The death of a 36-year-old Fiji detainee at Villawood detention centre on Monday bears disturbing similarities to the death a decade earlier of a Tongan man on the day he was due to be deported from Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne.

Fellow detainees say Josefa Rauluni, a fruit picker sending money home to his wife and children in Fiji who was arrested in August for overstaying his visa, leapt to his death from the roof of Villawood detention centre hours before he was due to be deported to his home country. In a letter to the NSW Ministerial Intervention Unit dated September 19 — the day before his death — he wrote: “If you want to send me to Fiji, then send my dead body.”

Viliami Tanginoa died in the teeming rain on December 22, 2000 after diving head-first from atop a basketball hoop, where he had been crouched for some eight hours. Tanginoa –whom investigating coroner Lewis Byrne described in his findings as a “gentle, quiet, apparently uncomplicated man” — came to Australia on a six-month visitor’s visa in 1983. He was arrested 17 years later and transferred to Maribyrnong detention centre. Four months later he was dead.

Although officials are tight-lipped about Monday’s death, the similarities between the deaths are already striking. Both men died on the day of their scheduled deportation, after pleading to be allowed to remain in the country. Both men were engaged in discussions with detention centre officers for some time — Rauluni for one and a quarter hours allegedly and Tanginoa for eight hours — before leaping to their deaths.

In both cases, the threat of suicide was imminent and obvious, yet detention centre staff failed to call police or engage professional negotiators.

The adequacy of the management of the crisis by the private operator of Maribyrnong detention centre, Australian Correctional Management, that culminated in  Tanginoa’s death was the principle focus of the 2003 inquest. Coroner Byrne delivered a scathing appraisal of the company’s handling of the situation in his findings, handed down in November that year:

“What I see is a haphazard, unmethodical, wholly inadequate approach. That in my considered view was a clear deficiency in performance… If expert negotiators had been involved I am satisfied the tragic event would have been prevented.

“Whilst the immediate cause of Mr Tanginoa’s death was his own action in taking the decision… Another cause was the inaction of centre management; a failure to manage.”

The “ineptitude” of ACM’s approach was epitomised, he added, by the actions of the operations manager, who was seen on videotape bouncing a basketball on the court below where the desperate man was perched.

“[V]irtually the only pro-active action taken by management was to endeavour to place a ladder against the pole to facilitate Mr Tanginoa’s descent and to place some mattresses on the ground in the vicinity on [sic] the base of the pole,” the findings said.

Refugee advocate Sara Nathan described a similar scene at Villawood under its operator Serco, telling reporters on Monday that “SERCO officers actually put mattresses on the floor and told him to jump”. She also said that “one SERCO officer climbed the ladder to try and grab him and handcuff him”.

The coroner made six recommendations aimed at preventing a repeat of Tanginoa’s death, including a recommendation that external facilitators be used in crisis situations. Another recommendation directs the Department of Immigration and ACM to revise their protocol “with respect to all detainees who are known to be at risk of self harm, particularly all persons who have been served with a Notice of Removal, for whom all legal avenues for immigration have been exhausted and for whom removal is imminent”.

Charandev Singh, a human rights advocate and paralegal who has worked on deaths in immigration detention since 2000, has described Monday’s death as a “catastrophic failure”.

“I worked for three and a half years on Viliami’s inquest and it’s all but gone,” Singh told Crikey. “There is no space where the department can say ‘we don’t know the consequences of what we’re doing’. They know precisely. Obviously the lessons of Viliami’s death have been seemingly completely unlearnt or ignored.”

According to Singh, Monday’s death is the 27th death in all forms of immigration detetention, including navy interceptions, since 2000. He says it is the fourth death in Australian detention by jumping from an elevated position. It is also the fourth death of a detainee at Villawood. In January 2002, Thi Hang Le, a Vietnamese national with serious mental illness, died after leaping from a second-storey balcony from which she had twice previously attempted suicide — the same day she was due to be deported.

In July 2001, Avion Gumede, a South African labourer and with a five-year-old child, hanged himself hours after arriving at Villawood. In September that year, Puongtong Simplee, who told Immigration officials she had been brought into the country as a child s-x worker, died of malnutrition less than 72 hours after entering the centre.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey