An Iraqi asylum seeker, Ahmad, committed suicide at Villawood detention centre on Monday November 15.
Fellow detainees found the man hanging in a bathroom and took him down. It took 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.
Ahmad was 41 years old and had a wife and four children. He’d been in detention, on Christmas Island and in Villawood, for over a year.
He had been rejected twice under off-shore processing arrangements found to be invalid in a recent High Court decision.
“We’re shocked and very upset,” said one detainee, “People are crying. He knew about the High Court [decision] but there is no new policy.”
Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition said “a number of us visited Villawood on Sunday to let people know about the High Court decision which seemed to provide s small window of hope. But for some the wait is too long… they’ve given up”.
“Incidents of self harm are daily occurrences. There needs to be a full inquiry into Ahmad’s death and into mandatory detention itself: a system that’s literally killing people.
“In 2008 Labor declared detention was a last resort. But it’s the first and only resort for asylum seekers arriving by boat. There are people here who’ve been found to be refugees but are still waiting after 18 months. This is the second suicide in Villawood in just over two months” said Rintoul.
What the recent High Court decision on offshore processing means (not much)
On November 11 the High Court ruled in favour of two asylum seekers who challenged the offshore processing system used to determine whether those who arrive by boat are given refugee status. While the decision is a slap in the face for the government, its legal effect is limited. It does not end offshore processing. It leaves excision and s46A of the Migration Act referring to “offshore entry persons” intact.
Federal Attorney General McClelland Robert has said that offshore processing will stay and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says the result is “interesting” and applies to “some cases”.
Refugees and suicide
The following is an extract from the Australian Bureau of Statistics “Causes of Death” survey, 2008.
Refugees who are bereaved or have post-traumatic stress are at risk of suicide.
Factors that increase the risk of attempting suicide include physical illness, poorly managed mental or physical symptoms, disorientation, exhaustion, little social support, alcoholism, history of depression or current depression, history of suicide attempts and unresolved grief.
In many cases, suicidal ideation or the method of suicide by refugees is related to stressful events, especially torture experienced by them.
There is evidence that self-harm, suicide and suicide attempts may occur when an asylum seeker's application of permanent protection has been rejected, and he/she is asked to return to his/her country of origin.
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) found suicide attempts by asylum seekers in detention are not infrequent, with 'numerous examples of detainees attempting suicide or serious self-harm'. The rates of self-harm were high for people in the 26-35 age range and predominantly men16.
The methods used by children to self-harm can be quite dramatic.
Yet most Australians are sympathetic towards refugees
Eight out of 10 people said they’d help a refugee settle into their community, according to the results of an Australian Red Cross survey published on 21 June 2010.
The survey of 1,000 people across Australia also found 67% agreed that refugees have made a positive contribution to society.
“The community empathises with the plight of refugees and asylum seekers," said Australian Red Cross CEO Robert Tickner. "Australians can relate, with 86% of people surveyed saying they too would flee to a safe country if they lived in a conflict zone and were under threat.
"Refugees and asylum seekers are very resilient. In spite of the extreme hardships and suffering they may have endured, they make a positive contribution to Australian society, economically and culturally.
"On this evidence there appears to be a disconnect between the strong sympathy of the Australian public and the unsympathetic nature of much of the public debate around asylum seekers and refugees," Mr Tickner said.
Where do the unions stand on this major civil rights issue?
In a press release earlier this year the ACTU called for “politicians to stay calm on asylum seekers and maintain a humane approach”.
“Australia must not deviate from a refugee policy that is humanitarian, compassionate, and pays respect to international law” said ACTU President Ged Kearney.
“The Government is in talks with other countries about hosting regional processing centres. Unions are yet to be convinced this is appropriate…. Care must be taken to ensure Australia’s international obligations are not breached.
“Unions strongly reject any attempt to demonise asylum seekers for political gain,” said Kearney. “Migration – including the humanitarian and refugee program – has played a great role in Australia’s growth and prosperity and will continue to do so".
ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence said unions have long supported a rational and informed public debate about immigration, population and asylum seekers based on facts.
“Politicians have a responsibility not to inflame division or misrepresent the facts, and to show leadership to counter views that would demonise asylum seekers or abrogate Australia’s international obligations,” he said.
This stuff is long on “motherhood” statements but very short on specifics. The union movement itself has the responsibility to show a strong lead here and not cow down in front the racist right, as ALP politicians from Gillard down seem to be doing.