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A lonely death in Adelaide's leafy suburbs


At a small and heartbreaking funeral in suburban Tusmore, Adelaide lawyer Mal Byrne says he grasped the full horror of the damage wrought by Australia’s immigration detention system.

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His name was Aref. He died in November 2017 at the age of 47. He was my client. He died alone in his unit tucked away in the leafy eastern suburbs of Adelaide. It was several days before his body was found.  He died of natural causes, a heart attack or stroke.

While he was my client, I never met him in person. I spoke to him on the phone several times. He would make appointments to see me, but he would never attend.

In the months before he died, he stopped answering his phone. I thought about going to his unit, knocking on the door and hope that he would let me in. I do not know how he would have reacted. Perhaps, he would have shown me his art like he did other visitors. He liked to paint.  I imagine that it was some sort of therapy.

What I did not realise until Aref died was how miserable his circumstances had become.

He had no electricity for the last seven months of his life, throughout the Adelaide winter. Friends tried to help him get his power back on but to no avail. He had given up on life. At 47, he had had enough. He just faded away.

Aref was born in Iran. In 2000, he fled persecution in Iran and eventually took a boat from Indonesia to Australia seeking asylum. He spent four and a half years in the Curtin, Port Hedland and Baxter Detention Centres.

Aref fled persecution to Australia seeking a better life, believing that he would be treated better. However, what he encountered was five years of isolation and confinement in a place where he had no freedom, no opportunity to educate himself, to work, to better himself.

Eventually, he developed a severe mental illness, the psychological damage that comes from a sense of worthlessness and lost humanity. Psychiatrists give Aref’s demons diagnoses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Adjustment Disorder or Major Depression.  However, a psychologist once described to me the impact of immigration detention on the mental health of detainees in these terms: “It is like a part of their life was stolen and they will never get it back.”

By the time he was released, Aref was in too many pieces to be put back together again.

While I had never met him and only spoke to him on the phone, I felt compelled to go to Aref’s funeral to try and understand what had happened to him. I also wanted to support his friends, some of whom are also clients of mine, who found his body and were distressed at his death.

I finally understood the full horror, the wastefulness of what those places did to people.

It was a small funeral. It was immensely sad. It was attended mostly by other Iranian men who had been detained with Aref and who had supported him and each other since their release. I was struck by the camaraderie of these men, bound together by their shared experience. They thought about him, but I could see in their faces that they were also thinking about which one of them would be next. Some of these men are trying to obtain compensation for the psychiatric injury that they suffered in immigration detention. The legal position is complex and nuanced as legal positions tend to be. However, the collective suffering is undeniable.

I only started doing this work in 2014. I am a Johnny-come-lately. Between 1999 and 2004 when these men were suffering in immigration detention, I would see the news reports, pictures of men sitting on roofs protesting. I was sympathetic from an intellectual and political perspective, but my conscience was not pricked enough to do something about it.

I was not one of those amazing generous souls who spent weekend after weekend travelling to Woomera and Baxter to support detainees by writing letters, by teaching them English, by helping them with legal problems, just showing them that there was a face to Australia other than barbed wire and cells.

Over my three-year involvement, I have read hundreds of psychiatric reports, hundreds of incident reports of lip stitching, self-mutilation, people trying to hang themselves from fences with sheets. I have seen pictures of children with their lips stitched together, of men with checkerboard scarring across their chest from lacerating themselves with razor blades. I didn’t see any of it first-hand, but I have tried to understand. However, sitting in that little church in Tusmore listening to Aref’s story, I think that I finally grasped it. I finally understood the full horror, the wastefulness of what those places did to people.

Under Australian statute, Aref’s detention was legal. After a lengthy legal process, Aref was found to be a genuine refugee fleeing persecution and he was released. However, the mental illness that had taken hold of him by that time was so entrenched that happiness was not an option.

Is this the best we can offer asylum seekers? Is inventing and inflicting our own form of persecution on genuine refugees a solution? If Aref had been allowed to live within the Australian community while the visa process took its course, would he have died, would I be writing this article now?

I should have been angry in 2001 but I was not.

Much is made of the Australian notion of “mateship”, this idea that our nation is built on equality, loyalty and friendship. What does that mean to me now?  Forgive me, but I struggle to see it.

I am thinking about Aref.  I am thinking about the way we fail Aboriginal people. I am thinking about the way we fail asylum seekers and continue to fail asylum seekers. Woomera and Baxter were just out of sight when they existed and now we have built new camps further out of sight. The borders we protect are around our hearts, our compassion has drifted offshore.

I should have been angry in 2001 but I was not. If I am angry now, I have Aref and his friends to thank for that. They show me what it means to be Australian, in the way they battle their demons, the way they hope, in the way they managed to gather together enough money between them to pay the Iranian Embassy the thousands of dollars that they demanded to repatriate Aref’s body to Iran and his family.

They show me the way.

Mal Byrne is a partner at Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers.

If you are in need of support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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