Second Villawood death raises concerns

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Police gathered around the tragic scene at Villawood Detention Centre (Image supplied)

A second recent death at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre further highlights how heartless our government is, writes Jane Salmon.

ANOTHER YOUNG MAN (known for now as MJ) has died in Villawood Detention Centre this week. He was from Iraq. His name is not yet for publication. He had a brother in Sydney.

In late January, a man from Sierra Leone called Musa also died in Villawood under similar circumstances. 

In each case, refugee advocates heard about it before the police did. I’m basing this piece on only the hard information to hand. 

That is, Villawood has undergone two deaths by suicide in six weeks. If Villawood was a school, the Government would probably close it down. And they should. 

And before that, there was a death at Yongah Hill Detention Centre near Perth.

In 2015, a quarter of all detainees attempted self-harm. In a place like Villawood, that would mean that more than one hundred took that step.

The latest fatality is a man who had (reportedly) been living in the community. He had problems. He may have found himself on the wrong side of some law or other. He was hauled into Villawood. He was unwell. He had just been told he had no hope of staying in Australia. His entire ordeal as an asylum seeker was for nothing. He would be sent back.

Why him? Why now?

We hold refugees to standards of behaviour that do not apply to ordinary Australians.

In Iran, even being gay is a capital offence. Sadly, when asylum seekers flee danger, war or trauma, we add more. The cruelties Australia inflicts on damaged, uprooted, stateless souls are incomprehensible.

These days, we entertain punitive policies meant to deter new arrivals. We sometimes deny some arrivals access to Medicare.

Visa overstayers and asylum seekers are detained in crowded, chaotic centres that make jails look luxurious. We throw foreign-born drug runners and scammers in with asylum seekers of every race. We offer no cultural sensitivity and few interpreters. Access to legal support has been cut back, too.

Then, if a detainee gets a community detention visa, we starve them and let them live in the streets. If they are in community detention they have no visa. They are supported by the Government, however. If they receive a bridging visa, they mostly need to fend for themselves or rely on charity as the receipt of work rights is no guarantee of work — language barrier, lack of childcare (no childcare subsidy), no work skills, no local work experience. Very few receive SRSS (Immigration-funded support). There's no qualifying period to be able to work. Either they can or they can't, depending on their visa conditions.

And no, the Government cannot resolve shortages of care or housing or work or transport by denying or creating a contest among the needy. 

The meagre sums ($75 per week) made available to community-based refugees from charities are only provided on the condition that no other income or resource stream exists. Their situation is ghastly and humiliating. We even make women queue up for sanitary pads.

Aussie racists will always focus on foreigners and Aborigines. Some police see them as conspicuous or even as potential law-breakers or a threat even when they are minding their own business or visiting a mosque.

Poverty is a precursor to almost every crime (except banking or corporate raiding).

Australia treats refugees to every kind of indignity. There are the repeated legislative attempts to ban phones in detention, only ever postponed by court injunction. I guess it is handy for Dutton or ScoMo if detainees can’t call their lawyer.

Australian Border Force makes its visitors apply in writing days in advance. Guards tell visitors off for being kind or generous. Food can only be brought in supermarket packets. Home cooking is vetoed.

The ABF and Serco culture is to hire ex-army, highly qualified terrorism experts to guard even the catatonic in hospital. They handcuff the sick.

How a depressed person becomes safe and healthy in the Villawood environment is unfathomable. Men from Manus and people from Nauru should not be there. They have each been through six years of hell. As for splitting families, don’t start me. This was the bureaucratic coup de gras for the man who died at Yongah Hill last September.

So this man, who had been an Iraqi in Iran, eventually came here. Going back was possibly another form of hardship or even a more harrowing sort of sentence. Sometimes returnees disappear from airports. (The Edmund Rice Centre formerly tracked such outcomes.)

Instead of asking why the latest man managed to die in a heavily-guarded facility of 400 souls, slap bang in the middle of Sydney, perhaps we need to ask why more don’t.

Calls for inquiries from human rights lawyers go back decades.

Here is George Newhouse speaking about it in 2010:

Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition said:

The tragic death last night of the second immigration detainee in less than two months, demands immediate action from the Government. The Government must immediately release all ‘at-risk’ detainees from immigration detention. 


It is clear the mental health crisis that is created by long-term detention cannot be managed from inside the detention centres. Musa's suicide death two months ago in Villawood was a stark warning that has been ignored by the Government. Attempted suicide is an almostdaily occurrence in Australia's detention centres.


People are unnecessarily being held in immigration detention. Just like offshore detention, the onshore detainees are hostages to the Government's electoral strategy. 


The detention centres should be closed. 

We need to be humane. Instead, we have politicians playing hunger games with desperate people. Governments claim scarcity when it comes to off-peak concession train fares and hospital beds but have hundreds of millions to waste on random private contractors offshore. Australia has detained stateless, blameless people indefinitely beyond nine years. 

How can Australia be so cynical, savage and heartless? The fear of inundation is baseless. We absorb hundreds of thousands of economic migrants annually. So, indeed, do other countries who also support their fair share of the world’s 68 million refugees.

Most refugees are just brave, decent people with a ton of initiative trying to find a bearable way to live. The rest are flawed, just like us. And that is their right, too. 

We need to be kinder. And we need to close nearly all the centres and camps; they manufacture madness, despair and both are spreading like a stain across Australia’s character. Ultimately, we Aussies are the ones who the world will find wanting and turn back, or turn their backs upon.

You can follow Jane Salmon on Twitter @jsalmonupstream.

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