Death in Australia Highlights Tamil Refugee Plight

A man has died of burns after setting himself on fire over fears he would be sent back to Sri Lanka.

Jarni Blakkarly
Death in Australia Highlights Tamil Refugee Plight
Credit: David Jackmanson via Flickr

On Saturday, 29-year old Leo Seemanpillai died in a hospital in Geelong, Victoria with burns to 90 per cent of his body after he dowsed himself in petrol and set himself on fire.

The Tamil man had arrived in Australia in January 2013 and had been granted a bridging visa in May that year, which meant that he was allowed to live in the community while his claims for asylum were being processed.

A spokesperson for the Tamil Refugee Council, Aran Mylvaganam said that Seemanpillai was afraid of being sent back to Sri Lanka.

“He feared for his life if he was returned to Sri Lanka. His house-mates told me he repeatedly talked about being sent back, he was quite worried about it,” Mylvaganam said.

It is believed Seemanpillai had suffered from depression since fleeing Sri Lanka five years ago. He had been living in a refugee camp in India before coming to Australia by boat.

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Thousands of Sri Lankans arriving in Australia have been sent home with many labelled as “economic migrants,” although the majority of those who arrived have been found to be refugees.

Bridging visas were initially introduced by the previous Labor government in 2011 to ease the overcrowded detention system. Since taking office last year the conservative Liberal government have placed a freeze on permanent protection visas being issued, leaving in limbo around 33,000 people on bridging visas. The government wants to re-introduce temporary protection visas brought in by the previous Liberal government in 1999, but this move has been blocked in the Senate.

Seemanpillai’s death has highlighted the continued uncertainty faced by those waiting long and uncertain processing both in detention and in the community, as well as the lack of mental health services for refugees, many of whom are suffering from post-traumatic stress. Refugees on bridging visas are given financial support by the government but are not allowed to work or study.

The death comes as reports emerge that several asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island are currently on a hunger strike and an 18 year old asylum seeker has attempted suicide.

In April this year, a Tamil man was hospitalised after suffering serious burns to 70 per cent of his body after he was told his claim for asylum had been rejected and he would be deported to Sri Lanka.

A government report found that between October 2009 and May 2011 there had been 336 incidents of self-harm in Australian detention centres. There have also been four deaths in detention confirmed as suicide as of last year.

In November 2013 the Australian government announced it would give Sri Lanka two Bay-class patrol boats, costing A$2 million ($1.85 million), to help Sri Lanka stop those attempting to flee to Australia by boat.

Last month, the Sri Lankan government thanked Australia for refusing to co-sponsor a UN bill to set up a war crimes investigation into abuses in Sri Lanka towards the end of the civil war. A statement from the Australian High Commission to Sri Lanka said, “[The] government of Australia considers accountability and human rights concerns should be addressed within an internal mechanism and not by any international investigation as suggested by other countries.”

Sri Lanka has faced harsh criticism from the international community and the UN over ongoing abuses against Tamils since the end of the civil war in 2009.

In March, a report by the United Kingdom Bar Human Rights Committee and the International Truth & Justice Project, detailed sexual and physical abuse, including forced oral sex, anal rape and water torture used against Tamils, several of whom had been abused after being returned by the Australian government.