Refugee Fazel Chegeni dead on Christmas Island

November 13, 2015
Fazel Chegeni died on Christmas Island on November 7.

Yet another refugee has been found dead while in the care of the Immigration Department thanks to Australia's harsh and punitive refugee policy.

Thirty-year-old Iranian Kurd, Fazel Chegeni, who first arrived in Australia in 2011, died after escaping from the detention centre, although how he came to be found dead remains unclear.

Also unclear is why Chegeni was in detention in the first place. He had been granted refugee status in 2012 and spent a few months living in community detention before being convicted of the assault of a fellow detainee at Curtin Detention Centre. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment — a sentence that was suspended on appeal but not quashed — which was enough for him to be returned to immigration detention and denied a bridging visa.

He was taken to a detention centre in Melbourne, then Brisbane. While in Brisbane, his mental health dramatically worsened. He threatened to kill himself and was judged “non-compliant”. He was moved to a higher-security centre in Darwin. There he threatened to jump off a roof. He was moved again, this time to Christmas Island.

Chegeni's refugee status meant he could not be sent back to Iran, and there was no other country to which he could be sent. The only possibility appeared to be indefinite incarceration.

Before he was sent to Christmas Island, Chegeni was sent a letter inviting him to apply for a temporary protection visa to live in Australia — a sliver of hope.

But just before he went missing on Christmas Island, friends say he received another letter from the department. His application had failed; it was not valid because a form had been incorrectly filled out. He would need to resubmit it and start again.

Chegeni went missing some time on Friday or early Saturday. It is unclear how or why he escaped, although friends reported that he said he could not bear detention any longer and simply wanted “to go outside”.

His body was found on Sunday morning. Some detainees were told by staff his body was found “in the jungle” and that he had been dead “for some time”, but others were told the body was found at the bottom of a cliff and even in a sandpit.

Representatives from all of the compounds were called to a meeting on Sunday afternoon and told that Chegeni's body had been found. As news of Chegeni's death spread across the detention centre, detainees gathered in the recreation area in a spontaneous and peaceful protest.

But as night fell Serco staff withdrew from the detention centre. By Monday television had been cut off to the centre. Some food had been left at the gate of the centre and detainees were told to collect it. Armed police and others in full riot gear could be seen outside the detention fences. Detainees reported that drones were circulating over the centre and Federal Police were issuing instructions through a megaphone to “dump any weapons and return to your rooms”.

Spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, Ian Rintoul said: “The government talks about 'restoring order' in the centre, but restoring order to the riot police and Serco's Emergency Response Team will only mean a return of the brutal rule of force inside the detention centre, that led to the explosion on Christmas Island.

“The 'behavioural management' regime inside Christmas Island relies on solitary confinement, 24-hour surveillance, denial of access to a phone or the internet and systemic force, reprisals, and beatings by the Serco guards of anyone who they consider steps out of line.

“There is a widespread belief that Serco guards were involved in the death of Fazel Chegeni because of their experience of the guards in the detention centre,” he said.

Riot police carrying shields and weapons raided the centre early on Tuesday, reportedly using teargas and rubber bullets to forcibly re-establish control. Five detainees were reportedly injured, including one who was taken to hospital after he was hit in the mouth with the butt of a rifle. Seven men were transferred from Christmas Island to a Western Australian prison, with restraints used to secure the "extreme risk individuals" during the flight.

Rintoul said: “The asylum seekers need justice. There needs to be immediate moves to get all asylum seekers and 501s off Christmas Island as a first step to its total closure. And there needs to be a full inquiry to expose Christmas Island's 'behaviour management regime' that has brutalised all those who were sent there.

“The secrecy with which the government surrounds the detention centres has allowed the government and Serco to violate human rights with impunity.”

The punitive regime on Christmas Island must end. Like Nauru and Manus, Christmas Island should be closed.

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