How Mohammad Nasim Najafi died in a detention centre
It started with a night attack. Three weeks ago, a group of criminals broke into Mohammad Nasim Najafi’s room in the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre outside Perth, scattering his belongings and beating him.
Overcrowded prisons mean half of the detainees at the centre are convicted criminals rather than asylum seekers. Fearing for his life, Nasim managed to escape the attackers and took shelter in an office with Serco employees, the contractors who run the detention centre.
As yet, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has given no reason for what happened next. After being beaten by the gang – one of a number that jostle for control in Yongah – Nasim was placed in a solitary cell. His room was two metres by two metres and had no toilet. The card that allowed him to enter the main areas of the detention centre, including the gym and recreational facilities, was blocked.
By Friday, July 31, Nasim was dead. As his body was carried from the centre, loaded into an ambulance under a white sheet, fellow detainees chanted in volleys of Arabic and English: “He did not kill himself, the immigration killed him.”
The official response from the department of immigration is brief. It sheds no light on how the healthy 27-year-old might have died: “The department can confirm that a male detainee died at the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre on Friday 31 July 2015. There was no indication of suicide or suspicious circumstances. The WA Police attended the centre and is conducting an investigation as per normal practices in such cases.”
This week, The Saturday Paper spoke to a number of detainees who were close to Nasim, including the last person he spoke to. The picture they paint is of a man denied proper medical care, an epileptic who died in detention because he was not properly monitored, who requested medical attention but was given only Panadol and sleeping tablets.
Nasim’s mother still lives in Hotqool, in Afghanistan. Ten years ago, her husband was killed by the Taliban. Now, her eldest son is dead. She hasn’t slept in the week since he died. She has stopped eating. When The Saturday Paper calls, her words are few and desperate. “Who killed my son? How did he die?” Her voice is pleading and full of sobs. Eventually, she drops the phone and all that can be heard are her cries. “I want my son back.”
Medical care lacking
After being moved into a solitary room, Nasim plunged into despair. He feared being assaulted again, and slept all day so he could remain awake at night. A fellow detainee recalled him saying, “Why was I moved and locked away here and not those that attacked me?”
Shahid, who did not want to use his real name, had known Nasim for almost three years in Yongah detention centre. They were together much of the time, including the night before Nasim died. “We spent time together on Thursday until 11pm,” he says. “I went to sleep and he went to his room.”
The same night, Nasim spoke with his fiancée in India. “He called me on Thursday night, I think. I am confused and mix up the days now,” she says through tears. “We spoke about half an hour. He did not tell me anything about the camp. He thought I might be upset. Just told me that he was tired of being away from each other and tired of the camp. He said that he will get out another month and then see me.”
Earlier, he wrote her a brief post on Facebook: “I should confess that unkind life has created so much distance between us. I have been thrown into a cage that I can’t get out. Tonight, the starless roof of this cage is so low on me. I am left what to write about.”
Detainees at Yongah say medical care inside detention is very poor. About 600 detainees have access to only one doctor. The medical centre is closed after 5pm. If detainees want to see a doctor, they have to fill a request form, and then wait at least four days. “When I go to doctor and tell him that I am sick, they don’t listen to us or believe us,” Shahid says. “Even when they see me vomit as if I’m dying, they say, ‘We can’t cure it. When you get out from detention, you feel better.’ ” Another detainee, from Iraq, said: “I go doctor. Me sick. Panadol. Water.”
The immigration department says asylum seekers in the centre have “access to appropriate healthcare and medical treatment at a standard at least comparable to the healthcare available to the Australian community generally”.
Two weeks ago, Nasim saw the centre’s doctor. “They just gave him Panadol and sleeping pills,” a detainee says. “He was left alone there. If there was another person with him, he would shake him, rub his body to circulate blood.”
The department would not confirm whether or not it was aware of Nasim’s epilepsy, although fellow detainees say Nasim was taking medication for the condition and it had been brought to Serco’s attention many times. Nasim told Shahid he had developed the disease while in detention. His family and fiancée said he had no health problems or heart diseases. Shahid said Nasim had collapsed before, while the pair were in the centre’s computer room. “I leaned on his back to stop him from falling,” says Shahid. “I called Serco. In the meantime, another person came and rubbed his palm and chest. It took about four minutes [for Nasim] to come to consciousness again.”
Detainees say Nasim was not properly checked while in his solitary cell, and that this was not appropriate for a person with a pre-existing medical condition. “If a person is dead in his bed, they would not know because they think he is asleep,” a detainee says. “The only time they would wake up a person would be to get his signature for a doctor’s appointment or if he has not eaten his delivered food. I believe they realised far too late that Nasim was dead.”
Yongah Hill detention centre is located about 90 kilometres north-east of Perth and was built to house asylum seekers. The sprawling demountables now house 600 detainees, the majority of whom are convicted criminals and visa overstayers awaiting deportation. Nasim’s roommate, before he was moved to another compound, was an American convicted of attempted murder while in Australia. After serving his jail sentence, he was transferred to Yongah, where for the past five months he has been awaiting deportation.
Asylum seekers detained at the centre report crimes and gang violence, as well as a spate of random beatings. In February this year, the detention centre guards were menaced by gangs and had bottles and other objects thrown at them. A security guard quoted by the ABC said, “We are not trained to be looking after violent offenders … we are supposed to be looking after detainees.”
Five months ago, an asylum seeker was attacked by a gang and hospitalised. “We are really scared of them because they have nothing to lose and get themselves to be deported,” an Afghan asylum seeker tells The Saturday Paper. “We escape our country to be safe. They mix us with criminals. These people don’t care about anything because they will be deported anyway.”
Most of the asylum seekers at Yongah detention centre are long-term detainees. Some are held for security reasons, which are not explained to them. Some have broken their bridging visa conditions, by working for instance. Many respond to their long detention by shutting down emotionally and withdrawing, shunning even the most meagre conversation.
An asylum seeker tells The Saturday Paper that many detainees suffer insomnia and are taking sleeping pills. Some have began calling random names or talking to themselves. “If a dog is being put this cage for this long, he or she would go crazy let alone a human being,” the asylum seeker says.
Nasim was an ethnic Hazara, a persecuted minority in Afghanistan. His father, Nadir Najafi, a shopkeeper, was killed by the Taliban in 2004. So was his uncle, Sadiq. Najafi’s home town, Hotqool, borders with the Pashtun and Taliban-dominated area Rasna. The kidnapping and murder of Hazaras – including those returned from Australia, as reported by The Saturday Paper last year – is common.
The security for Hazaras has worsened in recent years, particularly in the area where Nasim lived. Three years ago, he fled Afghanistan and arrived in Australia by boat. He had been locked up at Yongah Hill detention centre since 2012. The department of immigration would not say why Nasim was not offered a bridging visa or community detention, but said “certain aspects of this individual’s case rendered him ineligible” for these programs.
According to a department spokesperson, “The safety and security of the Australian community is of paramount importance to the department. Consequently, individuals with suspected histories of criminal behaviour, serious incidents in detention or who are of interest to security agencies will not be released from detention until such concerns are alleviated.”
The Saturday Paper contacted Nasim’s family, Hazara elders in his home town, his school, and the local district governor. All were shocked by these allegations. Nasim had no criminal record.
Says Jaghori’s district governor, Zafar Sharif: “I know his father and uncle were martyred by the Taliban. We and police do not have a criminal record against [Nasim]. He was a very active person in the area in cultural activities. I felt very sad to hear he died in the camp.”
Mamor Karim, the school principal of the Ustad Lycee Sharifi, says: “I know Nasim, he was my student. He was very intelligent and a well-behaved boy. I haven’t seen or heard any wrongdoings about him. It’s just total disbelief to me.’
Inmates at Yongah detention centre described Nasim as a law-abiding person. His American former roommate said: “He was a very friendly person, he was helping everyone … My mother is very sad too because he spoke to her on the phone and she sent some clothes from America.”
Victoria Martin-Iverson, of Refugee Rights Action Network WA, has demanded a full inquest. “It’s after all a death in custody,” she says. “We don’t know exactly what happened to him. Epilepsy normally doesn’t kill people. There must be another cause and it should be fully investigated.”
As well as his mother and fiancée, Nasim leaves behind two sisters and one brother, all children. He spoke to his mother a week before his death. All he said was, “I miss you.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2015 as "How this man died in detention". Subscribe here.