The life and awful death of a Tamil

asylum seeker in Australia
Special report: Leo Seemanpillai was a hardworking 29-year-old plagued by the uncertainty
of life in visa limbo, say friends
Object 1
Oliver Laughland-Thursday 5 June 2014
Leo Seemanpillai’s room has already been stripped bare but a sheet o!
paper remains stu"# to the door$ %&t is our light not our dar#ness that most !rightens us' runs
the (uote on it$
Out in the living room in this small shared house in )eelong *i"toria a shrine sits on the
dining table$ + ,reath o! ,hite roses "hrysanthemums and daisies "ir"les a !ramed photo o! the
2--year-old Tamil asylum see#er ,ho set himsel! on !ire on .1 /ay$ + glass o! mil# and a
glass o! ,ater sit 0 !ull to the brim 0 ne1t to the !lo,ers le!t behind !or Seemanpillai’s spirit to
sip a""ording to a !riend$ 2e is the se"ond Tamil asylum see#er to sel!-immolate in +ustralia
over the past year 0 the !irst survived$ Seemanpillai died on 1 June$
3or the people ,ho #ne, him in this industrial "ity in southern *i"toria the tragedy o! his
death is beginning to sin# in$
+asi! a "lose !riend and !ello, asylum see#er ,ho as#ed not to be identi!ied is visibly sha#en$
%& sa, him last 4ednesday' he said through an interpreter$ %2e "oo#ed !or me$ 4e tal#ed
about our !amilies$ 4e had a good "onversation$ 2e ,as happy$
%5e!ore & le!t he as#ed6 7+re you 8ust going to leave me li#e this9’ & thought it ,as a 8o#e$' 2e
paused$ %&! &’d have #no,n & ,ouldn’t have gone$'
Seemanpillai’s !amily said they ,ere devastated$ %4e haven’t eaten !or days' Leo’s !ather said
on the phone !rom a re!ugee "amp in Tamil :adu &ndia ,here the !amily have lived !or more
than t,o de"ades sin"e !leeing Sri Lan#a in 1--0$ %4e are in tears$ 4e ,ant to see our son$'
Seemanpillai ,as one o! thousands o! Sri Lan#an asylum see#ers 0 or %illegal maritime
arrivals' as the authorities "all them 0 being held on temporary visas in +ustralia$ &n )eelong
alone asylum advo"ates estimate about 100 Tamils are living in limbo a,aiting an out"ome on
their asylum "laims$
Leo Seemanpillai o!ten
tal#ed about his visa status said !riends$ ;hotograph6 +sylum See#er <esour"e =entre
Seemanpillai’s migration agent ,ould not tal# about his "ase but re!ugee advo"ate sour"es
"on!irmed to )uardian +ustralia suggestions the pro"essing o! his prote"tion "laim had
been !ro>en by the &mmigration ?epartment a "laim denied by the immigration minister S"ott
/orrison$
+nother "lose !riend +nnan ,ho also as#ed not to be identi!ied said Seemanpillai spo#e to
him o!ten about the un"ertainty he !a"ed on his temporary visa$
%2e ,ent through so mu"h in his li!e and ,hen he "ame to +ustralia he ,as given a visa that is
!illed ,ith plenty o! un"ertainty he "ouldn@t a""ept that' +nnan said through a translator$
%Leo ,ould al,ays tal# about his visa status A 2e ,ould al,ays ,orry about ,hat ,ould
happen to him$'
+nnan spo#e o! the !ear many o! Seemanpillai’’s !riends shared o! being sent ba"# to Sri
Lan#a$ %&t is al,ays in our mind' he said$
The +ustralian government has deported more than 1000 Sri Lan#an asylum see#ers sin"e
+ugust 2012$ /any have been sub8e"t to the "ontroversial %enhan"ed s"reening pro"ess'
,hi"h sees them intervie,ed rapidly and o!ten ,ithout the presen"e o! a la,yer$ Leo ,as not
one o! those but +asi! "ontinued6 %4e are ,itnessing a lot o! Tamil boys getting deported ba"#
and that is "reating !ear in the "ommunity$'
&n some ,ays Seemanpillai ,as one o! the lu"#y !e,$ 2e had the right to ,or# in +ustralia$
The boat that "arried him a"ross the Timor Sea !rom &ndonesia to ?ar,in on the +ustralian
mainland arrived on - January 201. be!ore the entire "ontinent dramati"ally "hanged the
rules on ho, it dealt ,ith asylum see#ers$ 3rom that point on anyone arriving on the mainland
by boat ,as liable to be sent to an o!!shore detention "entre$ 2ad he arrived later he may ,ell
have ended up in detention in ;apua :e, )uinea or the tiny island state o! :auru$
Seemanpillai spent si1 months in detention in ?ar,in be!ore he ,as moved to )eelong in /ay
last year a!ter being granted a temporary %bridging visa'$
&t is remar#able ho, ,ell respe"ted he be"ame in )eelong in a short time$ ;eople ,ho #ne,
him told )uardian +ustralia he ,as generous to the "ore even i! in desperate need !or help
himsel!$
&t ,as a "old ,inter’s day ,hen Seemanpillai met =athie 5ond an advo"ate ,ith <ural
+ustralians !or <e!ugees ,ho "ame to visit him shortly a!ter his arrival in the "ity$ She brought
,ith her !ood ,arm "lothing so"#s and under,ear !or a ne,ly settled group o! asylum
see#ers$ She ,as dra,n to Seemanpillai ,ho "ould spea# Bnglish and they be"ame !riends$
=athie 5ond o! <ural
+ustralians !or <e!ugees spent a lot o! time ,ith Seemanpillai$
%2e ,as impe""ably honourable' said 5ond$ %Leo ,ould never ever do anything to o!!end
anyone intentionally$ &! he made a "ommitment he ,ould !ollo, through ,ith it$ 2e ,as very
"on"erned about other people$'
2e ,as obviously struggling though$ 2e ,ouldn’t allo, a T* in the house be"ause %there
,ere too many distressing images' said 5ond$ 2e didn’t ,ant his !latmates to see them either$
?espite the (uote on his door about the light being our greatest !ear Seemanpillai ,as a"tually
terri!ied o! the dar#$ 5ond gave him her grandson’s nightlight$ %2e said it ,as li#e the
moonlight al,ays being in his room' she said$
2e ,as a regular at the lo"al "hur"h St ;aul’s Lutheran "hur"h in )rovedale$
%2e #no"#ed on the "hur"h door the !ront door every day until Sunday ,hen ,e had a servi"e
and he brought his !riends along' a pastor Tom ;iets"h said$ %2e #ept saying he ,anted to
help us' said ;iets"h$ %7=an & "lean your "ar9 =an & do your la,ns9’' The "hur"h initially
,orried about a""epting !ree ,or# !rom a vulnerable person$
;astor Tom ;iets"h
per!ormed the last rites !or Seemanpillai$
%/a’am' he told ;iets"h’s ,i!e %)od has given us healthy minds and healthy bodies not to sit
at home and ,at"h T* but to ,or#$' The "hur"h eventually "aved in and Seemanpillai began
doing volunteer general maintenan"e ,or#$
+t a time ,hen thousands o! asylum see#ers in +ustralia are still sub8e"t to the previous
government’s poli"y o! %no advantage' a s"heme ,hi"h prevents them ,or#ing ,hile in the
"ommunity and le!t in limbo Seemanpillai’s enthusiasm !or ,or# "omes as a potent reminder
o! potential$
+t the +sphalt ;aving Servi"es ,arehouse do,n the road !rom St ;aul’s the la,n is
imma"ulately pre"isely "ut$ Seemanpillai "lo"#ed o!! !rom his last shi!t here on 2- /ay and
mo,ing the la,n ,as one o! his !inal "hores$
2is ,or# lo"#er ,as still !ull ,hen )uardian +ustralia visitedC his "ubbyhole "ontained a
neatly !olded "loth and a pair o! sunglasses$ Seemanpillai ,as employed here one day a ,ee#
"leaning tru"#s and mo,ing the la,n$ 2e ,as proud o! his ,or# and ,as ,armly li#ed by
those he had ,or#ed ,ith sin"e +ugust last year$
=hris Sleep an asphalt labourer ,as near tears as he spo#e to )uardian +ustralia$ Seemanpillai
used to re!er to Sleep’s daughters as his sisters and told them he ,as their older brother$
=hris Sleep ,or#ed ,ith
Seemanpillai in )eelong$
Sleep ,ho said he had never heard o! %Tamils' be!ore meeting Seemanpillai re"alled the
lun"h brea#s they shared$ Seemanpillai ,ould al,ays !inish !ive minutes ahead o! time #een to
get ba"# to ,or#$ Their !riendship opened his eyes to the !raught sub8e"t o! asylum$
%4e don’t have to get up in the morning and ,orry about ,hether ,e’re going to be shot or
blo,n up or things li#e that' said Sleep$ %& don’t really get involved in politi"s or anything li#e
that but ,hy "an’t ,e a""ommodate people li#e that$ )ood honest people that 8ust ,ant to
parti"ipate in everyday li!e$'
Seemanpillai regularly invited members o! the "ommunity to his house !or dinner and they
o!ten returned the !avour$
&n re"ent months the +ustralian government has imposed a stri"t "ode o! "ondu"t !or asylum
see#ers released into the "ommunity$ They must sign the "ode o! "ondu"t or !a"e a return to
detention$ &t ,arns them against %anti-so"ial behaviour' and %lying to a government o!!i"ial'$
=riti"s say this "ode allo,s the immigration minister to a"t as his o,n poli"e !or"e and that it
demonises asylum see#ers$ &ndeed it is hard to understand ,hat purpose a "ode ,ould have
served in Seemanpillai’s "ase$
3ragments o! Seemanpillai’s traumati" li!e be!ore +ustralia emerged as his !riends tal#ed about
him$
2is !amily !led the north east o! Sri Lan#a during the "ivil ,ar in 1--0 ,hen he ,as si1 years
old$ 5ut even as a baby his li!e ,as s"arred by the violen"e$ 2is !ather on"e ,rapped him in
banana leaves and hid him in the 8ungle ,hen their village "ame under atta"#$
2e and his !amily 0 mother !ather and three brothers 0 !led to a re!ugee "amp in Tamil :adu$
2e languished there ,ith them !or 20 years$
%&t ,as very "old and ,e ,ere al,ays very hungry' he told 5ond on one o! their many trips to
the bea"h together$ +t some point Seemanpillai began training to be"ome a =atholi" priest but
he never "ompleted it$
&n 2005 he returned to Sri Lan#a but remained there !or less than t,o years$ &n one o! his lun"h
brea#s ,ith Sleep he told him that he had been tortured by the army smashed over the head
,ith the butt o! an +D4E and le!t !or dead$ +!ter that Seemanpillai returned to Tamil :adu$
&n 2012 he set out !or +ustralia !rom Derala$ The boat didn’t ma#e it but he ,as res"ued and
ta#en to the /edan detention "entre on Sumatra &ndonesia$ There he ,as detained in
the over"ro,ded !a"ility !or about three-and-a-hal! months$ Bventually someho, he rea"hed
+ustralia$
+t a media "on!eren"e on /onday the +ustralian immigration minister S"ott /orrison said it
,ould be %very un,ise' to dra, any "on"lusions about Seemanpillai’s "ase blasting any
"riti"ism o! government poli"y and possible lin#s to Seemanpillai’s state o! mind as %very
un!ortunate'$
2e said that at the time Seemanpillai died %there ,as no "on"ern or indi"ation o! any sui"idal
ideation' and that a "ase,or#er had been in "onta"t ,ith Seemanpillai the day be!ore he sel!-
immolated$
5ut many o! Seemanpillai’s !riends noti"ed a "hange in him a!ter =hristmas last year$ 2e ,as
admitted to hospital !or mental health treatment in January this year !or about 15 days$ /ultiple
sour"es said he attempted to ta#e his o,n li!e during this period$
Seemanpillai attended numerous "ounselling sessions and medi"al appointments and had a
mental health "ase,or#er a!ter he le!t hospital$ %& ,ent ,ith him to some "ounselling sessions'
said 5ond$
2is !riends hoped he ,ould get better$ %So many good things ,ere happening !or him here &
thought he’d be alright' said Sleep$
:o one ,as e1pe"ting him to really ta#e his o,n li!e and the manner in ,hi"h he !inally ,ent
haunts all ,ho #ne, him$
Sel!-immolation has long been used by Tamils as a !orm o! politi"al protest$ &n 200- a number
o! Tamils in &ndia sel!-immolated in protest against ongoing ,ar "rimes "ommitted during the
"ivil ,ar in Sri Lan#a$ &n the same year another Tamil sel!-immolated near the Fnited :ations
building in )eneva$
Outside Seemanpillai’s house there are mar#s on the road$ 2e is said to have !allen "lose by$
;iets"h ,as one o! the !irst to get the "all that Saturday evening$ 2e ,as told by the intensive
"are unit that Seemanpillai ,as not e1pe"ted to live$ 2e ,ent straight to the +l!red hospital in
/elbourne and gave him the last rites$ +nnan and other "lose !riends arrived soon a!ter$ They
,ere at his side ,hen the li!e support ma"hine ,as turned o!! at -$15am on the Sunday$
%4e are mourning his loss and ,e don’t #no, ,hat to ma#e o! it ,e’re still in a bit o! sho"#'
said ;iets"h$
The night be!ore he too# his li!e Seemanpillai sat ,ith 5ond$ They dran# tea together and
Seemanpillai sho,ed her pi"tures o! him at ,or# standing proudly in his prote"tive gear$
+asi! said he ,orried about the !uture no, that Seemanpillai ,as gone$ %2e "ould spea# very
good Bnglish and as a result he too# "are o! many o! the #ids living in the "ommunity here$'
5e!ore they parted !or the last time Seemanpillai sho,ed 5ond a pi"ture o! his mother and
!ather ba"# home$ %2e ,as so proud o! them' she said$
On the phone !rom &ndia Seemanpillai’s !ather be"ame in"reasingly angry as he tal#ed6 %They
Gthe +ustralian governmentH have said they ,ill not ta#e responsibility !or anything$ 4e ,ill
not be able to send the body to Sri Lan#a or &ndia and ,e ,ill not able to "ome to +ustralia$
%4e ,ant to be by our son’s side ,hen his !uneral ta#es pla"e$ That ,ay our lives ,ill be more
pea"e!ul$'
I Readers in Australia seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact
Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 6! 46"# $n t%e &'( t%e Samaritans are
on 0)4" !0 !0 !0# $n t%e &S contact t%e *ational Suicide +revention Lifeline on 1,)00,-"3,
.AL'

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