Leo Seemanpillai

Tamil asylum seeker Leo Seemanpillai from Sri Lanka died at Alfred Hospital in Melbourne on 1 June 2014 after suffering burns to 90% of his body in an act of self-immolation committed in Geelong on 31 May 2014
Born: 1985, Sri Lanka
Died: 2014, Geelong (Australia)

Leo Seemanpillai’s room has already been stripped bare, but a sheet of paper remains stuck to the door. “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us,” runs the quote on it.

Out in the living room, in this small, shared house in Geelong, Victoria, a shrine sits on the dining table. A wreath of white roses, chrysanthemums and daisies circles a framed photo of the 29-year-old Tamil asylum seeker, who set himself on fire on 31 May. A glass of milk and a glass of water sit – full to the brim – next to the flowers, left behind for Seemanpillai’s spirit to sip, according to a friend. He is the second Tamil asylum seeker to self-immolate in Australia over the past year – the first survived. Seemanpillai died on 1 June.

For the people who knew him in this industrial city in southern Victoria, the tragedy of his death is beginning to sink in.

Aasif, a close friend and fellow asylum seeker who asked not to be identified, is visibly shaken. “I saw him last Wednesday,” he said through an interpreter. “He cooked for me. We talked about our families. We had a good conversation. He was happy.

“Before I left, he asked: ‘Are you just going to leave me like this?’ I thought it was a joke.” He paused. “If I’d have known I wouldn’t have gone.”

Seemanpillai’s family said they were devastated. “We haven’t eaten for days,” Leo’s father said on the phone from a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu, India, where the family have lived for more than two decades since fleeing Sri Lanka in 1990. “We are in tears. We want to see our son.”

Seemanpillai was one of thousands of Sri Lankan asylum seekers – or “illegal maritime arrivals”, as the authorities call them – being held on temporary visas in Australia. In Geelong alone, asylum advocates estimate about 100 Tamils are living in limbo, awaiting an outcome on their asylum claims.

Seemanpillai’s migration agent would not talk about his case, but refugee advocate sources confirmed to Guardian Australia suggestions the processing of his protection claim had been frozen by the Immigration Department, a claim denied by the immigration minister, Scott Morrison.

Another close friend, Annan, who also asked not to be identified, said Seemanpillai spoke to him often about the uncertainty he faced on his temporary visa.

“He went through so much in his life, and when he came to Australia he was given a visa that is filled with plenty of uncertainty, he couldn't accept that,” Annan said through a translator.

“Leo would always talk about his visa status … He would always worry about what would happen to him.”

Annan spoke of the fear many of Seemanpillai’’s friends shared of being sent back to Sri Lanka. “It is always in our mind,” he said.

The Australian government has deported more than 1,000 Sri Lankan asylum seekers since August 2012. Many have been subject to the controversial “enhanced screening process”, which sees them interviewed rapidly and often without the presence of a lawyer. Leo was not one of those, but Aasif continued: “We are witnessing a lot of Tamil boys getting deported back and that is creating fear in the community.”

In some ways, Seemanpillai was one of the lucky few. He had the right to work in Australia. The boat that carried him across the Timor Sea, from Indonesia to Darwin on the Australian mainland, arrived on 9 January, 2013, before the entire continent dramatically changed the rules on how it dealt with asylum seekers. From that point on, anyone arriving on the mainland by boat was liable to be sent to an offshore detention centre. Had he arrived later, he may well have ended up in detention in Papua New Guinea or the tiny island state of Nauru.

Seemanpillai spent six months in detention in Darwin before he was moved to Geelong in May last year after being granted a temporary “bridging visa”.

It is remarkable how well respected he became in Geelong in a short time. People who knew him told Guardian Australia he was generous to the core, even if in desperate need for help himself.

It was a cold winter’s day when Seemanpillai met Cathie Bond, an advocate with Rural Australians for Refugees, who came to visit him shortly after his arrival in the city. She brought with her food, warm clothing, socks and underwear for a newly settled group of asylum seekers. She was drawn to Seemanpillai, who could speak English, and they became friends.

“He was impeccably honourable,” said Bond. “Leo would never ever do anything to offend anyone intentionally. If he made a commitment he would follow through with it. He was very concerned about other people.”

He was obviously struggling, though. He wouldn’t allow a TV in the house, because “there were too many distressing images”, said Bond. He didn’t want his flatmates to see them either.

Despite the quote on his door about the light being our greatest fear, Seemanpillai was actually terrified of the dark. Bond gave him her grandson’s nightlight. “He said it was like the moonlight always being in his room,” she said.

He was a regular at the local church, St Paul’s Lutheran church in Grovedale.

“He knocked on the church door, the front door, every day, until Sunday when we had a service and he brought his friends along,” a pastor, Tom Pietsch, said. “He kept saying he wanted to help us,” said Pietsch. “‘Can I clean your car? Can I do your lawns?’” The church initially worried about accepting free work from a vulnerable person.

“Ma’am,” he told Pietsch’s wife, “God has given us healthy minds and healthy bodies not to sit at home and watch TV but to work.” The church eventually caved in and Seemanpillai began doing volunteer general maintenance work.

At a time when thousands of asylum seekers in Australia are still subject to the previous government’s policy of “no advantage”, a scheme which prevents them working while in the community and left in limbo, Seemanpillai’s enthusiasm for work comes as a potent reminder of potential.

At the Asphalt Paving Services warehouse, down the road from St Paul’s, the lawn is immaculately, precisely cut. Seemanpillai clocked off from his last shift here on 29 May and mowing the lawn was one of his final chores.

His work locker was still full when Guardian Australia visited; his cubbyhole contained a neatly folded cloth and a pair of sunglasses. Seemanpillai was employed here one day a week, cleaning trucks and mowing the lawn. He was proud of his work and was warmly liked by those he had worked with since August last year.

Chris Sleep, an asphalt labourer, was near tears as he spoke to Guardian Australia. Seemanpillai used to refer to Sleep’s daughters as his sisters and told them he was their older brother.

Sleep, who said he had never heard of “Tamils” before meeting Seemanpillai, recalled the lunch breaks they shared. Seemanpillai would always finish five minutes ahead of time, keen to get back to work. Their friendship opened his eyes to the fraught subject of asylum.

“We don’t have to get up in the morning and worry about whether we’re going to be shot or blown up or things like that,” said Sleep. “I don’t really get involved in politics or anything like that, but why can’t we accommodate people like that. Good, honest people that just want to participate in everyday life.”

Seemanpillai regularly invited members of the community to his house for dinner, and they often returned the favour.

In recent months the Australian government has imposed a strict code of conduct for asylum seekers released into the community. They must sign the code of conduct or face a return to detention. It warns them against “anti-social behaviour” and “lying to a government official”. Critics say this code allows the immigration minister to act as his own police force and that it demonises asylum seekers. Indeed, it is hard to understand what purpose a code would have served in Seemanpillai’s case.

Fragments of Seemanpillai’s traumatic life before Australia emerged as his friends talked about him.

His family fled the north east of Sri Lanka during the civil war in 1990 when he was six years old. But even as a baby, his life was scarred by the violence. His father once wrapped him in banana leaves and hid him in the jungle when their village came under attack.

He and his family – mother, father and three brothers – fled to a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu. He languished there with them for 20 years.

“It was very cold and we were always very hungry,” he told Bond on one of their many trips to the beach together. At some point Seemanpillai began training to become a Catholic priest, but he never completed it.

In 2005 he returned to Sri Lanka, but remained there for less than two years. In one of his lunch breaks with Sleep, he told him that he had been tortured by the army, smashed over the head with the butt of an AK47 and left for dead. After that Seemanpillai returned to Tamil Nadu.

In 2012 he set out for Australia from Kerala. The boat didn’t make it, but he was rescued and taken to the Medan detention centre, on Sumatra, Indonesia. There he was detained in the overcrowded facility for about three-and-a-half months. Eventually, somehow, he reached Australia.

At a media conference on Monday the Australian immigration minister, Scott Morrison, said it would be “very unwise” to draw any conclusions about Seemanpillai’s case, blasting any criticism of government policy and possible links to Seemanpillai’s state of mind as “very unfortunate”.

He said that at the time Seemanpillai died, “there was no concern or indication of any suicidal ideation” and that a caseworker had been in contact with Seemanpillai the day before he self-immolated.

But many of Seemanpillai’s friends noticed a change in him after Christmas last year. He was admitted to hospital for mental health treatment in January this year for about 15 days. Multiple sources said he attempted to take his own life during this period.

Seemanpillai attended numerous counselling sessions and medical appointments and had a mental health caseworker after he left hospital. “I went with him to some counselling sessions,” said Bond.

His friends hoped he would get better. “So many good things were happening for him here, I thought he’d be alright,” said Sleep.

No one was expecting him to really take his own life, and the manner in which he finally went haunts all who knew him.

Self-immolation has long been used by Tamils as a form of political protest. In 2009 a number of Tamils in India self-immolated in protest against ongoing war crimes committed during the civil war in Sri Lanka. In the same year, another Tamil self-immolated near the United Nations building in Geneva.

Outside Seemanpillai’s house, there are marks on the road. He is said to have fallen close by.

Pietsch was one of the first to get the call that Saturday evening. He was told by the intensive care unit that Seemanpillai was not expected to live. He went straight to the Alfred hospital in Melbourne and gave him the last rites. Annan and other close friends arrived soon after. They were at his side when the life support machine was turned off at 9.15am on the Sunday.

“We are mourning his loss and we don’t know what to make of it, we’re still in a bit of shock,” said Pietsch.

The night before he took his life, Seemanpillai sat with Bond. They drank tea together and Seemanpillai showed her pictures of him at work, standing proudly in his protective gear.

Aasif said he worried about the future now that Seemanpillai was gone. “He could speak very good English and as a result he took care of many of the kids living in the community here.”

Before they parted for the last time, Seemanpillai showed Bond a picture of his mother and father back home. “He was so proud of them,” she said.

On the phone from India, Seemanpillai’s father became increasingly angry as he talked: “They [the Australian government] have said they will not take responsibility for anything. We will not be able to send the body to Sri Lanka, or India, and we will not able to come to Australia.

“We want to be by our son’s side when his funeral takes place. That way our lives will be more peaceful.”

Oliver Laughland, “The Life and Awful Death of a Tamil Asylum Seeker in Australia”, The Guardian, 5 June 2014

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