Another death in detention

Here’s a curious confluence of ostensibly non-related events.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard met the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Speaking ahead of the meeting, she delivered a sharp message about that nation’s human rights abuses, specifically of the Tamil population, after the defeat of the independence movement in 2009 brought about the end of a 26-year civil war. “We have consistently raised our concerns about human rights questions in the end stages of the [Sri Lankan] conflict,” Gillard said. “These need to be addressed by Sri Lanka, through its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.”

Rajapaksa has been accused of war crimes. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has already threatened to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, to be held in Sri Lanka in two years’ time.

Now let’s take a look in our own backyard.

Yesterday, a refugee being held in mandatory detention committed suicide in Villawood, New South Wales. He was the sixth asylum seeker to commit suicide in detention since September 2009 and the fourth at Villawood. He was a Tamil. He had been incarcerated for two years, although his claims for asylum had been finally approved in August. His release was delayed by ASIO while they conducted seemingly endless security checks.

His name was Jayasaker Jayrathana. He poisoned himself. He was just 27 years old.

Both the immigration minister, Chris Bowen, and opposition leader Tony Abbott have described the death as a tragedy. Well, they would, I suppose. They should be ashamed. Perhaps we should all be ashamed at what our country has become.

Bowen acknowledges that he can “understand people’s frustration”. I’m not quite sure “frustration” adequately covers the normal empathetic human response to an innocent man’s senseless and completely unnecessary death.

Tony Abbott’s response on PM yesterday is that if only we stop the boats, then we won’t have people in detention. That seems a little naive, doesn’t it? Abbott, of course, wants the government to return to its old policy of sending asylum seekers to the benighted hellhole otherwise known as Nauru.

While this might once have slowed the boats down for a while, it certainly didn’t stop them, and of course John Howard’s government was also an enthusiastic proponent of mandatory detention. Ask Cornelia Rau about her experiences at the hands of Amanda Vanstone.

In fact, the frank and fearless advice given by the head of the Immigration Department, Andrew Metcalfe, last week was that detaining people does not, and never has deterred anyone from trying to get to Australia. That was during testimony to a Senate committee, just last week.

Let’s have some figures. Guy Coffey, in The Age today, points out that mandatory detention costs the nation around $1 billion a year. So we might as well ask what public good it is serving. (Coffey has conducted psychological evaluations of people in detention for 14 years.)

The short answer is: not bloody much. In the three months to September this year, there were 248 acts of self-harm committed (and over twice as many declarations of suicidal intent) across a population of around 2500 asylum seekers in three detention centres. These places are not much more than factories of mental illness.

Not only is that a humanitarian disgrace – effectively torturing those who have in many cases already fled torture – the repercussions are felt through our already overburdened health system for years. Why do we persist with this ghastly failure?

We have a credibility problem. We are hardly in any position to lecture other nation on human rights while we allow this barbarity to continue. Really, Australia needs to ask itself what sort of a country it wants to be.

2 comments

  1. Andrew McMillen

    Good piece, mate. This is a good line, and sadly true it seems after watching Four Corners on Monday: “These places are not much more than factories of mental illness.”