Detention Limbo Claims Another Tamil Victim


Only last week I wrote about a Tamil refugee detained for almost four years who had been admitted to a psychiatric ward in Melbourne last Wednesday after guards at the Broadmeadows detention centre prevented him from a second suicide attempt.

A second incident occurred this week when another Tamil refugee, “Selva”, started a hunger strike at the same detention centre in Broadmeadows, demanding that he be released or be allowed to fast until death.

Immigration documents show “Selva”, 30, has a wife and a two year-old daughter he has never seen in Sri Lanka. He has been in detention for three years and has been waiting on news from the Immigration Minister for five months on his latest claim, for a protection visa.

Refugee advocates said he stitched his lips together on Sunday and spent one night in the open air at Broadmeadows detention centre. “He told me death was preferable to what he now endures. He said he wants to continue until he’s released or dies,” said Tamil Refugee Council spokesperson, Aran Mylvanagam.

Another refugee advocate who visited the centre yesterday said Selva’s condition had deteriorated significantly in two days. “He is in a terrible condition. He hasn’t had any food or water. We understand he is bleeding and is seeing a doctor tomorrow,” the advocate reported to members of the Refugee Action Collective last night.

A spokesman for the Department of Immigration confirmed that they are monitoring an asylum seeker at Broadmeadows “Melbourne Immigration Transit Accomodation” (MITA) who “has refused meals in recent days”, but indicated that the name Selva was not one the department “was familiar with”.

“I assume it's the same person but it's not the name we would confirm,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman also confirmed that an asylum seeker had self-harmed at Broadmeadows and had received “appropriate medical treatment on site” but declined to comment further, citing department practice against discussing specific health issues.

“However, we can say that all clients in detention are afforded full access to health, including mental health, care and support. As with all detainees the client has access to food and water at all times,” the spokesman added.

A confidential report by a psychologist working with Foundation House, a centre for aiding refugees, has documented a rapid decline in Selva’s mental health while he has been in detention.

“Selva is suffering from severe anxiety and depression symptoms which appear to be related to on-going detention, worries about his family and fears of return to Sri Lanka,” the report says.

“He is experiencing symptoms consistent with Major Depressive Disorder. He has expressed suicidal intent. I believe he is facing loss of cognitive functioning due to on-going confinement and this increases the risk of self-harm.”

Regarding mental health support for detainees, the department told New Matilda that “All clients undergo full health and mental health assessments, and are provided with ongoing care and support, including onsite medical and mental health support … They have access to mental health nurses and counselling and GPs at any time as part of the IHMS health services facilities.”

“The psychiatrists and psychologists — my understanding is that they're on a visiting basis,” the department's spokesman said.

Last month it was revealed that there were 26 cases of children self-harming in detention in Darwin in a 15-month period in 2010-11, including a nine-year-old trying to overdose on painkillers, who said he was “going crazy in detention”.

ABC Radio and other mainstream outlets briefly reported this story, which came from Immigration Department documents, obtained under Freedom of Information. Yet there were no detailed follow-ups into what was a shocking revelation.

The sparse coverage of refugee mental health issues is justified by reference to the general black-out on reports on self-harm or suicide to discourage copycats. This is valid in some cases, such as the black-out on reporting the many suicides completed by jumping off the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne.

Yet the media is generally happy to break its own rules whenever it deems it necessary, such as reporting the attempted suicide of Tasmanian MP Nick Sherry in 1997, another MP Greg Wilton, who killed himself in 2000, and now the latest suicide victim in the news, the Australian Mossad agent Ben Zygier.

These were all high-profile stories on which governments spoke publicly. But when it comes to refugees, figures of self-harming children must be dug up using FOI.

Refugee advocates believe that Australian policy on Sri Lanka is so focussed on stopping asylum-seekers in boats that it has only a secondary interest in the humanitarian crisis that has developed here in recent times.

Asylum seeker claims from Sri Lankans, who are mostly Tamils, jumped 630 per cent last year, from 371 in 2011 to 2345, according to recently released government figures.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch announced last week it will soon be setting up an Australian office. Executive director Ken Roth made it clear that HRW sees Australia’s treatment of refugees as a major concern.

“Australia has a very serious problem with asylum seekers, given that the two major parties are competing with each other to be the toughest on these people,” Roth told a Human Rights Law Centre forum in Melbourne last week.

O’Connor has been rushed off the Immigration portfolio’s interchange bench to replace a flagging Chris Bowen but he nonetheless continues to crack bull-whip at refugees in public while pursuing his predecessor's policies. One Immigration Department insider told me two weeks ago that O’Connor has at least “six weeks of applications concerning refugees piled up on his desk”.

O’Connor could release refugees into the community. He could allay any community concern by doing so under control orders, such as electronic tagging and regular police reporting.

Doing so might be a step towards ending the psychological torture of the 50 or so refugees, as well as many children, who are detained indefinitely because of negative ASIO reports – reports they have been unable to challenge because of ASIO secrecy laws.

“There have been several suicide attempts among these detainees. Five of them now say they want to die and are prepared to try suicide again,” said Mylvanagam.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.