Refugees’ ASIO despair

Daniel Flitton and Maris Beck

ASYLUM seekers branded security threats by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation have been involved in a spate of suicide attempts inside the nation’s detention network.

Julian Burnside: “The fact that a person has been adversely assessed by ASIO does not mean they are a terrorist.”

Two Tamils given adverse assessments by ASIO have attempted to kill themselves at a detention centre in Melbourne’s north in the past month – one of them twice.

A third man stood screaming with an electrical cord clutched in one hand late on Sunday at the same spot where a friend had swung by the neck until he almost died three nights earlier.

The man, one of 78 rescued by the Australian customs vessel Oceanic Viking in 2009, had become distraught listening to a Mother’s Day special on radio, and remembering how his mother was killed in Sri Lanka’s civil war when he was 13.

A total of 47 people in Australia have been given adverse security assessments, leaving them with no prospect of release into the community or resettlement in another country. Eight of them – six Tamils, an Iranian and a Rohingya Burmese – are being held at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation complex in Broadmeadows.

They are caught in a legal limbo, not permitted to see the evidence against them, nor to know the criteria ASIO uses to make its assessment.

Although they make up less than 1 per cent of all people to have arrived by boat and sought refuge in Australia since 2010, a surge in arrivals over recent weeks – including 670 this month – could mean more adverse findings.

After a recent determination by ASIO, a Tamil woman, Ranjini, and her two children were taken into custody at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre last week. It is believed ASIO found her former husband was a driver for Tamil Tiger separatists.

Melbourne refugee advocate Julian Burnside said there was no effective review of ASIO assessments. ”The fact that a person has been adversely assessed by ASIO does not mean they are a terrorist. They may have had a cousin who was involved in people smuggling or some other relatively minor thing,” Mr Burnside said.

”They face the possibility of being in detention forever … What the government says is: ‘We will try and find another country’. They say to other countries: ‘Will you take this refugee from us, with an adverse security assessment?’ As you can imagine, that’s a hard sell.”

The ALP national conference last year passed a resolution calling for an independent review of ASIO assessments but the government has yet to act.

The Age has been passed a letter by a group of nine men with adverse assessments sent to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen last August. ”We are grateful to Australia, particularly to the [Immigration] Department, as we have been accepted as refugees, due to the threat we face in our native country,” the letter reads.

”But, we are not allowed to enter Australia, because ASIO perceives that we pose a security risk to Australia. ASIO refuses to tell us why they perceive so. We tried a number of times to explain to ASIO and the department that we would never imagine causing any harm to Australians or Australia, which opened the doors for us.”

An employee at the Broadmeadows centre, who asked not to be identified, described the situation as “Kafka-esque” and said many detainees were victims of trauma and torture.

Even those who could sleep were often woken at night by their neighbours screaming, with up to 70 per cent of detainees supplied with anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication or sleeping pills.

The Immigration Department said a GP visited the centre three times a week, in addition to a nurse clinic and a psychologist being on site five days a week, and a consultant psychiatrist also calling each fortnight. A spokesman said no incident was reported there on Sunday.

But The Age has been told Jasee was restrained by friends after his threat to harm himself.

Aran Mylvaganam, a Tamil community activist, said Jasee was crying when he spoke to him about 1am on Monday.

”It was Mother’s Day. It reminded him of all the negative things that have happened in his life,” Mr Mylvaganam said.

Refugee lawyer David Manne said the system amounted to a denial of natural justice.

The Age sought an interview with Immigration Minister Chris Bowen to discuss the government’s plans for asylum seekers given adverse assessments, but was referred to Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, who did not respond.

For help or information visit, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114.

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  1. Human Rights Law Centre

    ATT: Nicola Roxon and Chris Bowen – With another spate of suicide attempts in immigration centres, it’s time to overhaul the ASIO security assessment regime. A system which results in the indefinite detention of people without reasons and without the prospect of review or release is the antithesis of a system that respects human rights and the rule of law.

  2. The more one reads of Australia’s treatment of the asylum seekers the more one is appalled by Australia’s attitude toward them. I am absolutely discussed with government and the wider publics response to these people who are in genuine and desperate need.

  3. I beleive that the average Australian, once knowing the plight of these refugees would be ,as the saying goes, “up in arms” to rectify the situation. Alas, they are ignorant for whatever reasons the suffering of these people, and so these injustices continue.

  4. How would Australians cope with the absolute lack of privacy and autonomy to which people in detention are condemned by orders from Canberra.

    A veil of secrecy over detention centres and a lack of willingness by media to challenge this, has resulted in ignorance about the conditions.
    No asylum seeker in detention is allowed access to his/her mail until it has been opened and read by DIAC staff.
    Letters arriving in another language are sent to a department where interpreters read the mail for DIAC before it can be handed over.
    People tell us that sometimes they are told up to 10 days in advance that a letter has arrived for them but they have to wait until it has been read and released.

    Life in detention is observed by cameras. People’s names are checked off at every meal. If they do not eat they are asked why. If they miss a few meals they are placed on a watch list and interviewed about their ” non compliant behaviour”. Their names can be sent to Canberra and this will be enough for the Minister to refuse a Bridging Visa or Community detention.
    Guards are required to enter the rooms and check people around midnight and again before dawn. Sympathetic guards “dont shine the torch in our faces ” – but others do. Families are included in this checking system. It is a cause of distress for children having strangers enter their rooms in the night. SERCO dictate to staff that these are now called “welfare checks”.

    Every morning in detention camps and centres there is a meeting at which lists are updated about people who are non-compliant i.e. suicidal, psychotic , depressed
    or who are on VS (voluntary starvation)i.e. hunger strike. The Non compliant are put on PSP- Psychological Support Program – renamed from SASH (Suicide and Self Harm) or suicide watch. The suicide word is banned now. Lists are sent to Canberra of the “offenders”.

    Advocates re continually fighting for the right to take food into the centres- this is allowed and disallowed on some wierd sort of rotation. When the privilege is won in one place it will be removed in another. A nun renowned for taking her home cooking of biscuits , cakes and other treats to those in need of cheer and who “has not poisoned anyone in 50 years” was blocked until wiser heads prevailed but now we learn that Families in another camp are being denied their own special foods prepared by family and community members.
    The bottom line is that Canberra dictates and controls every aspect of the lives of the vulnerable people in our detention camps and centres ( see below ).
    Is it any wonder that these places are in the words of eminent psychiatrist Professor Pat Mc Gorry – “factories for producing mental illness”.

    pamela curr

    ——– Original Message ——–
    Date: Fri, 18 May 2012 16:21:37 +1000
    From: Ian Rintoul




    Refugee advocates are alarmed at the spate of politically motivated
    decisions by Immigration Department officers barring visits to
    detention centres.

    In the last week, Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition has
    been barred from visiting Villawood detention centre; Senator Lee
    Rhiannon’s visit, today’ (Friday), to the residential housing compound
    of Villawoood was abruptly curtailed, and on Thursday night at the
    Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation a Harmony Day dinner
    inside the detention centre was ended and visitors asked to leave when
    Immigration Department officers accused visitors of being involved in
    a passive protest.

    “Not content with policing the lives of asylum seekers, the Department
    of Immigration is using its powers to try to censor and control the
    actions of visitors to the detention centres,” said Ian Rintoul,
    spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.

    “These arbitrary decisions are an outrageous assault on the democratic
    rights of visitors, refugee supporters and on the rights of the asylum
    seekers themselves to have access to community support. This is
    something straight out of 1984. It is a thinly disguised attempt to
    exclude and censor critics of mandatory detention from the detention

    “Serco and Immigration have long wielded arbitrary powers against
    asylum seekers with impunity, now they want that power to extend
    beyond the razor wire. These exclusions are no coincidence. It is
    clear that the bureaucratic exclusions have the approval of the
    Minister,” said Rintoul.

    “In my case the Director of Detentions Operations, Steve Karras took a
    decision that my presumed participation in a protest at the gates of
    Villawood was reason enough to exclude me from the detention centre.
    The fact that there was no protest does not bother Mr Karras – his
    decision is law in the detention centre.

    “Steve Karras has stated that presenting Aboriginal passports to
    refugees at Villawood meant the visit was ‘not for a proper purpose’.
    This is an arbitrary and politically driven decision and a complete
    violation of democratic rights

    “Today, officers of the Immigration Department manufactured phoney
    appointments with doctors as an excuse to cut short Senator Lee
    Rhiannon’s visit to the residential housing compound. Again this was
    thinly veiled attempt to remove a detention critic from contact with

    “But ending the Harmony Day dinner, which has been sponsored by the
    Moreland City Council and other community groups for the second year
    is the height of bureaucratic shortsightedness. What better was to
    create distress and discontent for asylum seekers and refugees inside
    the detention centres than for the Immigration Department to exclude
    the people who support them? ”

    “The Minister has to come clean – is he establishing a new detention
    regime by stealth or has the power of the bureaucrats controlling the
    detentions, gone to their heads? Either way, the punitive bureaucratic
    exclusions have to end.”

    For more information contact Ian Rintoul 0417 275 713

    Pamela Curr
    Campaign Coordinator
    Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
    12 Batman st West Melbourne 3003
    ph 03 9326 6066 / 0417517075

    “AUSTRALIA. Built by boatpeople.”