On Wednesday a friend of mine died in Villawood Detention Centre.
Shooty is the fourth person in two years to die at Villawood, the sixth to die in an Australian immigration detention facility. Initial reports say he took poison. Friends claim they tried to reach him by phone but requests to put calls through to him after hours were denied.
What I do know is that he — having escaped torture in his home country, survived the boat journey to Australia, endured two years inside a detention centre — ended up taking his life, completely alone, in a country that recognised his need for protection but never got around to giving it. He is survived by his girlfriend and friends here in Sydney, and family in his home country whose lives remain in danger.
From his friends in detention and others who knew him, the response has been sad, but muted. We feel a sense of loss, but not a sense of shock. We’re grieving for his loved ones and the life he will not enjoy, but with a numb sense of inevitability. Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, within detention, suicide — the language of it, the thought of it, its potential, its significance — is always on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
Whether they have witnessed someone attempt it, tried to commit it themselves, or are being psychologically evaluated by how often they think about it, its notional presence hangs heavy in the air so that when it does happen, we feel very little — not anger, horror or shock — only a deep loss for the friend who came so close but never got to see life on the other side of the fence. It’s the chilling sense of familiarity that scares me the most.
It would be easy to say that Shooty was just another individual who was unable to cope with the detention environment. It would be easy to say that, had he been provided sufficient support, if someone had recognised signs of serious depression, the senseless death could have been prevented; he was just someone who slipped through the cracks.
The thing is, Shooty was one of the stronger individuals in detention. He was popular and well liked; being in Villawood compared to the remote centres, he had a strong network of friends and visitors. He had a loud contagious laugh; he liked to play and joke around. He would cheer people up with his bright smile. He stood up for others, often acting as a translator for those who weren’t confident with English. He was able to be positive about the future — he had already been found to be a refugee so in some senses, he had greater reason to be hopeful than many other people in detention. Within the detention community, his death was unexpected. He didn’t appear to be a particularly vulnerable person in a way that warranted extra support. Compared to many others he was generally upbeat and engaged with those around him.
Within the broader context of mandatory detention however, the act of suicide, while tragic, is no longer a shock. In trying to make some sense of his death, people are trying to find cause and attribute blame. But it can’t be pinned to just one incident, or even one source.
Certainly, some blame can be attributed to the cumulative effect of structural policy failures: a flawed, inscrutable refugee determination system; the management of mandatory detention; inadequate mental health services and the misuse of medications; inappropriate provision for torture and trauma sufferers; under-resourced or ill-equipped service providers; long term and indefinite incarceration.
What makes Shooty’s death all the more tragic is that ASIO, in its recent annual report, has stated that they do not require "under the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 that irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) remain in detention during the security assessment process". Given he had already been found to be a refugee, why was he made to wait longer than the 24 months he had already been in detention?
However, addressing these problems individually does not account for the overarching issue of the policy framework: the absence of any notion of human dignity. The detainee as a human being is lost in a sea of rhetoric about border control, national security, immigration management, multiculturalism, bureaucracy, processing, interviews, courts, case management, applications and service provision. And at the end of two years and 24 days, when a recognised refugee, humiliated, disempowered and dehumanised takes his own life in despair, the standard response from the Minister is that, "the government cannot and will not compromise on matters of national security".
Former Immigration Minister Chris Evans attributed crises in detention in part to the strain put on the system by the number of boat arrivals. However recently released UNHCR statistics indicate that the number of people who arrived by boat in the first six months of 2011 (4930) was 19 per cent lower than in the same period of 2010 (5867).
Often Ministers past and present refer to the apparent "strain" the detention system has been put under by an "influx" of boats, when in reality it has been in a state of growing crisis for nearly two years now. Yet few significant changes have been made to meet the needs government agencies themselves identify. It is unfair to blame inadequacies of the system on boat arrivals if no manageable changes, well within their capacity, have been made to improve the existing framework over a long period of time. If the intent of policy is to punish to deter, then acknowledge your intent and continue on as you have. But please, don’t insult the people you detain by telling them that for the indignity they suffer, they only have themselves to blame.
If it is true that Shooty’s suicide was a response to a denied request to attend a Diwali festival, then this was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. There are only so many times a person can be made to beg for something they should be entitled to do freely — in this case to celebrate an important religious occasion — only to be rejected without reason or explanation before the sense of disempowerment becomes debilitating. How often can you ask an officer for sugar every time you want a cup of tea, for permission to make a phone call, to go outside to have a cigarette, to speak to your lawyer, for someone to give you some clue about what decision is being made for you about your future — before you lose all sense of your own autonomy and agency as a person?
In this sense, Shooty’s case is not exceptional; there are hundreds of others in the same situation. The person Shooty was and the support he had meant that he was in some ways at lesser risk than others in detention who face even greater uncertainty and less support under the same pressures.
This is not to diminish the tragedy of his passing, but to heighten the imperative for significant action to be taken. This will continue to happen. The deleterious effects of detention on people’s mental health are not a mystery — in fact, the phrase is becoming so frequently used that I hardly know what it means anymore.
A dear friend, also detained, more aptly described detention to me in these terms:
"Like torture. I saw in a documentary a form of torture where once a day, every day, a prisoner would have his captors hold a gun to his head and pull the trigger. The daily fear of not knowing whether he was going to live or die made him wish in the end for the bullet that would kill him quickly. That is what detention is like."
Another told a colleague:
"Serving unknown time in the detention centre is the worst waiting that we have faced in our lives — we rather to know our destiny than counting the minutes and hours that would never stop. It is a story of waiting for the unknown side. We are the dead people who left alone suffering without crime. Perhaps our crime is that seeking for the freedom and trying to leave our desperate life in our home countries is what put us behind the walls … We still have goals to promote our self and we have dreams, but our dreams now are very humble, a dream to breathe the freedom, a dream of walking freely without being watched by camera or being observed every second."
Shooty had hope for life. With it he fled from danger and risked the journey to reach these shores to seek protection, only to lose that hope and end his life while in the "safety" of our care.
To quote another refugee from Villawood, "Detention in Australia is like tying a person’s hands and putting food in front of him, which he cannot eat; after some time he loses his appetite and he doesn’t feel like eating it anymore. That is how we feel about life after we have been in detention."
Shooty, I’ll miss your happy smile and your laugh. Where you are now, you’re safe; find peace now my dear friend.
Support is available by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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