He Came To Australia Seeking Asylum But Set Himself On Fire In Despair

Asylum seekers fill an overcrowded detention center outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of many offshore detention facilities run by the Operation Sovereign Borders program. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARK BAKER,FILE
Asylum seekers fill an overcrowded detention center outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of many offshore detention facilities run by the Operation Sovereign Borders program. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MARK BAKER,FILE

A 29-year-old Tamil asylum seeker, Leo Seemanpillai, died last Sunday in a Melbourne hospital after setting himself on fire. Seemanpillai is the second Sri Lankan refugee living in Australia to self-immolate in the past two months. But despite passing laws that increasingly restrict asylum seekers from settling in Australia over the past two years, a poll from January shows that 60 percent of Australians want the government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.” Like many refugees fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, Leo Seemanpillai came to Australia by boat, arriving in the city of Darwin in Jan. 2013. He had previously lived in a refugee camp in India, where he and his family settled after fleeing the Sri Lankan civil war in 1990. Seemanpillai arrived just four months before Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government stepped up measures against asylum seekers by passing the Migration Amendment Act of 2013, which declares all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to be ‘illegals’ and requires their transfer to offshore detention centers. As of January, nearly 6,000 asylum seekers were under detention, with over 100 having been held for over two years.

By comparison, Seemanpillai was detained for a relatively short period of six months before receiving a temporary visa. The “bridging visa” afforded him temporary status as a resident in Geelong, Victoria, but also trapped him in perpetual limbo, constantly haunted by the fear that his visa would be revoked. While Seemanpillai was able to find part time work — a minor miracle given that Australia’s “no advantage” policy, instituted in 2012, which deprives asylum seekers who arrive by boat of all working rights — the threat of deportation was never far from his mind.

“Leo would always talk about his visa status. He would always worry about what would happen to him,” a close friend, Annan, told the Guardian. “He went through so much in his life, and when he came to Australia he was given a visa that is filled with plenty of uncertainty, he couldn’t accept that.”

Refugee advocates claim that the Immigration Department had recently frozen Seemanpillai’s application for protected status after he had waited 18 months to complete a phone interview: just one of many hurdles Seemanpillai would have to jump in securing refugee status. In 2005, Seemanpillai returned to Sri Lanka for over a year, but was forced to flee again after he was tortured and beaten by the military. “He knew he would probably be sent back to Sri Lanka … despite the fact that he would probably be persecuted or taken to jail,” Tamil Refugee Council convener Trevor Grant told reporters. Australia has deported more than 1,000 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in the past two years.

While Australia has long resisted the influx of asylum seekers, or “boat people” as they are pejoratively called, who come to the island nation from abroad, Tony Abbott’s government has taken significant steps in ratcheting up strict anti-immigration policies. Operation Sovereign Borders, which the government describes as “a military-led, border security operation,” was put into effect in last September. The program puts all government agencies involved in border protection under the command of a three star general, who in turn reports to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.

While Operation Sovereign Borders has achieved its stated aim of stopping the boats, with no asylum seeker vessels reaching Australian shores in over 150 days, allegations of human rights abuses have been on the rise. One Pakistani asylum seeker, part of a group who was forced to make an unsafe sea crossing on an overcrowded life raft by Australian authorities, said that refugees are “treated like prisoners of war.” Australia’s detention camp at the Manus Islands of Papua New Guinea gained notoriety after riots left 77 injured and one dead in February. “This system of harsh conditions and humiliating treatment is a deliberate effort to pressure people to return to the desperate situations they have fled from,” according to Amnesty International Australia’s National Director Claire Mallinson.

Despite allegations of human rights abuses, Operation Sovereign Borders remains popular among many Australians. A poll published by the Lowy Institute on Tuesday reports that 71 percent of Australians support the current administration’s “turn back policy,” which blocks all asylum seekers traveling by boat from entering the country.

“People say things like like ‘they’re ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘queue-jumpers’ or believe they’ll be a drain on our health and unemployment systems,” said Natalie Sambhi, a visiting fellow at Center for a New American Security, describing many Australians’ support for harsh asylum seeker restrictions in an interview with ThinkProgress. She explained that the popular support behind Abbott’s measures to “stop the boats” has some roots in a conservative conception of Australian identity shaped by a long history of discriminatory immigration policies that systematically restricted people of color from immigrating to the commonwealth until the law was repealed in 1973.

Sambhi also pointed to a 2012 study that reveals there were almost twice as many people who overstayed their visas in Australia as there were asylum seekers who arrived by boat that year. However, instead of targeting this issue, politicians like Abbott and his conservative predecessor, John Howard, have often emphasized the “stop the boats” rhetoric because of the political weight it carries.

“[Immigration Minister] Scott Morrison can claim progress, because the promise was to ‘stop the boats’” Sambhi elaborated. She also noted that the issue of asylum seekers is cyclical, as people smugglers in Indonesia halt operations temporarily when a new policy is introduced, but it is unclear what longer term impact Operation Sovereign Borders will have. As long as flaws persist, such as the harsh conditions of the offshore detention centers and the infinitely stalled visa processing that Seemanpillai struggled through, Australia’s asylum seeker policies will remain part of a broken system.