Australia’s policy of indefinite mandatory detention of asylum-seekers is under renewed scrutiny after the recent suicide of a Sri Lankan refugee.
Under Australian law, any asylum-seeker arriving in the country without a visa can be detained indefinitely. More than 3,000 boat people are now in detention in eight high security immigration detention centers (IDCs) across the country.
On 26 October, Jayasaker Jayrathana, a 27-year-old Tamil, took his own life after more than two years in detention. He spent the past seven months at the Villawood IDC outside Sydney, where some 355 men and 50 women, mostly from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iran, are being detained.
"Shooty", as he was known to his friends, had been granted refugee status by the government in August 2011, but was awaiting security clearance at the time of his death.
"This case highlights the drastic consequences of long-term detention," Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, told IRIN.
"This was a completely unnecessary death," Jana Favero, of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, said. "It should never have happened."
Since September 2010, six men have committed suicide while in government detention, raising further questions over how Australia treats its asylum-seekers – a contentious aspect of the country’s continuing immigration debate.
"How many more lives will it take before the government acts to end mandatory detention? How absolutely tragic, but how telling that an accepted refugee could feel despair enough to take his own life in a detention centre," Rintoul said.
There are more than 1,500 recognized refugees now in detention awaiting a security assessment, his group reported.
Health experts, meanwhile, including the Detention Health Advisory Group, an independent group advising the government on the design, implementation and monitoring of improvements in detention healthcare policy and procedures, continue to warn of the profound impact indefinite detention can have on the mental health of detainees.
Under Australian law enacted in 1992, anyone arriving without a visa and seeking asylum can be held indefinitely in an IDC, pending refugee determination and security clearance.
The purpose of the policy is to ensure that people entering the country without a valid visa do not join the community until their identity and status have been determined, a 2011 government report states, noting that they are not detained because they have sought asylum.
But advocacy groups find little merit in that explanation.
"I see no reason whatsoever for there to be mandatory detention. There was no mandatory detention before 1992. People weren’t held for identity, security and health checks. Those checks were done while they were in the community," Rintoul said.
Others still note the country is the only signatory to the UN Refugee Convention in the world today that follows such a policy.
"Australia is the only country that detains asylum-seekers for the entire period of the processing of their refugee claims," Paul Power, chief executive officer for the Australian Refugee Council, confirmed, adding that any detention beyond the period necessary to manage risks to the community was against the interests of all involved and against the national interest.
And while the government’s policy describes mandatory detention as "an essential component of strong border control," it also states: "Detention that is indefinite or otherwise arbitrary is not acceptable.
"Detention in immigration detention centres is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time," it added.
But despite those statements, provisions for release pending the outcome of an application to remain in the country remain limited, activists insist, with scores of asylum-seekers languishing in detention for years.
According to the government’s own statistics at the end of September, more than 36 percent of asylum-seekers had been in detention for over a year, while IRIN spoke to at least nine people at Villawood who had been there for more than two years.
Sureshkumar Gianeshalingam, a close friend who arrived on the same boat at Christmas Island from Sri Lanka, said: "It was too much for Shooty. All that waiting. All that uncertainty. And for what?" Like many others at the IDC he is also unsure of his fate.
"All he wanted in life was peace. Now he finally has it," the 27-year-old said.
(Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) is an editorially independent, non-profit project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, funded by voluntary contributions from governments and other institutions.)