Death of a refugee: The Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s new PR strategy

By Lucas Grainger-Brown
Christmas Island Detention Centre
Christmas Island Detention Centre/Wikipedia

According to the Australian Border Deaths Database compiled by Monash University’s Border Crossing Observatory, there have been an estimated 1,977 deaths in Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) custody since 1 January 2001. The media release archive of the DIBP, which dates back to January 2010, includes reference to just four of these deaths. The DIBP first publicly acknowledged the death of an asylum seeker in custody in a short release dated 8 November 2015:

On Saturday morning (November 7) the Department was advised of the escape of an illegal maritime arrival from Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre (CI IDC) by service provider staff.

The matter was referred to the Australian Federal Police who commenced a search and discovered a deceased person today (November 8).

This is the first half of the death notice for Fazal Chegani, a 30-year-old Kurdish Iranian man who was reportedly granted refugee status in 2013 and who, at the time of his death, had been detained by DIBP for over five years. Fazal is not named. None of the dead men in any of the four DIBP releases are.

In the notice regarding his death, Fazal is referred to as “an illegal maritime arrival”. Using crude language to depersonalise and criminalise asylum seekers has been standard government practice since the Hawke era. Also worrying are the layers of distance established between the reader in Australia and the death of a man whose health and safety was the responsibility of our government. Re-reading the text, it seems that service providers advised DIBP of Fazal’s escape and DIBP advised the AFP, who in turn located a “deceased person”. Presumably the AFP then advised local service providers who passed the message back to DIBP in Canberra. In a few sentences, huge distance is imposed between Fazal’s avoidable death and those answerable for his welfare.

Information of Fazal’s death is laundered through multiple stakeholders and, by implication, so is culpability for his death. There are numerous actions that could have prevented this event: better facility security; better responsiveness from the camp staff and AFP; basic oversight from the DIBP, the architects and gatekeepers of the regime, safe on the Australian mainland. Not to mention a timely and humane resolution of indefinite detention by the government of the day. This release avoids the failings of the organisations directly involved. Fasal’s death is disconnected from the five years of detention he endured in Australia’s extra-jurisdictional prisons.

The release ends perfunctorily by stating the net effect of Fasal’s death:

CI IDC [the detention centre] remains calm and support services are available to all detainees and staff.

As this matter is now subject to a coronial inquiry the Department will not be commenting further at this time.

This is the sad story of “a deceased person” who had no identity, no family, no friends, no connection to the detention centre, and, most importantly, no impact on its smooth and calm operation. There is no record of the coronial inquiry on the Western Australian Coroner’s website. The first and last official mention of Fazal appears to have been made for the purpose of denying DIBP’s role in his death. He was then, effectively, erased.

The three death notices that follow Fazal’s take a different, more conciliatory tone. They relate to the deaths of Robert Peihopa, a 42-year-old New Zealander, on 4 April 2016 in Villawood Detention Centre; 23-year-old Omid on 29 April 2016 somewhere on Nauru; and a 24-year-old Bangladeshi man whose name has not yet been released on 11 May 2016, also on Nauru. Although it still does not name any of these men, DIBP does grant them personhood, a date of birth and a country of origin. None are referred to as “illegal maritime arrivals”.

The three death notes of 2016 have a subtler aim. There is no attempt to establish convoluted chains of association that deny responsibility. “The Department” is now the subject of action; it “confirms” information, “expresses sympathy”, “will cooperate fully”, is providing “appropriate support”, is “reporting” the death. In fact, the deaths themselves are overwhelmed by the amount of Departmental action. A mere 20 per cent of these releases deal with death; the rest focuses on the responses of “authorities”.

In 2016, deaths are acute accidents that “tragically” befall individuals despite DIBP’s best efforts. The responses of the authorities are carefully rendered in unimportant, generic detail. Some of the sentences are cut and pasted across the various deaths – especially expressions of sympathy, provision of appropriate support and referrals to local authorities. Probable causes of death are given – self-immolation, heart attack and suspected heart failure – while histories of depression and previous suicide attempts catalysed by indefinite detention are omitted. This strategy of displacement is so successful that these releases are not worth quoting at length.

What does this new genre of DIBP communiqués reveal? It is probably too early to draw definitive conclusions. Even this small sample is contradictory, and in the space of a few months their logic has inverted. Fazal was smeared with the same black-and-white, denial-heavy and security-obsessed language we have come to expect of our government in relation to Australia’s borders. By contrast, the deaths of 2016 are spotlighted. In the darkness outside the spotlight, the jailers’ agency within the system that they operate is obscured, as are the masses incarcerated year after year, sliding further into despair.

The 1,973 deaths that occurred before this latest PR strategy remain unrecognised. The system perseveres, entrenching itself ever deeper and with ever more sophisticated methods. Deaths that occur within it, likely expedited by it, have become a part of its message, another part of the discourse with which our government and our bureaucracy seeks to appear strong without accepting the consequences of its actions and their impact on extremely vulnerable human beings.