In just the latest horrific outcome of Australia’s current treatment of asylum seekers, a Tamil refugee set himself on fire in Sydney last night after his appeal for continuation of his protection visa and resulting refugee status was rejected.
The man, believed to be in his late 20s, was taken to Concord Hospital after dousing himself in petrol outside his workplace in Balmain and setting himself alight. He has burns to about 98 per cent of his body. He is in an induced coma, having already undergone at least two skin-graft operations. There is a slim hope he may recover, although at that level of burns it frankly seems unlikely.
A friend, Balasingham Prabhakaran, said today the man, who is from the Batticaloa region in eastern Sri Lanka, had received a letter from the Immigration department telling him his application for a protection visa in Australia had been rejected and he must to return to Sri Lanka. He has been living in the community on a bridging visa for at least 18 months after fleeing Sri Lanka because of threats from authorities.
“He has told me he has a genuine fear about being sent back to Sri Lanka,” said Prabhakaran, who runs a 24-hour Tamil radio station in Sydney, Inbathamil Oli.
“He was very disillusioned after getting the letter on Tuesday.
He rang many of his friends to say ‘Hi’, and then after he finished his work as an office cleaner about 8.30 p.m., he went outside, and set himself alight.”
Apparently the refugee swallowed the petrol before pouring it on himself.
A number of workers from a nearby shipyard came to his aid, pouring water on him and trying to put out the flames.
“He had the can of petrol in his bag. It was obviously planned. They also found the rejection letter from Immigration and a two-page suicide note in his bag.”
Tamil Refugee Council spokesman, Aran Mylvaganam, said this sad case was further proof that the Australian government’s refugee policy was creating desperation among refugee and asylum-seeker communities. “I suppose the Minister for Immigration will just shrug this off as more collateral damage in the war on asylum-seekers,” he said.
Tamil Refugee Council spokesman Trevor Grant says the man is in a critical condition in Sydney’s Concord Hospital, with burns to most of his body.
“There is some hope that he may survive,” he said.
“They’re trying desperately to get his 65-year-old mother to Australia to be at his bedside, along with his brother.
“But he’s already had a number of surgeries, skin grafts etc., and he’s apparently going to have more today.”
The Federal Government is in contact with the Sri Lankan High Commission over the incident, said a spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, adding that service providers did not hold or report any concerns about the man’s mental health.
The spokeswoman said in a statement:
“The government’s focus is to ensure for the proper care and support of this young man, in partnership with the Sri Lankan High Commission.
“The Minister is advised the young man had arrived in Australia in June 2012 and was released into the community on a bridging visa in October.
“In July 2013 he was found not to be owed protection and this decision was affirmed on appeal by the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) earlier this month.
“The young man was receiving support in the community from our service providers, while residing in the community on his bridging visa, as well as receiving migration advice under the IAAAS scheme in relation to his case.
“The Minister is advised that following receiving the news of the RRT decision, service providers did not hold or report any concerns about his state of mental health.”
But Mr Grant says the young man is one of many asylum seekers terrified of being sent home. “This is really an inevitable outcome of a policy that is purposely designed to create suffering in order to deter people,” he said. “This man has been one of some 20,000 in the community. They’re undergoing psychological torture not knowing what’s happening to them, living in fear every day of being returned to danger.”
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan authorities – as they would – sought to argue that there was no reason for Tamil refugees to fear returning to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s Consul General for NSW and Queensland, Bandula Jayasekera says:
“It’s safe for anybody and everybody is looked after well,” he said. “It is also sad what these so called refugee advocates and so called lawyers are saying … and I see that as a bit of a business. “They have to look at the situation in Sri Lanka before going and commenting without any facts.”
Really, Sir? You might care to comment on recent reports suggesting the opposite. Perhaps Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison might care to comment as well? And it would be helpful if matters such as this could be reported more widely inside Australia and journalists press for more information from Government instead of being “fobbed off”.
Could all the politicians and diplomats concerned explain specifically, for example, why the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), in its annual human rights round up report and individual country of concern reports published today, expressed serious concern regarding the human rights situation in Sri Lanka?
Expanding on the reason behind the FCO involvement in securing a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution calling for an international investigation into war crimes, the report said:
“The UK sees accountability for alleged war crimes, respect for human rights, and a political settlement as essential elements of post-conflict reconciliation.”
It has to be said that the conflict with the Tamils was hideous, with war crimes undoubtedly committed by both sides.
But the peace leaves a lot to be desired.
Far from improving, Sri Lanka’s human rights situation may actually be getting worse. The report notes a ‘negative trend’ in progress on human rights issues over the last year and expands on a wide range of issues including freedom of expression and assembly, human rights defenders, access to justice and the rule of law, the death penalty, torture, conflict and protection of civilians, freedom of religion belief, women’s rights, minority rights, children’s rights and LGBT rights. Pro-Tamil groups (easily found on the Internet by anyone making a modicum of effort) regularly report what they consider human rights abuses.
For further information about yesterday’s suicide attempt, you can contact the Tamil Refugee Council on 0400 597 351.