Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Family drama reveals detention contortions


Ranjini and her sonsThe case of a young Sri Lankan mother has highlighted the legal and ethical contortions that have become a feature of our refugee process.

Ranjini had already been assessed as a refugee and was establishing a new life in Melbourne with her second husband, Ganesh, when she and two young sons from her previous marriage were abruptly taken to Villawood.

Until she was removed from the community in May last year, few people realised that around 50 refugees were already in indefinite detention due to an adverse ASIO assessment. These individuals could not access the information used in their assessment, much less challenge it. They were not entitled to an appeal or review.

They could not be returned to their country of origin, if it were to even accept them, because of the principle of non refoulement. But they were not allowed to live in the Australian community, either.

Ranjini's situation was particularly Kafkaesque. She and her family had turned up for what they thought was a regular catch-up with her caseworker. They were told instead that she was deemed a security risk and that she and her boys, then aged six and eight, would be detained indefinitely. Ganesh had five minutes to say goodbye.

This happened on a Thursday. The following Saturday, Ranjini found out she was pregnant. Last night she gave birth to that child, a son who will in fact be an Australian citizen, despite the efforts of Australian governments past and present to withhold citizenship from people for whom it prefers to hold no responsibility.

From 1949 to 1986, children born in Australia were automatically citizens under the principle of jus soli. This became conditional on at least one parent being a citizen or permanent resident at the time of birth. Ganesh is a permanent resident.

By some quirk of fate or grace, Ranjini and her baby are sharply challenging the authenticity of the values we claim to hold. The right to be heard, the right to live with dignity, the right to full realisation as a human being.

It is a story that accentuates the brittleness of our immigration detention system, as it highlights the legal and ethical traps of binding post-9/11 national security sensitivities with asylum rights. It leads to some majestic contortions. How have we managed to confer protection on a woman from whom we need protection?

The best guess anyone has as to why Ranjini is considered a security risk is that her first, deceased husband was a driver for Tamil separatists (despite the fact that the Tamil Tigers was never listed as a terrorist organisation in Australia and had been crushed by Sri Lankan government forces in 2009 after a 35-year insurgency).

If this were the basis for detaining her, the information was not available for challenge or review. At least not until the public outcry that last October moved Attorney-General Nicola Roxon to appoint former Federal Court judge Margaret Stone as an independent reviewer for such cases.

It is a welcome development, along with refugees finally having access to an unclassified summary of the reasons for their assessments. Yet in reality, this new layer of accountability merely involves providing an opinion to the ASIO director-general.

The policy of indefinite detention remains unless the 2004 High Court decision that facilitates it is rescinded. Until then, refugees like Ranjini — who had already spent two years in detention in Australia prior to obtaining her protection visa — must be detained while their case is reviewed.

Three months after an independent reviewer was appointed, she and her sons are still at Villawood. Now she will be looking after a newborn and two older boys by herself, her husband's availability being subject to the regulations of the detention centre.

How is it that far more people in Australia are not appalled; not pushing government to dismantle the appalling mechanisms that shove vulnerable people into such situations?

Ranjini's story is another indictment of a collective failure or refusal to imagine the injustice endured by others. We allow ourselves to be distracted by endless abstractions peddled by politicians and the media because if ever we acknowledge the humanity we share with refugees, then we may be compelled to treat them accordingly.

Still, sometimes, despite our best efforts, a name surfaces, photos of a smiling woman emerge. A baby arrives. 

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator, and tweeter

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Ranjini, asylum seekers, refugees, mandatory detention, security checks



submit a comment

Existing comments

Our parish, OLHC Eltham, have recently witnessed a Sri Lankan couple [living in a house the parish supplies for people in need]suddenly taken from the house into custody , detained for a couple of days, and quickly flown back to Sri lanka, for similar reasons. Left everyone devastated as we'd come to know this family over a couple of years.

Patricia Taylor | 16 January 2013  

In our national parliament we are blessed with good solid Christian folk on both sides of the political divide who sacrifice their lives for our good and know only too well that God does not want these dangerous people living in the Australian community. I have seen Chris Bowen lay claim to his deep faith, on a Q&A show, so I know he is living out the teachings of Jesus, Halleljulah! Just imagine how terrible it would be if Bowen and Abbott and all those other deeply caring self-sacrificing politicians were not real Christians. Eeeek! Too horrible to imagine.

janice wallace | 16 January 2013  

thanks Fatima, the lack of proper review mechanisms for adverse security assessments is an ongoing problem. A transparent review system for adverse security assessments is needed to ensure the decisions are scrutinised more than currently is the case. The situation for children born in Australia relies on the 'law of the blood - ius sangue' so if a parent is a citizen or holds PR at the time the child is born in Australia, the child is automatically a citizen. This is unlike say the situation in the US where being born in the US will give citizenship rights.

Kerry Murphy | 16 January 2013  

This is the same ASIO that gave Captain Emad a clearance. They're really competent, aren't they?

ErikH | 16 January 2013  

Yes, Janice Wallace - even Hitler thought of himself as a Christian. So what's your point?

AURELIUS | 16 January 2013  

Detaining people in circumstances like that is cruel. Sending them back to Sri Lanka is just plain murderous.

Gavan Breen | 16 January 2013  

Dear Fatima, I have sympathy with much that you write but cannot let this pass without comment. I will attempt to betray the other side of your commentary , or play devil's advocate if you like, for no purpose other than to reaffirm that there are many sides of every story and it is often a naivety to accept only one side, particularly, as in this case, if the argument appeals to the caring emotional human responses. I respectfully point out: 1:The human response to survive is a very powerful force capable of over-riding all other considerations including truth and integrity. 2: The Sri Lankan government was elected by the people over the entire duration of the Tamil terrorist activities. 3: The Tamils waged a terrorist war against innocent civilians, men, women and children, bombing non-military targets over 35 years. 4:The civilian population was quite properly protected by the forces of its elected government. 5: The terrorists were defeated and many, in fear of justice, fled under the guise of persecuted refugees rather than refugees from justice. 6: Many non-militarily active Tamil people gave tacit approval to terrorism through their temporal support of the terrorists and are in consequence just as culpable as those bearing arms and bombs. 7: People desperate to save their own hides will do anything in their power to survive, such as travel dangerously to another country where they might prosper without fear. 8: Australia is perhaps the fairest and most humane of countries (or, if you prefer, the most naive) when it comes to inclusion or exclusion policy. Marrying an Australian resident and having a baby born in Australia are two very good examples of avoiding re- foulement but do not provide an excuse for acceptance particularly if there is documented evidence of terrorist associations as you have suggested in this article (married to a Tamil separatist). 9: It is irrelevant that the Tamil movement was not "registered" as a terrorist organisation. The fact is, that they killed many innocents through terrorist acts. 10: The members of ASIO are not morons simply because they protect the Australian population from people who have the potential to threaten or gain citizenship through deceptive means or because they do not conform to the thoughts of those who consider themselves humane servants of all humanity. 11: Humanity is very flawed and there is much in its doings which deserves justice rather compassion. 12: Naivety is dangerous and lends itself to emotional manipulation. 13: I would like to see a comment from Eureka Street and its refugee apologists on the 883 Sri Lankan self-identified refugees who have voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka in the 5 months Ausust -December 2012. Surely they are not voluntarily returning to persecution and fear of execution. Truth hopefully wins out in the end!!

john frawley | 16 January 2013  

Unlike John Frawley, I'd argue that it is an important point that the Tamils were never classified as a terrorist organisation in Australia. While the current Sri Lankan government is quick to call those on the other side of the conflict terrorists, it was a civil war that they were fighting - a war with atrocities on both sides. The excuse of combatting 'terrorism' has been used by the Sri Lankan Government to justify human rights abuses at the end of the civil war, and ongoing political abuses in the country (see Amnesty International: http://www.amnesty.org/en/sri-lanka ). We need a lot more transparency if we're going to be relying on assessments from the Sri Lankan Government in determining whether people from the country are legitimate refugees. Would we have allowed Saddam Hussein to determine whether Iraqi refugees in Australia were deserving of protection? The fact that we're sending people back there, and even lauding the country's efforts to prevent people fleeing, is disturbing to me.

Joseph Vine | 16 January 2013  

Thanks everyone, for your responses. It's important to have these open conversations. John, I have not characterised ASIO personnel as 'morons' at all. I accept that they are experts, but cannot reasonably hold them infallible. There are two ethics questions at hand: 1) To what extent should assessments be reviewable (and how should dissenting opinion be reconciled)? 2) To what extent should indefinite detention be accepted as policy? In defending ASIO, John, you cast aspersions on DIAC's determination on Ranjini's status, which in turn are based on your characterisations of Tamils. The fact is, as far as adverse assessments are concerned, the criteria has never been publicly available. In truth, neither of us can say that Ranjini's assessment is accurate. But I am certain that the process needs to be transparent and reviewable, and that indefinite detention is not a morally sustainable 'solution' for conflicting assessments.

Fatima Measham | 16 January 2013  

Thanks for a thoughtful and well-argued comment on a very sad situation. John Frawley, like our government, seems to have bought the Sri Lankan government's position uncritically. While the Tamil Tigers committed crimes, many Tamils were caught up in the conflict without being complicit; and the Sri Lankan forces are far from blameless. Last year a UN report showed that the Sri Lankan government killed thousands of Tamils and perpetrated atrocities; they still have not been to account. Meanwhile individuals and families, like Ranjini, seeking refuge in Australia are caught up in a virtual limbo.

Myrna | 16 January 2013  

Dear Fatima, Thank you for taking time to reply to my rant! I have only two comments. First, how transparent must a national security service be as far as the public is concerned? Would not carte blanche transparency negativate its function as a security service? It must, however, be accountable to government which is as as good as you can get in a democracy like Australia,s where governments are well controlled for any excesses at the ballot box. Second, if a refugee is found for example to be a genuine terrorist likely to be executed if returned to his place of origin, what is to be done? Clearly any civilised country would not be inclined to return another human being to certain execution. But should it place its own citizens at risk of future insurgency by granting unlimited freedom in our society? Clearly, in Australia the security services seem to think that rather than refoulement detention is preferable for purposes of national security and preferable to condemning someone to death if returned to his own country. I suspect that our services and Government do not take such decisions thoughtlessly. Sometimes we have to trust someone who, acting in our interest, might know a little more than we do. Happy days,Fatima.

john frawley | 16 January 2013  

JOhn, the real question is what sort of nation jails anyone at all without charge or trial or rights and calls itself a democracy. Mass murderers have rights, refugees have rights and the fact is under 1 F of the refugee convention Ranjini was not found to be a risk to anyone, only one public servant in collusion with the ambassador of a persecuting regime here says she is. The real question is why is it you men are so damn scared of babies for.

Marilyn | 16 January 2013  

Good morning, Marilyn, Perhaps rights can be forfeited. Perhaps persons who are not genuine refugees (like the 883 Srilankans returned voluntarily to Sri Lanka over the past 5 months) do not possess the rights that genuine refugees do. After 7 children and 16 grandchildren, I lost my fear of babies many tears ago!

john frawley | 17 January 2013  

Ranjini is a refugee and even those forcibly returned have the same rights as you John. Because one public servant decrees something without evidence or facts does not take away the human rights of anyone.

Marilyn | 17 January 2013  

A baby is God's opinion that the world should go on.

Mark | 19 January 2013  

Similar Articles

How to fix anti discrimination law

  • Moira Rayner
  • 25 January 2013

Anti-discrimination acts are meant to protect vulnerable people, not corporations or dominant ideologies. The employers I represent reap the benefits of understanding that diversity and inclusion are brilliant for business and productivity. The Government's new human rights consolidation bill has missed simple opportunities for real improvement.


Julie Bishop's pall of duty

  • Max Atkinson
  • 23 January 2013

On the question of whether Australia should support a higher UN status for Palestine, it appears Julie Bishop sees herself and fellow shadow ministers as obliged to accept Tony Abbott's opinions, regardless of the nation's interests, much less those of Israel and Palestine. This theory of duty must be rejected as profoundly irrational.