On the exceptionalism of ‘the good refugee’

People are tired, very tired’ – Ahmad Al-Akabi’s friend, interviewed after his suicide in Villawood Detention Centre in 2010

Recently, 29-year-old Tamil asylum seeker Leo Seemanpillai set himself on fire and later died, with 90 per cent burns to his body. Leo was afraid of being sent back to Sri Lanka, where conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese is still rife, after a civil war that officially ended only five years ago.

Leo’s death follows the 2011 suicides of Josefa Rauluni, who jumped from a balcony railing at Villawood, and Mohammed Asif Atay, who hung himself at Curtin. Both men had been wrought with depression after being held in detention centres indefinitely, awaiting their asylum claims to be processed.

Many more asylum seekers have taken their lives after attempting to seek refuge in Australia, and mounting evidence has shown prolonged, indefinite waits severely influence mental and physical health. Such evidence is especially concerning because of Australia’s policy of mandatory detention, which, for the past twenty years, has had no time limitations. Asylum processing times now average as long as 305 days. Some asylum seekers, such as Jayasaker Jayrathana, who committed suicide by poison in 2011, had been waiting for two years.

This death toll does not include the numerous unnamed individuals, nearly 1000 at last count, who have died at sea.

We only seem to hear asylum seeker stories after lives have been abruptly halted. The varied and personal accounts – of family left behind, the reasons people fled from their home countries, interests and histories – are heard after these deaths hit the news. ‘He was a very good man’ and other such commendations seem to follow. But why are asylum seekers only given due recognition after they have suffered under the prison-industrial complex, one that they did not choose to have a part in and, most importantly, did not deserve?

Most asylum seeker deaths are barely recorded. It almost feels like a taunt: why did you even try coming here in the first place? Most people know the answer: because there was no other way. The myriad accounts from Iraqis, Syrians, Iranians, Sri Lankans and Hazara Afghans, among others, illustrate the complicated conundrums many whom choose to seek asylum face – a ‘fight or flight’ response aggravated by imminent danger of persecution. Indeed, fleeing is often the logical decision, albeit one fraught with fear and danger.


He was such a caring, gentle person’ – Cathie Bond, good friend and ‘mum’ to Leo Seemanpillai, interviewed after his self-immolation in Geelong in May 2014

It is worth noting the litany of ‘human interest’ narratives that appear in mainstream media following asylum-seeker suicides. Most trace a trajectory of the individual performing good deeds and being known as happy and generous, virtuous qualities given as proof of their humanity. Without a doubt, this recognition needs to be accorded; after all, they were people. Still, questions remain: whose gaze are these stories for, and who deems some to be more worthy than others?

We wouldn’t hear these stories if people – journalists or refugee advocates, for example – didn’t share them. If not for the ongoing work done by advocacy groups, some of these deaths wouldn’t even appear on the radar. Take the case of Fatima Erfani, an Afghani asylum seeker who, after being detained for two years at a detention centre on Christmas Island with her husband and two children, died of medical negligence in 2003. She had had high blood pressure, and was not given adequate medical attention. There was barely a mention of her death in mainstream media, apart from an article in The West Australian, which included the line, ‘People who know them describe the Rezas [sic] as an intelligent family with high standards who would have made good migrants.’

And therein lies my question: what determines a ‘good’ migrant, and why are they the only ones worthy of life and dignity and basic human rights in the eyes of Australian society? Surely, the thousands of asylum seekers who sought other lives in Australia would be able to contribute to the community in many and varied ways, and would have, if given the chance.


We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come’ – then-Prime Minister John Howard, during his campaign for re-election in 2001

The conferment of ‘human being’ only to migrants considered ‘deserving’ or ‘good’ is chilling. It plays into the spectacle of idealisation that determines a path towards creating the ‘authentic asylum seeker,’ one that fits the role(s) Australian society expects. To deviate from the narrative would be to err.

Do we require the construction of an ‘intimate distance’ in order to feel compassion and sympathy for people forced to flee their home countries? Is this the only way we are able to properly identify with an Other? This disparity calls for a critical examination of the particular exceptionalism attributed to ‘good’ refugees – because hundreds of others remain wilfully ignored and despairing, lost in the cycle of indefinite mandatory detention. Until we face that, there will be many more anonymous asylum seekers who become yet another newspaper story or a mere statistic: a person who died needlessly in the pursuit of freedom.


Cher Tan

Cher Tan is an editor, essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Saturday Paper, Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Review of Books and Runway Journal, among others. She is the reviews editor at Meanjin, an editor at Liminal Magazine and a commissioning editor at the Feminist Writers Festival.

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