Deaths In Australian Detention Centres Should Make Us Look To The Root Cause


On October 2, 2017, another man committed suicide in the Australian Detention Centre on Manus Island. Staff described the man’s mental illness as “acute” in the months leading up to his suicide. In fact, he had a failed suicide attempt three days earlier. Ian Rintoul of Refugee Action Coalition points out that considering the circumstances, the care he received was criminally neglectful. He now insists that “the evacuation of Manus and Nauru is now a more urgent priority.”

The victim’s family has requested that his name remain private, but it is known is that he was from Sri Lanka. Just as the Mediterranean has seen a recent deluge from the neighbouring Maghreb and the Middle East, so too is Australia particularly well-placed as an escape route for those from SouthEast Asia. The situation in many of those countries is desperate, with Rohingya Muslims fleeing and racial tensions volatile as ever in nearby India. Sri Lanka, however, after the cessation of its bloody civil war has fallen out of the limelight.

A House of Lords Debate on the 13th of October, coming up just next week, may be a sign of this perception changing. Although they will only be giving the human rights situation brief consideration, the occurrence of this debate at all is encouraging. Sri Lanka has been making a slow and relatively steady recovery but pockets of the country have been left behind. Amongst these are the Tamils who, unsurprisingly, have been struggling. The refugee found dead was, of course, a Tamil Sri Lankan.

Within the Tamil group in Sri Lanka, there is a sub-divide. The Tamils in the traditionally Tamil territory who fought for independence in the civil war only form one part of the very significant demographic. There also exists close to a million Tamils who live in the Hill country, working on the tea plantations. This group makes up around 4% of the country’s whole population and should not be underestimated in their significance.

They have, however, been disregarded by the Sri Lankan government. As recently as 2003, 300,000 of the hill Tamils remained without citizenship – stateless and severely limited in their activities and movement as a result. The poverty rates are higher – 11% compared with the national 7% – and only 2% stay in school long enough to gain the equivalent of A-Levels. Even amongst rural pupils this number, for other Sri Lankans, reaches 11%. Their arrival in Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century as indentured labourers has been difficult to shake off.

The conditions in Australia’s detention centres are impossible to justify. But the push factor away from their countries of origin may outweigh the pull factor. In order to stem the flow and start to manage these centres with a semblance of respect for human dignity, the conditions in the immigrants’ and refugees’ countries of origin must be considered. If a particular, quite large ethnic groups appear to be systematically marginalized by the government and suffering from years of discrimination and lack of opportunity. Perhaps greater initiatives targeting these groups could be effective.

In the UK it could be time for citizens to make their voices heard and ensure that the House of Lords debate initiates a more high-profile discussion. Campaigns could be geared towards these hill Tamils and a great deal of development could be made with people who now have so very little. And, with effective targeting, who knows how many lives could be saved later on.