cathedral on June 18 for the funeral of Leo Seemanpillai, who died on June 1 from full thickness burns to 90% of his body after setting himself on fire.

Seemanpillai was a Tamil asylum seeker who was living on a bridging visa in the Victorian town of Geelong.

Father Pancras Jordan led the service and welcomed those attending, saying: "We are gathered to say thank you and goodbye to our brother and friend, Leo Seemanpillai, who was killed by the harsh, unjust and cruel policies of our government.”

Seemanpillai’s death has devastated the Geelong community, which is home to many Tamil asylum seekers. Many mourners believed his death was the inevitable outcome of the government’s asylum seeker policies.

In a eulogy that brought spontaneous applause, Father Jordan said: "Our government is proactively brutal and intentionally determined to break the spirits of people like Leo, who once imagined they would find protection from oppression in our care.”

The refusal by the Australian government to grant visas for Seemanpillai’s family to attend the funeral was devastating for many. A government spokesperson told Seemanpillai’s brother: “I do not doubt the sincerity of your desire to pay your last respects to your late brother, however, I consider that the assessment above — that you do not genuinely intend to stay temporarily in Australia — outweighs this consideration.”

Although not immediately threatened with deportation, as so many other Tamil asylum seekers are, Seemanpillai knew it was always possible. This fear weighed heavily on him after the announcement last October that any “unauthorised arrivals” from Sri Lanka would be returned.

Tim Gooden, Geelong Trades Hall secretary and co-convener of the Combined Refugee Action Group, has had extensive contact with the Geelong Tamil community and knew Seemanpillai.

He said: “Leo was the loveliest man you ever met. He had the gentlest handshake.”

Seemanpillai was fortunate to have had work rights in Australia and reportedly donated part of his wage to charity.

Seemanpillai’s determination to help others continued after his death. He had registered as an organ donor and the Tamil Refugee Council said five Australians received his organs after he died.