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Australian detention centre suicide sparks outrage

A 27-year old Tamil man died last night after committing suicide in Sydney's Villawood detention centre, drawing the ire of many refugee advocacy groups who blame the Australian immigration system.

The man was deemed to be a genuine refugee and was awaiting security clearance from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). He had been held in detention by Australian authorities for over 2 years after fleeing Sri Lanka, first at Christmas Island before being transferred to Villawood.

Australia's Immigration Minister Chris Bowen confirmed that the man had recently requested to leave the centre to visit friends for the Hindu festival of Deepavali. The request was denied yesterday.

The young man was found dead in his room at approximately 3am after a suspected overdose of sleeping tablets.

It marks the sixth suicide of a refugee in Australian detention since last year, with four of them having occured at Villawood.

The death has led to anger from many refugee advocacy groups who blame government policies of mandatory detention of having a profound detrimental effect on the lives of genuine refugees.

Ian Rintoul, spokesman for Refugee Action Coalition told reporters,

"How many more lives will it take before the government acts to end mandatory detention?

"How absolutely tragic, but how telling, that an accepted refugee could feel despair enough to take their own life in a detention centre."

A flawed system

Greens Senator Hanson-Young criticized the lengthy detention periods that Australia had imposed upon the young man stating,

"It is a pretty tragic case. He had already been in detention for over two years, and by anyone's definition that is far, far too long."

"ASIO themselves, on the public record in various reports, have said they do not require people to be in detention simply because they're waiting for their final security check."

"His desperate act, plus the harsh conditions in detention centres as exposed by Four Corners (on ABC television) on Monday night, show why Australia should immediately end its cruel policy of indefinite and mandatory detention"

Pressure has been growing on the Australian government to mend the current system, with either community processing or a time limit on health and security checks.

Ian Rintoul placed the blame squarely on Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

"The responsibility is Chris Bowen's."

"We now know that it is a deliberate decision by the Immigration Department to keep people in detention even when they have been found to be refugees.

"The levels of self-harm, the levels of attempted suicide... it is just soul destroying, it is destroying people".

"It is literally killing people and the Minister talks about community detention, he talks about bridging visas to get people out of detention.

He has that power to provide bridging visas now. He should stop talking about it and start letting people out."

Suicide Prevention Australia chair, Dr Michael Dudley also told reporters,

"How many more deaths are we going to need before our political leaders stop spouting about offshore processing and deterrence of boat people, and turn their minds to putting an end to this rotten system?”

"This system disables people, it excludes and vilifies people and it kills people."

Depressing conditions

Known as “Shooty”, he fled Sri Lanka over 2 years ago after the end of the Sri Lankan government offensive in Vanni. According to reports, both his parents were held in government run detention camps.

Friends of the man say that he had been suffering from depression and had tried to phone him earlier that evening. Serco, the company that manages the centre, refused to put their calls through.

Victoria Martin from the Refugee Rights Action Network commented,

"When supporters and advocates had attempted to ring him earlier in the evening, because it was well known he was distressed, they were not put through because it was after 9pm.

This was despite repeated pleas that he was not OK; they were denied."

Other refugees told reporters that he had attempted to commit suicide once before, during a rooftop protest last year after a fellow detainee killed himself.

Fellow refugee at the Villawood centre Ramees, spoke out against the conditions that they were being kept in. Asked why they fled Sri Lanka, Ramees responded,

“We held everything, we held money, we held property, we held everything but we can't do nothing in there but because not freedom in there, our country.”

He went on to say that detainees were being treated “just like animals in here. They don't understand life.”

Renee Chan, from Asylum Seekers Christmas Island, said other Tamil refugees in Villawood were "very distressed" by the news.

"But suicide has become quite normal for them."

See our earlier posts:

 'Tamils injured in detention centre riot' (Oct 2010)

'Gillard drops controversial Malaysia swap plan' (Oct 2010)