Case Study

Villawood: A Suburban Deathscape in Plain Sight (Australia)

Case study

This case study documents three deaths at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, situated in the heart of suburban Sydney. The three immigration detention deaths are those of 36 year old Josefa Rauluni on 20 September  2010, 41 year old Ahmed Al-Akabi on 16 November 2010 and 29 year old David Saunders on 8 December 2010.

Please Read

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this case study may contain images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that this study contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.

At the same time, each screen of these case studies testifies to target communities' strength and courage, as they respond to repeated deaths in custody through myriad creative forms, through lines of solidarity and through an unwavering call for justice.

The Villawood Immigration Detention Centre has been imposed on the land of the Bidjigal peoples of the Dharug Nation. In order to tell the stories of the people who have died while held in custody at the Villawood Immigration Prison, we must first articulate the violent history of the site itself. The serial suicides of Josefa Rauluni, Ahmed Al-Akabi and David Saunders were prefigured by these founding forces of colonial settler violence.


Bidjigal Resistance: Sites of Insurgency

The arrival of the First Fleet onto Eora country marked the foundation of the prison nation through the conquest of people and land and the consequent decolonisation struggle. Bembulwoyan [Pemulwuy], a courageous warrior and member of the Bidjigal clan from the area of Sydney now known as Botany Bay, resisted the incursion of British colonists from 1790 until his killing in 1802.

From 1792  Bembulwoyan led a series of raids on Bidjigal lands in an attempt to impede the establishment of farming settlements. The ‘Battle of Parramatta’ in the mid 1790s involved about a hundred Aboriginal warriors who marched into the settlement of Parramatta and threatened to spear anyone who tried to stop them. At least five Aboriginal men were killed after soldiers opened fire and Bembulwoyan was wounded, but managed to survive.

In November 1801 a proclamation outlawed Bembulwoyan and offered rewards for his death or capture. In 1802 he was shot dead and his head was removed and sent to England with a letter from Governor King that stated: ‘Although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character.’

A depiction of Pemulwuy, by Samuel John Neele, where he is rowing a canoe is cut out and layered above bold red, black and yellow diagonal stripes painted on a building.

Click here

 ‘Welcome to Redfern’ concept art by Reko Rennie, Redfern Terrace Street Art Project based on the engraving ‘Pimbloy: Native of New Holland in a canoe of that country’ 1804 by Samuel John Neele

‘He’s the first patriot that died fighting for his land, culture and country, you know? And there’s no recognition. Up until now, he was written out of history.’

Lorna Munro


Sanctuary, Sovereignty and Solidarity

There is an unbroken continuity in the assertion of Aboriginal sovereignty over these colonised lands. One of the ways in which this sovereignty is expressed is through the welcome of people seeking asylum by Indigenous leaders.

The  passport ceremonies of the early 2000s are such exercises  of sovereignty. They demonstrate an acute awareness of the inextricable link between the assertion of unextinguished Aboriginal sovereignty on the one hand and the illegal occupation of the continent and settler-colonial Australia’s repressive immigration policies on the other.

In 2010, Robbie Thorpe and other Aboriginal leaders issued Original Nation passports to 200 Tamil refugees stuck between Indonesia and Australia. In May 2012, Uncle Ray Jackson and Robbie Thorpe attempted to issue Aboriginal passports to two Tamil men detained at Villawood IDC who had been denied permanent visas due to a security assessment by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). In September 2012, an Aboriginal passport ceremony was held in Redfern. with 200 migrants, including newly arrived asylum seekers, receiving a passport. A second ceremony was held in September 2014.  Among the recipients were the family of Hamid Kehazaei, an asylum seeker killed by medical negligence whilst held on Manus Island.

An artwork which juxtaposes a certificate of exemption from the NSW 'Aborigines Protection Act' and Original Nation Passport. The words 'not your place' are written across them. Click here
‘Not Y/our Place’, Anthea Fitzgerald and Robbie Thorpe, from the ‘We Don’t Cross Borders, Borders Cross Us’ poster series. Cross Border Collective

‘Locking people up doesn’t solve any problems, it only causes harm. We have seen that time and time again with Indigenous people, and now the  government is making the same mistake with asylum seekers. This has to stop. The Australian Government must stop imprisoning Indigenous people, and they must stop imprisoning asylum seekers. I am proud to welcome people in need into our community.’

Uncle Ray Jackson (Wiradjuri Elder and Activist)


Reciprocal Struggles

Even as Indigenous people and asylum seekers occupy different positions that are informed by distinct histories and relations of power, reciprocal struggles and solidarity between First Nations peoples and people seeking asylum have been articulated and demonstrated by groups and individuals. To mark Invasion Day 2017, Wiradjuri Elder and Poet, Riverbank Frank organised a protest outside the Villawood Immigration prison; meanwhile members of RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees) marched in Invasion Day protests in Melbourne.

‘I really would like to get a message to my brothers and sisters out there in Indigenous Australia, you know, it’s not wrong to look outside of ourselves… My father was Stolen Generation; they stole him as a child. They lock up children now. So you know, you wonder how far we’ve come, both situations are not unalike at all.’

Riverbank Frank (Wiradjuri Elder and poet)


‘Colonisation is not an event, and it’s ongoing, and it’s actually the same oppression and system that informs border imperialism….[the same system] informs Nauru, and it informs Don Dale. And that’s why we’re here today.’

Tania Canas (RISE Arts Director)

Click here

Chair draped with Aboriginal flag to acknowledge the absent detained asylum seekers and refugees who could not attend the Aboriginal Passport Ceremony, The Settlement, Sydney NSW, 2012. Photographer: Charandev Singh.

A Site Marked by Violence

The name ‘Villawood’ is today synonymous with an Australian history of migration, detention and racialised violence. The layers of violence that inscribe this space begin with the Frontier Wars and the imposition of colonial names. The area, used mainly for farming, was first renamed ‘Woodville’ in an act of cartographic erasure of Indigenous history and land ownership. Wild dogs and dingos overran the area and traps were laid along Woodville Road (‘Dog Trap Road’) which connected the site to its broader surrounds. The name  later changed to ‘Villawood’.

During WWII the Leightonfield Munitions Factory was established on the site to aid the production of chemicals for munitions and arms. Post-war, the munitions factory was transformed into a Migrant Hostel which officially opened on 29 December 1949. This Hostel operated until 1984 when Villawood Immigration Detention Centre [IDC] took over the site.

During the early 2000s, as Australian policies towards refugees took on a punitive cast,  Villawood emerged as the primary site of death in Australia’s immigration detention network.

A black and white photo in which two women operate a machine (detoluator) at the Commonwealth Explosives Factory.

Click here

Villawood, NSW. c.1944, Two women operate a machine (detoluator) at the Commonwealth Explosives Factory, Australian War Memorial P00784.176

Blaxland, Hughes and Fowler, the three compounds that make up the Villawood complex,  each incarcerated a different cohort:  high security detainees, visa overstayers and people who arrived on boats, respectively. The deaths discussed here, one from each of these cohorts, evidence the systemic nature of the violence that inscribes this site.

A Catalogue of Deaths

Villawood is a violent deathscape situated in plain sight in a semi-industrial suburban area of Sydney. The documented deaths associated with this prison are marked on the map below. The 2017 Australian Human Rights Commission Villawood Inspection Report outlines the current compound arrangement and concerns including the use of Blaxland compound which has been raised repeatedly in previous reports.





Military-Industrial-Prison-Border Complex

The hostel was established to house people displaced by war who emigrated to Australia under a program run by the International Refugee Organisation. Accommodation at the Villawood Migrant Hostel was initially provided in former army huts. Some of these huts were from a former military camp at Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Over 50 years later, this same military architecture has been redeployed to warehouse both asylum seekers who sought protection within Australia and those who were exiled to the Australian-run prison on Manus Island.

There emerges a continuity in which asylum seekers fleeing war, conflict and violence are housed in these military structures and installations that are part of the apparatus of the prison and border complex. In the 1970s, for example, Vietnamese refugees were housed in the very rudimentary Fannie Bay Gaol in Darwin in what was ordinarily used as the ‘Children’s Section’.

A row of Nissen huts, surrounded by trees and grass, pictured at the Villawood Migrant Hostel.

Click here

NAA: DIMIA, Canberra; A12111, Hostels, holding centres and state reception centres – Villawood Migrants Centre, 1957; 2/1957/22A/56.

Two weathered Nissen huts, pictued in the Delta camp of the former Manus RPC at Lombrum. Palm trees and fences can be seen in the background.

Click here

Nissen Huts, Manus Island, 2016. Photo: Behrouz Boochani.


Guest/Host: Settler-Colonial Occupation and Racialised Hierarchies

The White Australia policy was formally enshrined in law on 23 December 1901 through the Immigration Restriction Act, designed to block the entry of non-white subjects and to expel racialised and other undesirables. During the same period, a range of genocidal practices were put into effect against Indigenous people; these involved the structures of forced removal to and confinement in missions, reserves and segregated children’s homes and are extensions of the border-military-prison complex.

As migration expanded in the mid-twentieth century, the positioning of post-war non-British migrants as ‘guests’ further consolidated the status of white settler Australia as the ‘host’ and elided the status of Aboriginal people as the owners of the land.

The post-war program of migration, while designed to shore up Australia as a European outpost, was structured by a racialised hierarchy. There was a distinct racialised divide between British and non-British, especially southern European, and later Middle Eastern, migrants.

Adults and children collect a meal from the mess hall of the former Villawood Migrant Hostel. The English and Australian flags are hung on the wall above.

Click here

NAA: DIMIA; A12111, Westbridge/Villawood Migrant Hostel, 2/1973/22A/220, 1973

Non-British migrants, also referred to as ‘Aliens’, many of whom were displaced persons,  immigrated on the basis of two-year indentured labour contracts. The accommodation provided them was often of a lower standard and family separation occurred in some circumstances. Contracts required the learning of English and a cultural proscription operated against the use of native languages.

The Racialisation of Migrants, Asylum Seekers and Refugees

From the 1950s onwards, population policy was constantly recalibrated in response to global forces in ways that changed the ethnic mix of the nation, while leaving untouched the essential structures of the settler state. The policy of Multiculturalism represents a governmental strategy that simultaneously acknowledges ethnic ‘diversity’ and operates to exercise management and control.

The shift in the migrant population of Villawood hostel from primarily British to one that extended to European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian groups also marked a shift in the nature of the hostel itself, with increasing restrictions being placed on the inmates.

‘Hostel life does not appear to suit the British temperament and it is an experiment that we are not anxious to expand or to continue indefinitely.’

Harold Holt (Minister for Immigration), 1953


From a hostel for British and Eastern European migrants to a prison for racialised and criminalised ‘non-citizens’

Four photos that contrast the Villawood Migrant Hostel and Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. In photos from the migrant hostel, families are pictured playing sport on the grass and fences are low and unobtrusive. In the Villawood IDC, grassed areas appear barren and tall fences restrict freedom of movement.

Click here

Left Upper: NAA, A12111, Villawood, 1973. Left Lower: NAA: A12111, Villawood, 1987. Right: Australian Human Rights Commission, Villawood, 2011.

Legacies of Resistance

The resistance at Villawood and within the broader immigration detention network today is preceded by a history of migrant protests and struggles over the assimilationist regimes of management operative within the hostels and camps. These included protests over the type of food imposed on the inmates, the segregation of sexes and families and the enforced use of English as the medium for communication.

Four men stand on the roof of a building in the Villawood IDC. They raise a banner that reads, 'We are not criminal. We are human.'
Click here
Villawood Protest, 2011. Photo: Brendan Esposito. The photo includes Fazel Chegani who died while detained on Christmas Island 4 years later.



1992 was a watershed year in which the mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat was first instituted.

‘There are foreign people in Australia thinking foreign thoughts. Some are locked up in Villawood, at the detention centre. Some are restrained in Perth. In those places, you see, they are not really in Australia. They are in the empty ungoverned space of their bodies, I guess, confined within not-Australia.’

Bernard Cohen, ‘Aliens’

The institution of Not-Australia  as a place of confinement operated in tandem with the increasing privatisation of the apparatus of corrections and security. The hostel, detention centre and prison became sites whose inmates where subjected to practices of criminalisation enforced by a privatised workforce drawn from the global corrections industry. Razor wire, surveillance apparatus, staged security fences and barriers became part of the architecture of civil suburban sites.

A large group of people are viewed from above, sitting on a large ship (The Tampa). Orange shipping containers frame the view.

Click here

The MV Tampa. Photo: Wallenius Wilhelmsen/AAP. The MV Tampa rescued 438 asylum seekers from a stricken boat in the waters between Indonesia and Australia.

A photo of an old ship with the words 'Boat People' below, projected onto the Sydney Opera House.

Click here

Deborah Kelly, ‘Boat People’, Sydney Opera House, 2001. Photo: Armedia.

Click here

Villawood Fence around Fowler Compound, NSW, 2011. Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission.


‘One way or another you’re going to the airport’

The failure of systems

‘It just hurt. From the heart, I’m hurt. When people talk about it, it hurts me very much.’

David Rauluni (Josefa Rauluni’s brother)

Click here

A handdrawn portrait of Josefa Rauluni. His face is framed by painted red flowers, green leaves and birds. A message is included at the top left corner dedicating the portrait to the family of Josefa Rauluni on behalf of those detained at Villawood IDC. The bottom of the page is covered in signatures/names of people who'd been detained with him.

Memorial to Josefa Rauluni, Villawood NSW, 2010. Artist: Saad Tlaa.


The Violence of ‘Removals’

On 20 September 2010, Josefa Rauluni, a Fijian man imprisoned in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (VIDC), leapt to his death on the very day he was due to be deported. On the same day, the Immigration Department released a paper documenting the fact that self-harm in Australia’s detention centres had quadrupled in the past year.

Josefa Rauluni had worked as a fruit picker in the farms of regional Australia. He was sending the money he earned back to his wife and children in Fiji. He was arrested in August 2010 for overstaying his visa and was imprisoned at Villawood.

Rauluni’s death must be situated with the regime of deportations of asylum seekers back to the unsafe conditions from whence they fled.


‘Don’t come any closer or I will jump…I know you are just doing your job and you are trying to help but I would rather die than to be returned to my country’

Josefa Rauluni

‘You are still going to the airport. You are going to the airport, Josefa. Alright. You’ve got one last final warning, otherwise force is going to be used, Josefa.’

Ms Aiono-Laga (Serco Client Service Manager for Operations of the Transport and Escorts at VIDC)

‘OK. Come on Josefa. Come on. Either come down the easy way or we are going to come up. The boys will come up and you jump and …’

Ms Aiono-Laga (Serco Client Service Manager for Operations of the Transport and Escorts at VIDC)


RELEVANT KEY TERMS: necrotransport

Precedents and Antecedents

There are several documented, and likely many more undocumented, ‘involuntary removals’ that have proved fatal. Some of the known fatalities are:

Akram Al Masri, a Palestinian asylum seeker, deported in 2002 after having been detained at the Woomera and Port Augusta. In 2008 he was shot dead in Gaza. In 2002, Colombian, Alvaro Moralez, and Pakistani teenager Bilal Ahad were also reported dead after being returned from Australia.

According to ‘Deported to Danger II’ (2006), as many as nine men returned to Afghanistan from mandatory detention on Nauru may have been killed.

The same report confirms that  three children of returnees from Nauru were  killed after their house was bombed.

Zainullah Naseri, the first Hazara asylum seeker to be involuntarily deported to Kabul after having sought Australia’s protection, was subsequently kidnapped, held hostage by the Taliban and tortured for two days.

There are multiple instances of people attempting to resist deportation. On 10 December 2010, a woman scheduled for deportation from Villawood was brought to Sydney Airport. She cried, screamed, struggled and resisted and eventually the removal was aborted by the Immigration Department.

On 25 May 2011 Ziad Awad was scheduled to be deported to Syria. He was taken from Villawood Immigration Prison at 6:10am. He arrived at the Sydney Airport cell 55 minutes later. Here, he began to cut himself. He was not discovered doing so until 8:00am. Nevertheless, Serco considered that he was not in serious danger. He was still bleeding when he was carried onto the plane and handcuffed. As a result of his verbal protests and complaints, the pilot ordered him and the accompanying officers off of the plane. He was taken back to Villawood. The next morning, however, at 5:30am he was again forcibly removed from Villawood.

In more recent years, there have been instances where ‘removals’ have been delayed or prevented by protests from passengers who have refused to sit down until the person at risk is removed from the flight.


RELEVANT KEY TERMS: necrotransport

A Fear of Persecution

Josefa Rauluni had stated that he had been active in the Fiji Democracy and Freedom Movement (FDFM) and was fearful of what he could face if returned. He insisted that he needed to remain in Australia until after the Fijian election and indicated that if he was sent back he would face seven years in jail under the current regime.

Mr Rauluni first arrived in Australia on a three month Tourist Visa in November 2008. He applied for a protection visa in early March 2009 and made various attempts to extend his visa in Australia. His application for protection was refused in August 2009, he was subsequently issued successive Bridging Visas while he appealed the decision in the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT).

Deposed Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarese, who had been Prime Minister from 2000 until he was ousted by military leader Frank Bainimarama in 2006,  reportedly pleaded with Australian authorities to grant Josefa Rauluni asylum. In a letter submitted to the RRT, Mr Qarase stated ‘Under the current circumstances in Fiji, Mr Rauluni runs the risk of been taken in by the regime if he returns.’ Despite this, the RRT confirmed its original negative decision.


‘…[Mr Rauluni] mentioned that he, that the only way he can – he will go back to his country is to send his dead body back to Fiji in a box.’

Felix Faisal Edian (Client Service Manager)

On the day of his death, Josefa Rauluni gave documents to Villawood’s Client Service Manager which described a method of torture being used in Fiji. In her evidence, one of the Serco officers, Ms Aiono-Laga, stated that Mr Rauluni was saying, ‘I’ll jump if you try and make me go, don’t you know what’s going on in Fiji, I can’t go back there.’

In March 2011, Amnesty International were calling for urgent action to stop the arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment of human rights and democracy activists in Fiji. Human rights violations in the country had been documented since the military coup in 2006. By the end of 2009 there were allegations of several men being detained for distributing political material critical of the government. A report by Amnesty International, ‘Beating Justice: How Fiji’s Security Forces Get Away with Torture‘, published in December 2016, details how case of torture and ill-treatment remain ongoing.


RELEVANT KEY TERMS: necrotransport
Click here

Stop Deportations, UK, 2012. Image: National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC), artist unknown.


Theatres of Cruelty: The Production of Spectacle

Will you please observe through the wire
I am sewing my feet together 

Mehmet al Assad, Asylum

Following the blockage of the Tampa asylum seekers from landing in Australia, in August 2001, Australian asylum seeker policy entered a new phase, and immigrant detention centres such as Woomera, Villawood, Maribyrnong were marked by an intensification of and escalation in the level of violence deployed against asylum seekers and refugees. In urban detention centres such as Villawood, this violence was refracted through desperate acts of protests, including outbreaks of hunger strike and self-harm. Enforced deportations and removals, and the desperate forms of resistance which they engendered are inextricably linked practices of these theatres of cruelty.

We term these prisons ‘theatre of cruelty‘ to bring into focus ‘the manner in which refugees must be located within national economies of representation that demand the production of exemplarity and spectacle. The trauma and violence that is daily visited upon the body of the refugee will serve, in an exemplary manner, to dissuade prospective refugees from seeking asylum in Australia. In the context of the Federal Government’s policy of deterrence, the body of the refugee is instrumentalised in terms of an exemplary weapon to ward off other prospective asylum seekers. The body of the refugee is here, in this demand for deterrence and exemplarity, also caught within an implacable circuit that demands the ongoing reproduction of violence. One exemplum is never enough. The very logic of the exemplum is constituted by the demand for its seriality: every unique act of violence that is perpetrated upon the body of the refugee must be reiterated if it is to assume an instructive role in turning away all other prospective boat people.’ (Pugliese, Penal Asylum)

Click here

In a drawing by a child, freehand, vertical lines score the page, representing a fence. Two unstable figures that almost appear to be falling or suspended are drawn behind the lines, representing the presence of children in the detention centre.

A young child draws the sadness and isolation behind the bars in Christmas Island. Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd


Negotiating [the use of force]

Serco training manual, 2010 |  Do’s and Don’ts

  • Be aware of your body language
  • Attempt to calm angry persons
  • Maintain a neutral and unbiased attitude
  • Do not threaten, dare or issue ultimatums
  • Refrain from unnecessary contact
  • Don’t cause embarrassment
  • Pick up on warning signs
  • Assess for possible dangers
  • Relay information
  • Don’t lose patience
  • Exercise extreme caution with suicidal persons in detention
  • Don’t turn your back on a hostile person in detention
  • Maintain a safe distance
  • Watch your back
  • Keep your guard up
  • Don’t go against the odds
  • Offer an easy way out
  • Use caution when applying or removing restraints
  • Positions yourself wisely
  • Don’t squeeze through a group of persons in detention
  • Escort persons in detention from behind
  • Keep you hands free

…You owe it to yourself, and to your fellow officers to ensure that you handle incidents correctly and efficiently. Do not be the creator or the catalyst of a dangerous situation.


An illustrated version of the Serco logo is depicted with the slogan 'People are our business'. Below are a pair of handcuffs.

Click here

Safdar Ahmed, ‘Serco People are our business from ‘Villawood’web comic, 2015.



De-escalation Strategy: Control and Restraint

The expert report on Josefa Rauluni’s death, prepared by the Forensic Psychiatrist Dr Michael Diamond, notes that there was ‘no formulation of a plan’ nor any ‘exploration of what the options might be with regard to Mr Rauluni’s entitlement to resist the order to travel to the airport’. Both Dr Diamond and the Coroner criticised the lack of coordination between Serco and Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) officials and the fact that direction for the use of force was made ‘precipitously and without negotiation.’

Insufficient efforts were made to de-escalate the situation and there were no trained negotiators on site. Intimidation, verbal threats and intent to use force and restraint were the methods of choice employed by Serco in what was a very high risk situation.

The main imperative was to get Mr Rauluni to the airport so that he would not miss the flight to Fiji. In violation of their duty of care, punctuality was prioritised above his safety and wellbeing. His life was deemed less important than Serco’s contractual obligation to carry out his removal.


‘She was  an instructor in control and restraint and mentioned in evidence that, “De-escalation was part of it”. When asked to clarify what was actually done, she agreed that it meant, “actually physically making contact with the detainee and using some physical method”.’

Reference to Ms Aiono-Laga (Serco Client Service Manager for Operations of the Transport and Escorts at VIDC), in Dr Michael Diamond’s Expert Report

‘Although the word negotiation is used loosely by a number of witnesses, none of the interventions attempted amounted to negotiation practice at even the most basic level…The only response was to form two teams to physically contain him, restrain him and forcible remove him from the detention centre…A number of people attempted to coerce the subject from his position on the balcony. Different orders were communicated. There was no plan. There was no order.’

Dr Michael Diamond, Expert Report


Click here

In a comic illustration, a man wearing Serco uniform sits casually on an office chair. Text above him reads 'Okay you're the misbehaving client and the rest of you are Serco officers - restrain him.' Three people are shown restraining a person who the man on the chair is gesturing towards. Text reads 'I remember one day they were teaching us how to physically restrain people. It was like a role play. I volunteered'.

Drawing from ‘A Guard’s Story webcomic, 2014. Artist: Sam Wallman

Recursive Seriality: Viliami Tanginoa

Ten years prior to Rauluni’s death, Viliami Tanginoa died at the Maribyrnong immigration prison in Victoria. On multiple levels, Rauluni’s arrest, detention and death serially replicate Tanginoa’s.

In ‘The Reckoning of Possibilities: Asylum Seekers, Justice and the Indigenisation of the Levinasian Third’ Joseph Pugliese writes, ‘Viliami Tanginoa’s arrest, imprisonment, threatened deportation and mode of death (including taunting from guards) – all signify  in terms of a series of haunting palimpsests that prefigure Rauluni’s own fateful experience at Villawood. The biopolitical relations of power that constitute the conditions of operations within these immigration prisons ensure the replication of a serial violence that is virtually guaranteed by bureaucratic Reason and the reasonable order. Two months after Rauluni’s death, Ahmad al-Akabi, an Iraqi asylum seeker also imprisoned in Villawood detention prison hanged himself…’

A month later David Saunders died in the same manner and following his death, two Afghan asylum seekers attempted hangings in Curtin IDC.






Click here

Fence, Whadjuk Country (Perth WA), 2015. Photographer: Marziya Mohammedali.

The Aftermath

‘To the family of our brother Josefa…

this is on behalf of all the brother and sister here at villawood I.D.C…

 your IRAQI Brother

Saad Tlaa

Sept, 27, 2010

– 7 days after….’

‘When he passed away it was really tense. The atmosphere was really bad, sad. Everybody feeling down. Really, it was really, I can’t really describe it in specific words, but all in all it was a really sad and miserable feeling for everybody…Just imagine one of your friends, or family, or close friend will die in front of you, and you cannot do anything. It is really very painful, very painful feeling… the spirit of the death, or the spirit of missing or losing some friend is really hard.’

Saad Tlaa 

Following Viliami Tanginoa’s death, his friends and fellow detainees too released a statement.

A hand drawn portrait of Josefa Rauluni bordered with illustrations of colourful flowers and birds. A message of condolences is written at the top by the artist and signatures of fellow detainees mark the bottom of the page.

Click here

Saad Tlaa, ‘Memorial to Josefa Rauluni’, 2010

A Situated, Serial Death

Josefa Rauluni’s death must be seen as a singular death and, once it is situated in the deathscape of Australia’s onshore detention system, as also a serial death generated by the forces of institutionalised violence.

Documented cases of fatal or potentially fatal leaps:

2000 | Viliami Tanginoa (Maribyrnong)

2002 | Thi Hang Le (Villawood)

2002 | Mazhar Ali (Woomera)

2013 | Man from PNG (Villawood)

2015 | 16 year old girl (Darwin)

2016 | Saeed Hassanloo (Hobart)

2016 | Fereshteh (Perth)


Photo taken at a vigil for Saeed Hassanloo outside the Royal Perth hospital. A crowd gathers holding candles. Letters spelling 'FREEDOM' are held up behind the crowd.

Click here

Perth Vigil for Saeed Hassanloo, Whadjuk Nyoongar Country (Perth), 2015. Photo: Marziya Mohammedali.





20 Sept 2010 09:35


Client RAULUNI Josefa s.47F(1) jumped off balcony and has been declared deceased at 0947 by ambulance officers. This information will be updated as soon as more information is on hand. *Client s. 47F(1) Incident closed to finalise service.


Service Provider Staff




Hughes Compound

48 hours of ‘Incident Reports’

Death, grief, loss, anger and protest reduced to a series of incident reports:

20 September, 12:50pm: 11 clients on top of Macquarie building

20 September, 1:20pm: up to 50 clients in Hughes compound start to protest

20 September, 7:50pm: minor disturbance in Fowler compound

21 September, 9:30pm: 11 clients from Fowler compound transferred to Murray unit

22 September, 7:51am: 2 clients climbed onto roof of Lachlan building (Hughes compound)

22 September, 9:35am: media onsite

22 September, 10:00am: client relocated from Hughes to Blaxland

22 September, 9:35pm: use of force used on client outside Lachlan building in Hughes compound

Community Solidarity

The day after Josefa Rauluni’s death, a group of about nine activists from the Anti-Deportation Alliance chained themselves to the front counter of the Sydney DIAC office. They stated they were acting in solidarity with those protesting inside the Villawood immigration prison. Two arrests were made.

On the same day, protesters gathered outside the Villawood immigration prison. During peak hour that evening, a public square in Newtown in the inner city was taken over by a group of people who hung banners and distributed flyers. Part of the text read:

‘Yesterday there were protests on both sides of the fences in Villawood. We must continue to take action in solidarity with the struggles occurring from within the detention centres.

…We struggle against all borders because no death as a result of border protection brings us more freedom.

We tear down all cages because peoples’ desire to move will never be caged.’

A painted portrait based on a photo of Josefa Rauluni.

Click here

Portrait of Josefa Rauluni, 2016. Artist: Betina Martin for People Just Like Us. 

Click here

Detail of ‘Memorial to Josefa Rauluni’, Villawood NSW, 2010. Artist: Saad Tlaa.

Witness to a death

‘I was very angry and upset…I was trying to get to him but they were holding me tight.’

Eddie Rauluni (Josefa Rauluni’s nephew)

21 year old Eddie Rauluni watched his Uncle’s body hit the ground. He tried to go to Josefa Rauluni’s side but was restrained by Serco guards. He saw his uncle bleeding from the head.

‘The first person I spoke to, he was a babbling mess and just ended up crying and wasn’t able to say anything other than “I saw it, I saw it, I saw it” and just kept bawling his eyes out…The second time I called it was a different person, as soon as he heard my voice he started sobbing and saying “He’s dead, he’s dead, why are they doing this to us?’

Brami Jagen (advocate)


Two men embrace outside Villawood IDC between a fence and the suburban street. They and other community members are gathered to grieve Josefa Rauluni's death. Click here

In the aftermath of Josefa Rauluni’s death, Fijian community leaders were told that a service they had organised to have at the centre was cancelled. His friends, relatives and fellow prisoners were denied the space to collectively grieve.

Standard Operating Procedures: ‘Normal Compliance Operations’

Immigration authorities quickly cast the Rauluni’s death as an ‘unexpected death’. As part of a well-rehearsed set of formalities, then Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, described Josefa Rauluni’s death as a ‘tragic incident’ and extended his sympathies to the family of ‘the man’. Further, he stated that Mr Rauluni did not arrive by boat and that ‘he was detained for removal purposes’; he said ‘his removal was part of normal compliance operations’. In several interviews the Minister emphasised that ‘the gentleman’ had exhausted avenues of appeal and that tribunals made decisions on cases based on the ‘facts’ they have before them. The implication is that the circumstances surrounding Josefa Rauluni’s death were merely an inevitable consequence of his failure to make a successful appeal.

The narrative of an ‘unexpected death’ attempts to absolve the Department and its contractors of responsibility. Rauluni’s death must not be seen as an ‘unexpected death.’ On the contrary, his death emerges as a procedural outcome of the involuntary ‘removals’ and the ‘normal compliance operations’ of the Immigration Department.

Both ‘removals’ and ‘normal compliance operations’ operate as violent forms of standard operating procedures that systemically generate suicides and other forms of death in detention.

Two people stand behind a coffin shrouded with a covering bearing Josefa Rauluni's name and adorned with white and yellow flowers. They stand on a suburban street and appear to be transporting the coffin from one place to another.
Mourners dressed in black are gathered at the site of Josefa Rauluni's grave. Click here
Josefa Rauluni’s funeral, Griffith, NSW, 2010. Photo: Finau, published on Matavuvale Network


RELEVANT KEY TERMS: Standard Operating Procedure
Click here

Josefa Rauluni’s funeral, Griffith NSW, 2010. Photographer: Finau on Matavuvale Network.


‘Foreseeable and Theoretically Preventable’

The failure of systems

‘It’s as if they gave their prisoner the opportunity to kill himself. Why?…He was their responsibility. Aren’t they in charge? Why allow this? They’re not up to the responsibility…It’s such a big shock when you think he’ll be knocking on the door and coming in and instead he comes in a coffin.’

Houda Mohammad Saleh (Ahmed Al-Akabi’s wife)

Click here

Portrait of Ahmed Al-Akabi, Sydney, NSW, 2016. Artist: Freya Whereat for ‘People Just Like Us‘.


Seeking Refuge from Invaded Lands

Ahmed Obeid Al-Akabi was a husband and father of three daughters. Before his departure from Iraq, he reportedly worked as a teacher and truck driver. He was living in Karbala, a city considered to be holy for Shia Muslims, which is located in Southern Iraq.

The Iraq War began in 2003 when a US-led coalition, including Australia invaded the country. The fall of Saddam Hussein was followed by conflict for much of the next decade. Sectarian violence increased, the brunt of which was borne by members of the Shia minority.

As a result of the violence and increasing civilian casualties, the number of people seeking asylum from Iraq increased dramatically. Even today, Iraq remains unstable and ongoing conflict is displacing tens of thousands of people.

‘He was always on the move, as I told you – he moved a lot – he wanted to find a place where he could feel safe, where he received no threats.’

Houda Mohammad Saleh (Ahmed Al-Akabi’s wife)

A map locating the city of Karbala in Iraq.


Instrumentalised Exposure: In Transit

Malaysia and Indonesia are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention and do not provide protection for refugees. Here, people seeking asylum can apply to the UNHCR for refuge, but they remain unrecognised under law and risk being detained by police or immigration authorities. Detention centres and prisons are typically overcrowded and rife with abuse which results in high rates of deaths in custody. People are forced to live in a state of fear, poverty and precariousness; adults cannot work and children cannot attend school. In late 2009, it was reported that Malaysia was ‘cracking down’ on asylum seekers. At this time in Indonesia, Iraqis and Hazaras accounted for the majority of people being held in Indonesian detention centres and prisons. In early 2010, it was reported that Australia could expect an influx of refugees from Iraq.

‘He was the most stoic among us – he had a brave heart, while I was scared, he was just normal – joking, poking fun at us when we crossed by boat from Malaysia to Indonesia.’

Saed Mousab (Ahmed Al-Akabi’s friend)

Source: Border Crossing Observatory, ‘Australian Border Deaths Database’

International Human Rights Day, 2009

Ahmed Al-Akabi arrived on Christmas Island on International Human Rights Day in 2009. There is a grim irony in how his time in Australia would thereafter become characterised by the violation and denial of his human rights. On this day, DIAC gifted him a new name ‘IBK048’ and began the process of attempting to strip him of his humanity and self-worth.

The following day he had a health induction assessment and mental status examination. He was noted to be “happy/elated” with no features of a psychiatric illness. He denied thoughts of self harm and prior experience of torture or trauma.

The North West Point Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island was originally designed with a capacity of 800 people. However, at this time, it was severely overcrowded; temporary housing, including tents, now detained over 1300 people. Amnesty International stated that the situation was “completely unacceptable” and that the isolated location of the island made it “impossible” to put in place a humane immigration policy. Ahmed Al-Akabi remained on Christmas Island for about 4 months.

A map of Christmas Island (excised from the Australian migration zone) locating sites of deaths on land and off the coast.



Click here

Mapping Ahmed Al-Akabi’s Deathscape, 2017. Image: Michelle Bui.

Villawood: Failure to Care

On 6 April 2010, a week after Ahmed Al-Akabi was informed that his request for Refugee Status had been rejected, he was transferred from Christmas Island to Stage 3 of Villawood IDC (Fowler Compound). On the same day there were coordinated bombings across Baghdad which killed at least 35 people, wounded 140 and destroyed seven buildings. Attacks continued throughout the month.

Upon his arrival at VIDC, a Suicide and Self Harm (SASH) Risk Assessment was completed. This identified thoughts of his life not being worth living due to his Refugee Status Assessment (RSA) rejection and distress associated with his family in Iraq.

5 days later on 11 April he received news that his sister and two of her children had been killed by a bomb blast in Iraq.

He subsequently undertook a hunger strike for two days alongside about 34 other men in the Fowler compound, which he ended when he was admitted to Auburn hospital on the 13th with abdominal pain.

There is no record of either of these events triggering a re-assessment of his mental state



This is an artwork painted in Villawood IDC using coffee. It shows the silhouette of a screaming person behind barbed wire while on the other side of the wire, a bird is flying.

Click here

Alwy Fadhel, ‘The Scream,’ coffee on paper.



‘In all three deaths, some of the actions of some staff were careless, ignorant or both, and communications were sadly lacking. SASH procedures were not followed by DIAC or Serco personnel, DIAC failed to ensure that Serco and IHMS were fulfilling the terms of the contract between them and there were startling examples of mismanagement on the part of DIAC, Serco, and IHMS…it is the failure of systems which in my view require remedy.’

M. Jerram (State Coroner)

The Failure of Systems


The systemic failure to care for people in immigration detention is evidenced by the case of Ahmed Al-Akabi. It is evidenced by the lack of communication and coordination within International Health and Medical Services (IHMS); by the failure to implement SASH procedures; by the fact that SASH procedures were repeatedly criticised by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and may not have proved effective even if implemented; and by the fact that countless people have died in the custody of the Immigration Department in comparable circumstances.

‘The provided documents demonstrate an absence of recommended and mandated screening for mental health issues in people in immigration detention as required by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. This is especially noteworthy in the initial health and induction assessment at day 7 and following delivery of negative decisions and bad news, namely the death of his sister and her two children.’

Professor Suresh Sundram (consultant psychiatrist)

An artwork painted in Villawood IDC using coffee. It shows a fence topped with barbed wire on the left, the sun shining in the middle while three birds fly over the fence toward the sky.

Click here

Alwy Fadhel, ‘Over the Fence’, coffee on paper

‘Obviously whenever anybody is told that their application has been rejected that is very distressing for them and it creates tensions. The Department and Serco do have in place mental health programs and they do take particular notice when somebody has been told that their application has been rejected and that case is extended to an even greater degree.’

Chris Bowen (Former Minister for Immigration), 2010


‘IHMS must be said to have failed in its duty of care to Ahmed Al Akabi.’

State Coroner, M. Jerram

The Failures of the Health Service

The day after his arrival at Villawood, Ahmed Al-Akabi was prescribed the antidepressant medication, Mirtazapine. He was given another prescription on 28 June. The following day he was reviewed without an interpreter and prescribed ongoing Mirtazapine 30mg for insomnia. On 3 August it was noted that the Mirtazapine had not assisted his insomnia and a subsequent referral noted that several months of Mirtazapine treatment had not been helpful. International Health and Medical Services continued to prescribe Mirtazapine. On 30 August Ahmed Al-Akabi was diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety/Depression. The expert report by Dr Suresh Sundram  notes that ‘Mirtazapine is an antidepressant with only an approved indication for the treatment of Major Depression. It is clear from the material provided that it was being used as a hypnotic and that its prescription at this time did not follow an assessment for Major Depression.’ The inquest reports of two other detention centre casualties, Hayder Sayed (Curtin IDC) and Meqdad Hussain (Scherger IDC), reveal that they were also prescribed Mirtazapine. Health care in all of these Australian detention centres is provided by IHMS.

In a forthcoming paper, academics Suvendrini Perera and Joseph Pugliese argue that the failures of care in offshore detention are neither aberrant or accidental, rather they are the result of the system working exactly as it is designed.

‘At work in Australia’s immigration policies and practices is the intertwining of militarism and punishment working hand-in-hand with the compromising of detainees’ healthcare by the drive to secure profits,’ they write.

‘The Commission is concerned about the high levels of prescription and use of psychotropic medications, including antipsychotics and antidepressants, for their sedative effect in order to manage the high levels of sleeplessness among people in detention…This would appear to be a poor pharmacological solution to an environmental problem…’

Australian Human Rights Commission, 2011

An artwork painted in Villawood IDC using coffee. A man is shown in silhouette, kneeling, face looking down to the ground. The sun shines in the centre of the painting, behind the figure.

Click here

Alwy Fadhel, ‘Endurance’, coffee on paper.

‘Mr Al Akabi was probably misdiagnosed and medicated, his records were both lacking in detail and apparently not consulted. He in fact did make clear to officials that he was depressed and in a poor state both physically and mentally, and that he was extremely fearful and concerned about his family in Iraq and himself if he were to be returned. Very little action or assistance was offered to him. IHMS did not take adequate steps to make DIAC or Serco aware of his true level of risk.’

M. Jerram (State Coroner)



Near Breaking Point

On 3 August, IHMS conducted a scheduled rescreening and noted the exacerbation of depressive symptoms warranting a psychiatric review. Mr Al-Akabi was described as ‘a broken man’ with suicide ideation but no ‘formal thought or plan’. Two weeks later he did not attend an appointment with an IHMS psychiatrist. On 30 August he was described by a psychiatrist as ‘sad, downcast’ and constantly worried about his wife and children. On 20 September Josefa Rauluni suicided in VIDC. On 6 October Mr Al-Akabi requested to see Registered Nurse, Yasser Mohammad, for counselling. The following day he received a negative decision from his Independent Merits Review. Mr Mohammad saw him the next day and stated that he was irritable and anxious about the delay in his visa.

‘Of the three suicides, AA’s was probably the most foreseeable and therefore, at least theoretically, preventable. There has been no explanation of why SASH protocols were not implemented for AA.’

M. Jerram (State Coroner)

Painted in Villawood IDC using coffee. A person stands in front of a chain-link fence. Their hands cover their face, but eyes are depicted on their hands.

Click here

Alwy Fadhel, ‘Psychosis’, coffee on paper.

‘This man had asked for mental health assistance from his first day at VIDC. It is clear that both his mental and physical health deteriorated gradually over the period of his detention and that though DIAC and IHMS staff recorded that, very little was done to assist him. The SASH protocol, which set out a procedure for ensuring that a detainee’s risk of self-harm or suicide was carefully evaluated and monitored, was not followed.’

M. Jerram (State Coroner)


Safety Out of Reach

Ahmed Al-Akabi missed two appointments with the Psychologist and then the Psychiatrist in the week before his death. On neither of these occasions was there an attempt to actively seek out Mr Al-Akabi for consultation.

Suresh Sundram wrote, ‘The inability or failure to out-reach by the mental health team to access detainees is a significant short-coming and may have resulted in different interventions in the week leading up to his death with the possibility of its prevention.’

Jamal Douad, from the Social Justice Network later stated that ‘for the past few days Mr al-Akabi’s friends had been watching him around the clock because they were so worried about him… his wife had asked him to come home recently as she was struggling to cope.’

Mid-October Ahmed Al-Akabi requested to be transferred to another detention centre, stating that he was intimidated by other Iraqis. He later formalised this request in writing.

‘My health is not very good. I want to be transferred to Melbourne, where I have friends and relatives to look after me… Because of my mental health and heart problems. I need their support. I don’t have anyone here, no one visits me here.’

Ahmed Al-Akabi, 29 October 2010

On 18 October Ahmed Al-Akabi presented to an IHMS worker and indicated a constant preoccupation about his family, guilt at abandoning them and excessive crying when speaking to them.

He requested to return to Iraq.

On 11 November he withdrew his request due to concerns about safety.

A figure stands in a desolate landscape, bound in rope. Their face is looking down and cast in shadow. Two piercing eyes appear in the sky above.

Click here

Alwy Fadhel, ‘Bound’, coffee on paper

‘I have been in detention now for sixteen months and I am so worried about my family. People go back home. Some people just give up. It is not safe there. But it is not safe here either.’

Man detained in Fowler compound at Villawood IDC, quoted in AHRC Report ‘Immigration Detention at Villawood: Summary of Observations’, 2011′


Click here

‘Villawood Fence’, Refugee Art Project Surviving Detention Series, Villawood NSW. Artist: ‘J’.


Code Black: The Infrastructure of ‘letting die’

On 16 November 2010, at approximately 1:10am, Ahmed Al-Akabi was declared dead at the Liverpool Hospital after having been found hanging from a pipe in the shower area of a bathroom in Fowler compound shortly after midnight. SBS Lateline’s report ‘Breaking Point’ features a photo of the area. It appears little had changed since the photo taken in 1969.

Mr Al-Akabi was reportedly found by his friends who attempted to break the cord and get him down using a lighter. According to news reports one of the men who found him stated that Serco were ill-equipped and not adequately trained to respond appropriately. Further, he stated that the guards were not carrying a sharp instrument to cut him down.

‘That is almost purpose built for the purposes of death. That’s a very clear hanging point. That would be obvious to anyone who might have the wish to hang themselves. It is quite strong, which is obviously one factor that might lead someone to hang themselves from a point like that. From a basic safety point of view this is a very unsafe environment.’

Professor Louise Newman

A black and white photo depicts a woman and child inside the bathroom at the Villawood Migrant Hostel.

Click here

NAA, A12111, Villawood Bathroom Facilities, 1969.


Deaths by Hanging

Standard Operating Procedures

An analysis, by Kyli Hedrick, of incident reports between October 2009 and 2011, first published on ‘Detention Logs’, reveals that 18% of self harm cases involved attempted hangings. In the Australian community, however, only 1% of self-harm related hospitalisations were the result of hangings.

Detention centre operators recognise the risk of deaths in detention, particularly deaths by hanging. Signs are visible in centres reminding officers to have their Hoffman knives on them at all times. ‘Cutting people down’ is the standard response to suicide attempts of this kind, a high-risk strategy for avoiding deaths. Preventative measures are often absent or inadequate.



‘Initial response of an Officer who discovers an apparent death will immediately apply first aid and initiate a CERT-1 – Code 4 and call for immediate medical assistance. Should the detainee be discovered hanging, Centre Operating Procedure 10.18 “Cut Down Procedure” is to be followed.’

Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) policy manual




RELEVANT KEY TERMS: Standard Operating Procedure
Click here

Drawing from ‘A Guard’s Story webcomic, 2014. Artist: Sam Wallman.

The Aftermath


Soon after Ahmed Al-Akabi’s death became known, people detained in Stage 3 of VIDC joined a hunger strike in a show of sympathy and solidarity with their friend. The following day five men were reportedly participating in a rooftop protest, small fires were lit in the camp and about 160 people were on hunger strike. Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) Sydney activists and other community members including Senator Lee Rhiannon, protested outside the centre in solidarity.

RISE (Refugee, Survivors and Ex-Detainess) and RAC Sydney published media releases; media were reportedly onsite from the early hours of 16 November.

Sandy Logan, spokesperson for the Immigration Department said: ‘We are concerned when these sorts of incidents occur.’

In June 2011 DIAC responded to a question in parliament which revealed that in the aftermath of his death, 17 clients received or continue to receive counselling by IHMS.

Two girls are pictured in a crowd at a protest outside outside Villawood IDC. One carries a placard with Ahmed Al-Akabi's photo on it, another carries a placard that reads 'Free...Refugees'.
Click here

Villawood protest, 2010. Photo: Daniel Burke.

‘At the moment it is very hard, very hard…people very tired, very tired. Yeah, he was very good man, he has a good many friends. He very quiet man, very good man. But unfortunately he’s gone.’

Iraqi asylum seeker (detained at Villawood at the time of Ahmed Al-Akabi’s death)






16 Nov 2010 00:20


On the 16.11.10 at approximately 0110 hr client AL AKABI s.47F(1) was confirmed deceased by the Liverpool hospital medical staff, this was passed onto SERCO at 0142 Hrs. Operations Manager Chris Jackson


Service Provider Staff




Fowler VIDC and Liverpool Hospital


24 hours of ‘incident logs’

16 November, 3:40am: Media presence on site at VIDC

16 November, 6:05am: Media on site

16 November, 1:09pm: Approx 60 Fowler clients gathered outside Macquarie Building in a peaceful protest

16 November, 1:10pm: Demonstration of approximately 15 protestors onside at Gurney / Miowerra Road

16 November, 3:00pm: Visits refused.

16 November, 6:00pm: Clients in Fowler on Hunger Strike

16 November, 6:19pm: Client stated if he did not hear any good news soon he will hang himself (Fowler compound)

16 November, 6:30pm: Client taken to Liverpool hospital at 1830 due to VHS

16 November, 6:41pm: Client stated via the phone that his threatening self harm (Fowler compound)


The Rooftop Protest: Reclaiming Control and Visibility

A lead pencil drawing of people protesting on the roof of a building in Villawood IDC. A banner on the roof says 'We need help' and fences are drawn in the background.

Click here

Rooftop Protest’ by ‘V’.  Villawood is a site marked by both death and resistance. Rooftop protests have frequently been undertaken by different communities to make visible their complaints and exercise a degree of power and control in an environment that attempts to deny it.

‘DIAC needs to view riots and unrest as a consequence of systems failure and not just take punitive action but address the underlying contributing issues… Detainees are driven to express themselves and the injustices that have been perpetrated against them, making a statement of personal control when all other control has been taken away.’

Suicide Prevention Australia

In 2016 Behrouz Boochani climbed a tree in the Manus Island prison as a form of political protest. In his contribution to ‘They Cannot Take the Sky’, he eloquently articulates the experience of how this act allowed him to reclaim power, he writes, ‘I wrote a letter saying that today I am a free man because I have enough power and I am outside this system. On top of this tree I was above the fences, and I was outside the prison…If I come down I will lose my power and you don’t have enough power to tell me to come down’. While the circumstances surrounding Behrouz’s protest and those undertaken in the Villawood prison differ,  similar principles underpin these acts of protest and refusal.



Click here

SBS Dateline. “Breaking Point“, SBS, 29 May 2011.

Following the death of Ahmed Al-Akabi, SBS Dateline video journalist, Fouad Hady, travelled around Iraq and Australia and produced a report entitled ‘Breaking Point’. This report highlights the systemic failures that allowed him to die in these circumstances and the impact that the loss has had on his family and friends. The report included an interview with his widow.

‘I wish I could have seen him, just for a moment. That’s all I wanted – if only I could see him…’

Houda Mohammad Saleh (Ahmed Al-Akabi’s wife)

Ahmed Al-Akabi's grave stone.

Click here

Ahmed Al-Akabi’s final resting place, screenshot from SBS ‘Breaking Point’


Click here

‘Detainees Protest at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney’, Villawood NSW, 2010. Photographer: Adam Ward for the Australian.





08 December 2010 03:30


Client Death in custody on the 08.12.2010 in Blaxland VIDC – please also refer to IR number 1-5BOJYQ – self Harm Critical.


Service Provider Staff



3 days of ‘incident logs’

8 December, 3:50am: 2 x Vehicle’s with Media Onsite at Villawood IDC

8 December, 10:15am: 2 x ABC studios vehicles at bermingham ave

8 December, 6:20pm: Client s. 47F(1) admitted to Bankstown Hospital at 1820 hrs (Hughes Compound)

9 December, 5:30pm: Client s.47F(1) struck client s. 47F(1) in the left ear (Fowler Compound)

10 December, 12:35pm: use of force – Authorised by DIAC / Removal

10 December, 2:15pm: Client refused to follow a directive from SMT (Blaxland Dorm 2)

10 December, 6:30pm: On Friday 10th December Client: s. 47F(1) had her removal aborted by DIAC

10 December, 7:50pm: Client s.47F(1) was shouting and abusive at the fishbowl in Blaxland

11 December, 2:30pm: Client s. 47F(1) was escorted by CSO B.FOLEY and F.MAZLOMI to Liverpool hospital for a Psych assessment as per IHMS S. Satram (Fowler)



Recursive Seriality: David Saunders

David Saunders was a British National who arrived in Australia in May 2010 on a tourist visa. At the time he was under investigation, but not charged, by UK police after allegations that he possessed and distributed child and adult pornography and that he had committed a sexual assault on a child. The latter charge was withdrawn. His tourist visa was due to expire on November 10 2010 and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) were advised by UK police of the allegations and his breach of bail. On November 11, David Saunders was apprehended on the basis that he was an ‘unlawful non-citizen’. He was detained in Blaxland (Stage One), the most high security compound at VIDC. He remained there for 25 days.

The Australian Human Rights Commission had called for the closure of the Blaxland compound in the years preceding the death of David Saunders. Concerns were expressed as early as 1999 and by 2008 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) were citing their ‘repeated recommendations that it should be demolished’ and that ‘the atmosphere remains security-driven and prison-like’.

David Saunders was discovered hanging in a shower cubicle in Blaxland in the early hours of December 8. The ABC reported that the asylum seeker who discovered him also witnessed Ahmed Al-Akabi’s hanging.


The systemic deployment of standard operating procedures in these immigration detention prisons ensures the ‘recursive seriality’ or repetitive reproduction of deaths in custody.


Unworthy of Remembrance

A black silhouette of a man's head and shoulders. Text reads 'Image not available'.

There is little documentation or analysis of this third death, that of David Saunders. Mr Saunders’ death closely replicates that of Ahmed Al-Akabi, who suicided in the same manner less than a month before.



Reports were largely impersonal, with details limited to references to his alleged offence and security rating. No photos nor testimonies of Mr Saunders’ friends or family were released into the public domain. While he benefitted from the privilege of British citizenship, he was criminalised due to the nature of his alleged offences. His death was not publicly mourned or remembered.

‘Briton who died at Villawood named‘ (Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 8 2010)

‘Briton found dead in Australian detention centre‘ (The Independent UK, Dec 8 2010)

‘Suicide Briton facing deportation from Australia named‘ (The Mirror Online, Dec 9 2010)

‘Dead detainee was facing sex offence claims‘ (Canberra Times, Sept 5 2011)



The Failure of Systems: The Failure of Justice

The combined inquest investigating the deaths of Josefa Rauluni, Ahmed Al-Akabi and David Saunders sought to consider whether, given the close proximity in time of these suicides, there were systemic issues that may have contributed to their deaths.

Despite a sizeable brief, folders full of evidence and the deaths of three men being under consideration, the outcome of the inquest was a report of merely 17 pages, including just seven recommendations. While the Coroner was critical of the failures of IHMS, DIAC and Serco and the systemic nature of their failures, the findings failed to adequately articulate the significance of these three deaths.

Like the systems that controlled the lives and determined the experiences of these three men, in death the Coronial system, upon which they and their families depended to achieve justice, also failed them. The cycle of state violence continues.


A banner painted with red writing reads 'Justice? Stop Suffering Us'. It is held up during a protest behind layers of fences at Villawood IDC.

Click here

Villawood Protest, Villawood New South Wales, 2010. Photo: Adam Ward



Click here

Fence, Whadjuk Country (Perth, WA), 2015. Photographer: Marziya Mohammedali.

The Vernacular Violence of Suburban Deathscapes

The serial deaths in custody documented in this case study did not transpire on some remote offshore prison. Rather, they unfolded in an immigration detention centre situated within a suburban setting, Villawood, that, in turn, is located in Australia’s largest metropolis, Sydney.

The very civilian and urban fabric that surrounds this site of institutionalised violence works to produce a type of routinised, vernacular violence that cannot be read as violence as such: this is a violence made invisible by its very vernacularity.  The vernacular and “ordinary: features of this quintessential Australian suburb – with its native trees and its non-descript suburban homes – belie the anguish and suffering that takes place in Villawood’s immigration prison.

“Ordinary” Australia is what enables – legislatively, culturally and spatially — the exercise of vernacular violence.  It is the very vernacularity of this violence, its very ordinariness, which enables it to occlude its everyday production of violence. (Pugliese, Civil Modalities)

Vernacular violence, in the context of Villawood immigration prison, is what is routinely produced through the everyday deployment of the Immigration Department’s ‘normal compliance operations.’ It is what transmutes a suburban site into a deathscape.

Click here

A view from the street of Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in the late afternoon. A suburban crosswalk is in the foreground. Fences and buildings can be seen in the background. A couple of large trees line the footpath.

The suburban interface of Villawood Immigration Prison, Villawood NSW, 2017. Photographer: Michelle Bui.


Villawood: A Suburban Deathscape in Plain Site

We  thank all the named and unnamed refugee writers and artists cited in this case study.  In some instances  they preferred to remain anonymous for their own safety, or used pseudonyms. For the same reason, images from detention were often circulated without attribution via activist groups. We have reproduced these in the interest of relaying, amplifying and documenting campaigns against detention, and included the names of the organisations which originally circulated them. Deathscapes researchers have made every effort to seek the permission of refugee artists whose work is reproduced on the site. As their circumstances change, artists may wish to have their own names associated with their images, or to remove them. In these instances, please contact us at or 

This case study was collectively authored by the Australian hub of the Deathscapes project: Michelle Bui, Dean Chan, Suvendrini Perera, Joseph Pugliese, Charandev Singh.

To cite this research: Michelle Bui, Dean Chan, Suvendrini Perera, Joseph Pugliese, and Charandev Singh. ‘Villawood: A Suburban Deathscape in Plain Site’. Deathscapes: Mapping Race and Violence in Settler States, 2017,

Corresponding author:

Crisis Support Lines:

Lifeline (Aus): 13 11 14
A free interpreting service for people who do not speak English is available for 13 11 14. To access this service please:
1) Call TIS on 131 450 and ask to talk to Lifeline on 13 11 14 in the language required.
2) TIS will call 13 11 14 on behalf of the caller.
Crisis Services Canada (Can): 1 833 456 4566
Samaritans (UK): 116 123
Suicide Prevention (US): 1-800-273-8255
International Support: International Association for Suicide Prevention and

Counselling Services:

WA: Association for Services to Torture and Trauma Survivors (ASeTTS)

NSW: Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS)

VIC: Foundation House -The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture Inc.

QLD: Queensland Program of Assistance to Survivors or Torture and Trauma (QPASTT)

ACT: Companion House

NT: Melaleuca

SA: Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service (STTARS)

TAS: Phoenix Centre


Please Read

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this website contains images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that the site contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.