Detention is killing refugees

November 20, 2010
Protest outside Villawood, November 17.

The second suicide in little more than two months took place at Villawood detention centre on the night of November 15.

Ahmad Al Akabi, 41, was found by fellow detainees hanged in a bathroom.

After spending more than a year in the Christmas Island and Villawood detention centres, his asylum application had been rejected twice under the off-shore processing system that was found to be invalid in a recent High Court decision.

Lateline said on November 16 Al Akabi had filed two separate agreements to return to Iraq, where his wife and three children remain, but had rescinded both.

The last time he reversed his decision was the day the High Court found asylum seekers held in offshore detention could have their cases reviewed in Australia's courts. As such, his suicide came as a shock to many.

In reaction, up to 160 detainees went on hunger strike. On November 17, immigration minister Chris Bowen told ABC Radio: "My advice is that there is no hunger strike in relation to this incident at the moment." But Refugee Action Coalition member Ian Rintoul said 22 Iranians were still on hunger strike.

Rintoul, who is in contact with detainees, told the ABC the government used a three-meal miss rule before it acknowledged an inmate was not eating, and did not count breakfast as a miss since some detainees sleep in.

"They're going to continue to say what they say and they've got a very technical definition of the hunger strike”, he said.

On November 17, refugee rights activists rallied outside Villawood detention centre in solidarity with hunger strikers and to protest the mandatory detention system that led to Al Akabi’s death.

As detainees inside chanted, some climbed on to the roof and began flinging roof tiles at security guards. The protesters marched to the fence, as close to the detainees as possible. They were joined by Greens Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon and retired Greens MLC Sylvia Hale, who had been in the detention centre talking to detainees.

Eventually, police arrived to interrupt Rhiannon's speech and push the “trespassing” protesters off Commonwealth land. Meanwhile, the detainees set furniture on fire in frustration.

Continuing her speech, Rhiannon recounted the story she'd been told by Al Akabi's fellow detainees, describing the incident as one of the most troubling she'd ever heard.

"They were deeply troubled about his welfare, about his mental health, so they were looking out for him”, she said.

"He hadn't been seen for a period of time. The toilet was locked, and after about 45 minutes, they were deeply concerned and they broke into the toilet ... It was the asylum seekers themselves who had to manage the situation."

At no time, then or in the subsequent days, did detainees have access to psychologists or any professional support.

Rhiannon was told by detainees: "We feel that we are in control, but we've seen people snap when they get the calls from their country and hear about their family's situation. When, all of a sudden, they lose hope and they commit suicide."

Calling on the government to reassess its inhumane refugee policy, Rhiannon said: "Are [refugees] the criminals, for doing nothing more than trying to come to this country, as is their right?

“They are not detainees, they are not criminals. They are people who have the right to come to this country. But they are being judged like criminals — [Villawood] is effectively a jail. Who are the criminals? The Labor and Coalition parties. They are using this as a political football. Or is Serco the criminal, because of the abusive way that they are handling these people?"

Rhiannon said the only change since the suicide she had been told of was that all Serco staff now carried a sharp tool to cut down people if they hang themselves.

“The other asylum seekers described to us how they got a cigarette lighter to burn through the rope, which was actually a bit of string from his shorts, to try to get him down quickly”, she said.

“At all stages, it was the other asylum seekers who looked after him, who laid him out on the grass, who helped the ambulance people with their bags. They were the ones who managed the situation. Imagine the trauma that they have gone through now that a second person has committed suicide.’

"There are people who we've met before who are now so traumatised that they cannot speak. There was a man there who was taken away in a wheelchair while we were visiting because he was so weak. The situation inside is horrendous."

A refugee who had lived with Al Akabi told the protesters: "In Iraq, this treatment that forces people to kill themselves doesn't exist. The pressure that he faced here in Australia, he never experienced in Iraq."

While police investigate the death, refugee rights groups have called for an inquiry and the abolition of mandatory detention.

Rintoul said on November 16: "Incidents of self-harm are becoming daily occurrences at detention centres across the country. There needs to be a full inquiry into Ahmad’s death and into mandatory detention itself. The mandatory detention system is literally killing people."

The immigration department said 10 asylum seekers in the Christmas Island detention had sewed their lips together on November 20 as part of a mass hunger strike.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.