Tamil refugee’s death throws spotlight on detention system

Refugee rights protest outside Villawood detention centre, April 25. Photo: Peter Boyle

Prime Minister Julia Gillard met Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on October 26 to discuss allegations of human rights abuses. The meeting took place just hours after a young Tamil refugee killed himself inside Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

The young man who died was known as “Shooty” to his friends. He died in the early hours of Wednesday after spending two years in Australian detention centres. A friend of Shooty’s told New Matilda that he fled Sri Lanka during the country’s civil war. His refugee status has been recognised and he was awaiting security clearance from ASIO.

Sri Lankans make up the third largest group by nationality in Australian detention centres according to figures released by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) in September.

Bala Vigneswaran from the Australian Tamil Congress told New Matilda: “In 2009 there was a genocide where at least 40,000 people were killed, innocent people killed in cold blood, many were tortured.”

President Rajapaksa is accused of war crimes during this period. Since he arrived in Australia on October 25 to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), two separate cases have been filed with Australian authorities against him requesting the Commonwealth investigate and prosecute the alleged crimes.

Gillard told ABC Radio on October 25: “Australia and like-minded countries have been urging and will continue to urge Sri Lanka to address the serious allegations that have been made of human rights violations during the end stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and we will continue to do that.”

A spokesperson for Rajapaksa has denied the accusations have merit and Australian Attorney-General Robert McClelland has extended diplomatic immunity to the Sri Lankan President.

The impact of the conflict on Sri Lankans was heavy, said Vigneswaran: “People lost their family members, some families were entirely wiped out, and 350,000 people have been kept in what we call concentration camps, the Sri Lankan government calls them internment camps.”

Vigneswaran said Shooty arrived at Christmas Island in October 2009 and was transferred to Villawood about March this year. “He was a very funny, jovial guy with lots of friends here, but in Sri Lanka he was sought by the Sri Lankan armed forces and paramilitary. He had run away for his life.”

Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul told New Matilda that Shooty was found “distressed” in the family compound at Villawood about midnight on Tuesday and died soon after. “As I understand it, he poisoned himself,” said Rintoul.

DIAC confirmed the death in a short statement: “An ambulance was called immediately and they commenced CPR but the man was pronounced dead shortly after midnight.”

Vigneswaran regularly visits Villawood detainees. He said Shooty had sought permission to go on a “sponsored visit” with friends outside the centre to celebrate the Hindu festival Diwali.

“He wanted to go to the temple and to visit some friends,” said Vigneswaran. “He had asked a few times, and requested community detention and asked for visits. His requests were denied.”

Vigneswaran said it had been two weeks since he spoke with Shooty but he believed that the rejection of his requests together with the impact of two years inside detention may have played a role in what happened. Vigneswaran said Shooty had previously self-harmed and there was some concern shared by those close to him that mental health assistance provided was inadequate.

The Australian Human Rights Commission said in a told a Senate Estimates hearing that about 900 people who had been found to be refugees remained inside immigration detention centres awaiting ASIO security clearance and there was “no time limit set” on how long that process would take.

Rintoul says there was concern inside the centres about this process. He told New Matilda Shooty was optimistic but anxious after witnessing the experience of others awaiting security clearances while inside Villawood.

“I was there with him not long after he got the message he had been accepted as a refugee.” said Rintoul. “He was very, very happy, but also very aware that he could be facing a long wait with the security clearance.

“He was hopeful but also experienced the anxiety associated with long term detention and processing. It weighed heavily upon him. Too heavily, it turns out.”

DIAC says the death is being investigated by police and that it is expected that a coroner’s inquest will further investigate the circumstances.

This death is the fourth inside the Serco-run Villawood Immigration Detention Centre since September 2009.

[Republished from New Matilda.]