How we Killed Leo

Leo was an asylum seeker.  Let us put aside that weary term and see what Leo was and how we came to know him. Leo was a Tamil. That means he was born into that minority in Sri Lanka which gave rise to the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers rebelled violently against the Sinhalese majority, earning a reputation for terrorism.
A civil war was conducted over many years, culminating in a government offensive that put down the rebellion and targeted civilians. If I read the story right, both the Tigers and the government were guilty of atrocities.
Leo was a baby when, during the worst of the bombings, his father wrapped him in banana leaves and hid him in the jungle. The family fled to India when Leo was five. He lived there in a miserable camp for twenty years, visiting Sri Lanka once to see family. He was imprisoned and tortured. Why? I don’t know precisely, but the explanation would have to start with the fact he was a Tamil.
Leo became an asylum seeker, a boat person, a “queue jumper”, and made his way to Cocos Islands. After only four months of detention, Leo was resettled near Geelong.
That means the Australian authorities – Customs, Immigration, ASIO – found him to be a non-terrorist. They found that speedily.  Leo was judged not to be a risk to Australia.  He was given a Bridging Visa, which allowed him to work but did not endow him with Permanent Resident status.

We said, “Leo, although you jumped our queue, we are letting you into the country and out into the community. But you are a guest. We can tell you at any time to go back where you came from.”
In the last few weeks Leo learned that a couple of Tamil men with stories similar to his own had been taken back into detention. These two faced the prospect of joining the one thousand Tamils whom we have sent back to Sri Lanka where they face persecution. Leo knew that persecution; he knew it in his tortured mind and in his body.

How did Leo spend his time on the Bellarine Peninsula? He worked two days a week for an asphalting company, cleaning greasy trucks. In his spare time he volunteered in an aged care home, he donated blood, he helped bring aid packages to asylum seekers new to the community, he sent money every month to an orphanage in the refugee camp in India that is still his parents’ home.

Leo became an organ donor. Did he expect to die?
Mister Morrison, our Immigration Minister, declares Leo showed no signs of suicidal intent. We know Mister Morrison, a minister who acts as Ruddock spoke, with icy resolve. Only Morrison doesn’t speak to us much. We might judge from his record his capacity for empathy, for humanity. Our minister said Leo’s death “is a terrible and tragic incident and none of us can know the mind of a person in this situation.”
Here is where I can help the minister. I know the mind of a person in the situation of such parlous existence, endlessly uncertain what his fate will be, of having it determined by the opaque decisions of governments and ministers. I know it by the accident of my unusual experience working among detained people in Christmas Island. I know it too by the not unusual gift of empathy. I know Leo’s death was not an incident – far from incidental – it was our doing and it was in the statistical sense, predictable. We saw that with the Tamil man who burned himself to death a few weeks before Leo.

Our minister made one accurate remark, however. Leo’s death is truly tragic, tragedy being that event which stalks its quarry and must in time, come.

Now Minister Morrison, a person whom I have never met in the flesh, but whom I confess I hate generously, is an honourable man. He is our Honourable Minister. We elected him. That means we chose him, we pay him. We chose him and his party. We might have chosen the opposing party, the party that under the previous leader prevented any future suicides on our soil by means of exporting our guilt to Nauru and Manus Island. We electors had our choice between two contenders, both of whom had resolved, after Tampa, to compete to win our votes by systematic unkindness.
It was after Tampa that an Australian government won a losing election by adopting a Cruelty Policy towards asylum seekers. It was then that I first felt shame in being Australian.

Last Saturday Leo Seemanpillai poured petrol over his body and set himself on fire. He died the next morning.

The little I know of this man I garnered from an article in “The Age” of Tuesday June 3, written by Konrad Marshall.
I read the account with growing grief. I know ninety percent burns. I know them intimately.*
I managed to read Marshall’s account with steady sorrow. It was Leo’s final gift to a people who didn’t fully accept him that undid me. I jumped in my seat: Leo’s kindness spoke of our meanness.

Are you acquainted with anyone on an organ transplant waiting list? It’s like being on a bridging visa: your status is endlessly insecure; you suffer while you wait; the waiting period is usually prolonged and painful; the process feels capricious; death beckons the unfortunate.

Following the death of the asylum seeker, one blind Australian has received Leo’s gift of sight. A second Australian breathes freer with Leo’s lung, two others enjoy the use of his kidneys, yet another will live with Leo’s liver.

The asylum seeker has crossed the bridge we all will cross. In India he leaves grief, in a shamed Australia, example.



*Anyone with the stomach for knowing about horror burns can read my account of it (under the title of ‘Burned Man’) in the latest edition of  Meanjin, or can wait for my book of non-fiction of that title, to be published in 2015.

36 thoughts on “How we Killed Leo

  1. Hello Howard, I am sorry I missed your comment recently on Leo Seemanpillai. Impressed at your comment follow up some years later.
    Leo’s death was subject to a coroners report since that time in 2014. Not one media report has followed up that report. Coroners reports are important for facts and reflection. To ignore them is to ignore a tool for understanding and education. We are denying the truth.

    I have that report. I have also been following up Leo’s story for these coming up 5 years now.

    Simply put Howard, the media misreported the circumstances of his death. Leo’s application for recognition was delayed by his mental illness. He was being treated for his suicidal ideation. This suicidal ideation extended back to India where he lived. He attempted suicide shortly after his arrival in Australia and just after applying for a refugee visa. Doctors followed the protocols on his application, as they should. His visa delay was caused by his illness. Interview process does not occur if an asylum seeker shows signs of illness. Leo had PTSD. That’s as it should be.

    I have dates on events, etc, if you wish to see them.

    So this is the simple story of Leo. The first time it has been told. As I said, five years anniversary of his death coming up soon.

    The findings of that coroner’s report questions at the least the main assertions about his death, and highlights the veracity of media coverage in aftermath of his death. [The Age reports were worst – and I am a 20 year The Age veteran. I am the author of a Fairfax book on the refugee issue.] The report also highlights the complexity of the issues facing a country receiving traumatised asylum seekers. The coroner’s report reflects the opposite of what was often suggested by the vast coverage – it shows an extremely generous community that made welcome a very traumatised and ill man, a man with a long history of mental illness.

    First, some history of Leo. Leo’s family lived in Sri Lanka. At a young age, they fled to India and resided in a refugee camp. Life in southern India was peaceful. In the countryside. The family struggled. Impact of displacement. Leo dreamed of taking the family elsewhere – an interesting place, easier, more work, better future. Life was basic. Leo ventured forth to find that new home. Initial trips to Sri Lanka, now a foreign country to him. [Several trips to Sri Lanka.] Leo attempted a trip from Kerala, India, to Australia. A trip of hope, for a better life. Not driven by persecution. But he ended up in Indonesia. He hopped on another boat and arrived in Darwin. His detention was brief. Leo seemed to just avoid the extended offshore experience.
    Others on his boat did not seek asylum due to persecution. Leo the idealist did; Leo’s stay in detention was short. Leo was not critical of his brief detention. Less than 4 months in total. He enjoyed the company. Guards friendly. Darwin detention centre not the more austere and punishing places they are today. Media reports overstates the impact of his brief detention onshore.
    He was diagnosed with PTSD. Unclear reasons for PTSD – may not be one reason. Incidents upset him. He was a highly sensitive person.
    Leo was released and settled in Geelong. He made friends by joining a church. One of the good people there helped him find work. Other good people befriended him. Leo was surrounded by good Australians.
    And a first class medical system. Over a six month period, much help. That included 29 one-on-one sessions. A 10 day residency. Get this – doctors rang him to talk him to sleep at night!

    Things closed in for Leo. I believe Leo became fearful of returning to India. To the failure this represented.
    The delay in processing his visa, as outlined, was due to his mental illness. But an increasing appearance of better health was leading to interviews and a final decision. Leo was unlikely to receive a positive outcome. He was not political. He did not face persecution. He lived in India since he was 5 years old.

    Critics claimed Leo’s treatment led to his suicide. Yet there were suicide attempts stretching back to India. No relationship between application for protection and suicide attempts. An initial suicide attempt shortly after applying for a protection visa.

    Critics claimed his time between arrival and death was characterized by being hounded, threatened. Leo was allowed to flounder, given no help. In fact, extraordinary compassion and support from medical professionals. [Many medical staff have sufferred from the “cruelty” accusations. Normally, we take care with attributing blame with suicide.]

    The main criticism – slow to process. He suffered anxiety and was in no condition to present his case for refugee status when interviewed. But look at the dates in the coroner’s report – he was late to apply, was in medical residence. Should his application have been processed during his period of mental illness? Simply, no, it should not. Clear protocols on this.

    We have two systems in dealing with refugees – boat arrivals are offshore. And others arriving onshore who apply [arriving with visas] or those who are brought via UNHCR selection. Many advocates are distrustful of both systems. Distrustful of any LNP government on this issue. Fair enough.

    Finally, critics claim Leo was threatened with being returned to Sri Lanka. Threatened with deportation. In fact, govt had little contact. Little correspondence with his agent. Eleven months from application to suicide. With at least one other suicide attempt. What is “threatened with daily deportation”? Seems to mean that others were returned to Sri Lanka. Leo had a clear path home to India. Others who had received a fair hearing and adjudication were returned. [The UNHCR is returning refugees from India to Sri Lanka; Sri Lanka situation has evolved and changed.]

    I wrote a letter to The Age shortly after his death. I suggested his death was politicised – a mental illness issue was dressed up as a “refugee policy” issue. I believe this to be true. And we risk being no better informed on either issue. In fact, there is much to learn from Leo’s death.
    Why so wrong in reporting?

    When the source of information is advocates [and I regard myself as an advocate], there’s always going to be huge problems. And a secretive, brutally determined government who refuse to divulge or respond. Who you trust, finding facts, the measurement of claims, is at the heart of the journalists job. It’s tough on this issue in particular. In the end, the community didn’t really get the full story. And the lessons to be learned from his death.

    The media dressed comment up as news. No media reported his PTSD. The main symptom of PTSD is anxiety. [Quotes were often from Green/Left representatives. Their partisan nature unidentified.]
    Inaccurate contextualizing of the issues.
    Sources narrow. “No talk” policy by government. Media narrowed sources down.
    Few facts. The Chinese whisper of “he experienced extended detention”. He did not.
    Claimed he would be retuned to Sri Lanka. He would not – clear path to his family.
    Misrepresented the situation in India and Sri Lanka.
    Advocates were quick to embrace the horror of another refugee death.
    The headlines were of offshore processing, cruelty, detention, threats. Not the small details – small community, friendly, fear, sleeplessness, nightmares, anxiety, doctors help. Complexity.
    Sorry for the long article. Leo deserved the truth. We deserve the truth. Refugees have indeed been hurt by Australian policy, particularly of offshore detention. Leo was not one of them.


  2. john

    i have re-read your extended and thoughtful remarks

    i believe you were right to correct me on matters of fact

    my purpose was, and remains, to call urgent attention to the mental health injury that arises from delay

    that injury seems to have killed ;leio
    we – our government, our officials – occasioned delay and we failed to monitor his ill health

    his descent into despair would not be difficult to predict
    we did let him down in that respect, if not in others

    finally i appreciate and respect the rigour of your thinking

    good wishes



  3. The death of Leo Semanpillai is a tragedy. I am just confused by a number of points made above. And I say this with a nod to the notion that you learn most by disagreement and debate.
    I share the views on detention offshore, particularly of children. I have no issue with comments. Australia has a proud history of accepting and assimilating refugees – more than 250,000 since 1975 have become citizens.Current policy has drawn a line here. It’s a humanitarian failure, poor policy ….

    I just have a respect for facts.

    Leo was no doubt a caring, wonderful young man, but this does not make him a refugee. There is too much of “political views” and emotions around about the commentary. Let’s talk about what we know, from media.

    After arriving here by boat he was given a bridging visa and quick release into the community, where he was shown kindness and found work. He avoided extended detention [12 weeks onshore in total.] His case was receiving ongoing consideration. He committed suicide for unknown reasons, having shown no signs of suicidal tendencies. There is some question of his refugee status and friends describe him as feeling insecure at the thought of being returned to Sri Lanka. The process he was going through was following standard refugee protocols for assessment and are similar across the world in countries with a humanitarian refugee program, including Sweden and the US. In fact, Australia’s recognition of refugees is widely recognised as lenient [this is another aspect of the program the government is trying to change, another issue]. In 2012, Sweden had more than 25,000 applications, with just over 3000 recognised as refugees and resettled. Australia had a slightly higher figure of applicants, with more than 80 per cent recognised as refugees and resettled.

    It’s interesting that the government is accused of not following UN protocols on asylum seekers through extended offshore detention. Fair enough. But in this case, those protocols were followed.

    Let’s look at Greens policy, recognised as a most generous and liberal policy on refugees.The Greens have 5 Principles on refugees. Principle 5 says “Australia must assess applications for all asylum seekers who arrive, irrespective of travel.” Principle 3 policy says “Australia must enact its humanitarian and legal obligations under 1951 legal protocol.” This was done for Leo.There is no reason to believe that if the Greens were in power, the outcome would be different.
    There is nothing to suggest that the system was not working in any way but the way it should be – testing claims to a need for asylum. One difficulty is clear – Leo already had asylum, in India, in some ways regarded as an ideal model of refugee care by the UNHCR. There are, of course, some limitations on Tamil refugees there, but there are rights to travel, work, education etc. The process Leo was going through would have explored with Leo his claim to asylum; it would also have explored questions of home country? What ongoing persecution would he face in India? [Over half the refugee Tamils of India were born in India.]

    What do we do with failed asylum seekers? Is there a way of detecting tendency to suicide? Should we have policy on fast tracking the mentally ill? No party has suggested that; there is debate about bridging or temporary visas. There are good arguments for and against [Leo was clearly ill; it may have been the illness that drove him to flee India, but we don’t know that.] The main criticism seems to be that Australia was slow to process his application. Yet Australia’s processing times are comparable to other nations – Canada is 3 to 5 years [outside of designated countries. Sweden has designated Syrian refugees for fast tracking; USA have Bhutanese and Iraqis fasttracked.] Also, the process is very difficult, especially when information has to be checked over multiple continents. He claims to have been tortured in his brief visit to Sri Lanka. This would have been tested, with medical tests etc. Changing stories can slow this process down. His case manager met him every fortnight – hardly a neglectful situation. In fact, internationally, best practice.

    So again let’s recap what we are told, just to be clear. A man left a safe refugee camp in India where he was raised since 5 years of age, arrived in Australia by boat, was given a bridging visa and quick release into the Australian community. He found work and settled, was shown kindness by a community, experienced ongoing consideration of his case, and with no confirmation of the final outcome of his case, suicided for unknown reasons. Leo, who had previously suffered depression and was on medication, showed no signs of suicidal tendencies [he was visited several days before his death by a case manager.] Friends describe the man having a feeling of insecurity at the prospect of being returned to Sri Lanka [although his family live in India; his visit to Sri Lanka was described as brief.]

    The truth of Australia’s offshore detention [not the wider refugee policy – which continues, week to week, unacknowledged, although slightly scaled down by the Liberals] is awful enough without turning a mentally ill man’s suicide outside of detention into political fodder, to convince us of the horror of offshore detention. This issue is mightily complex. You need to read and research a lot to write just a little, not the other way around, but the animus generated by this issue and the way the government is responding seems to have made the reverse true for many.
    Suicide is normally dealt with carefully. Be very careful at what is said, how it is said. Not in this case.The response to Leo’s death has caused great grief to some people who dealt with Leo. Some, I believe [and this cannot be said is fact] are now under close watch and care. I believe that up to 32 Australians died of suicide the week Leo died. One I knew. Mentally ill like Leo, but unlike Leo, homeless and without medical treatment. Unlike Leo, very alone. Mental illness, suicide, can hit anyone, anywhere, at any time.To me, this seems like an attempt to use Leo’s death to play politics on this issue, putting politics before all else, the very thing the government is accused of in its offshore processing program.


    • Hello John

      Do have done me the honour of a very substantial comment

      I want to consider it carefully before I respond in turn

      For the moment I should say that I expect we will find ourselves in fierce agreement on the general issues and in amicable disagreement about Leo

      But please, never imagine my purpose or motivation to be political;
      I am an independent, liberal thinking, free range objector to almost all politics

      Good night



    • Colleen, Australia is now a collective of shame. Who can doubt that some time, perhaps around the year 2100, an Australian PM will rise in Federal Parliament and deliver an apology on behalf of the nation to the descendants of those we tormented? The apology will enjoy the support of both sides of parliament and purge much of the shame we now feel. That is all so predictable and so evitable.



  4. Dear Howard. Thanks. Your words are golden, Mr Mountain, but you make think of this shame business. It’s good to be ashamed, but it’s not enough. Our shame may start to change this situation. Then it’s good, Right now, our shame is a comfortable hairshirt we drag on as we prepare for the rest of our days. Our actions are like unto the good Germans. Unless we turn the comforting misery of our shame into change, it will only be about us. ..


  5. I read this account in growing horror. I am far away, here in the UK, yet no less guilty of failing to stop the people supposed to represent us from treating asylum seekers with cruel thoughtlessness. Thank you for telling us about Leo.


  6. Hi Howard…So many thanks for your part in reaching out to the world with Leo’s story. Our hope is that this heart-breaking tragedy will be the catalyst for change in this brutal refugee policy. Leo has already changed lives here in Australia by being an organ donor, and we will continue to support and comfort his fellow Tamil asylum-seeker friends here in our community. Can I add to your beautifully-written article by mentioning Leo’s wonderful friend and employer Rob, who gave Leo the chance to work, and supported him with friendship and loving care throughout Leo’s time with us in Geelong. Leo had so many close friends in the community who are shocked and grieving, and determined to make the future a better place for his fellow asylum-seekers.
    Thank you again Howard! Cathie B


    • dear Cathie

      my poor lines have uncovered your naked grief, tearing away any covering, any shelter. I am humbled that they help, however shallow their depth. And I feel the need, a sacred duty really, to name the name of Leo and to honour it

      In Cathie Bond, poor Leo saw the face of love in Australia.
      Our Cathie Bonds redeem our nation.




  7. Hi Howard…So many thanks for your part in reaching out to the world with Leo’s story. Our hope is that this heart-breaking tragedy will be the catalyst for change in this brutal refugee policy. Leo has already changed lived here in Australia by being an organ donor, and we will continue to support and comfort his fellow Tamil asylum-seeker friends here in our community. Can I add to your beautifully-written article by mentioning Leo’s wonderful friend and employer Rob, who gave Leo the chance to work, and supported him with friendship and loving care throughout Leo’s time with us in Geelong. Leo had so many close friends in the community who are shocked and grieving, and determined to make the future a better place for his fellow asylum-seekers.
    Thank you again Howard! Cathie B


  8. A note of thanks for your piece on Leo. One of my closest friends, Cathie Bond, was his Australian ‘Mum’. I have shared it with her and I know it will mean a lot. She is supporting his Tamil friends in Geelong who are all devastated. Cathie is one of those people who should be publicly acknowledged. For countless years she has, as a volunteer, supported asylum seekers. In the ‘old’ days she would travel by bus from Queenscliff>Geelong>onwards to Baxter Detention Camp. She even smuggled in fruit to ‘her boys’ there. She lives frugally, and spends almost every available cent on visiting, transporting, assisting the families.

    To have her loss written of in this compassionate way will mean so much to her. The Govt. agencies have been abysmal as she and others have sought to get Leo’s father here for the impending funeral. One ‘official’ said to her “but then you’d want their whole village to come here I suppose.” I hate Morrison with a vengeance (and the rest of the cretins too). Gone are the days I thought it was bad to hate. The older I get the more I realise it is essential if we maintain our perspective of what is right and wrong.

    And in other news…. My ‘adopted’ Iraqi family – now citizens but were asylum seekers – are living in fear of what is happening in Iraq to their relatives. On top of that their middle boy – my ‘grandson’ – has just been diagnosed with paediatric lymphoma. Excellent care so far from Peter Mac. But just when they thought life was becoming better…..

    Suffering never ends, does it? But you, dear Howard, speak for so many of us. I am proud to be able to say “I know Howard” ( but does anyone?  )



    • jan, your own life is a serious gesture of peace and healing

      i find through these media, so often full of fluff and air, a community of care and commitment

      and through that community, opens a doorway of comfort



  9. Our treatment of assylum seekers makes me ashamed to be an Australian. I love your analogy of temporary protection visas and those waiting for organ donation. I have worked in a haemodialysis unit with those waiting for kidneys and I know their despair. I have also nursed burns patients in ICU and know the suffering that Leo would have endured. A great piece Howard. Am sharing on FB to try and get it out where it counts.

    Liked by 2 people

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