The funeral for Leo Seemanpillai in Geelong. His parents were denied a visa to attend. Photo: Jason South Asylum seeker Leo Seemanpillai. Photo: Jason South
Comment: Asylum seekers can be managed with cheaper and more humane options
Leo Seemanpillai wrote in his journal about bad dreams. Some nights he could not sleep at all. His stomach lurched at the looming prospect of being sent back to Sri Lanka and tortured.
“As I got to know Leo, he confided some of the horrors of his past and these came to haunt him,” a friend said at his funeral on Wednesday.
“He was frightened and increasingly anxious about being sent home to Sri Lanka … yet between the dark periods we could see the hope that shone in his eyes.”
A photo of Mr Seemanpillai, projected on a large screen at Geelong’s St Mary of the Angels Basilica, showed just that: the warm face and a winning smile that masked his fears for months.
But as hardline government rhetoric and a life in limbo eroded what hope he had left, the 29-year-old Tamil asylum seeker took his own life.
He set himself on fire and died almost three weeks ago with burns to 90 per cent of his body.
Hundreds of mourners gathered at the church to farewell Mr Seemanpillai.
Father Pancras Jordan led the service and took aim at the federal government’s “cruel” asylum seeker policies that pushed Mr Seemanpillai to suicide.
“We are gathered to say thank you and goodbye to our brother and friend, Leo Seemanpillai, who was killed by the harsh, unjust and cruel policies of our government,” he said.
Father Jordan said asylum seekers such as Leo were being “slowly broken in a system of indefinite detention that dehumanises and disempowers”.
“People are locked into the limbo of the legislated poverty that is life on a bridging visa … [it] normalises cruelty and strips the most vulnerable people of not only their rights but their dignity,” he said.
“The current policy is not about an orderly system saving people from drowning … billions of dollars are being spent on wrecking people’s lives in detention centres and in our communities.
“Our government is proactively brutal and intentionally determined to break the spirits of people like Leo, who once imagined they would find protection from oppression in our care.”
Mr Seemanpillai’s parents, living in India, were not granted temporary visas to attend the funeral service. The family will have to wait to watch a video recording of the ceremony that will be sent to them afterwards.
Aran Mylvaganam, of the Tamil Refugee Council, said it was a tragedy that a good man had been driven to the depths of despair due to Australia’s “shameful immigration policies”.
“In his 13 months being in the Geelong community, Leo had made so many connections with people, so many friendships … he had even signed up to be an Amnesty International member, a Red Cross member, a regular blood donor and an organ donor … he was such a beautiful person, but our policies have driven him to this point.”
Mr Mylvaganam said Mr Seemanpillai’s fears of being returned to Sri Lanka edged closer to “tipping point” after announcements by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison last October suggesting all Tamils would eventually be deported.
“I received a call from Leo … his fear was real,” Mr Mylvaganam said. “He was sharing his fears with us but at the same time he was such a strong person, such a positive person. This is a very sad day for the Tamil community.”