Wife, mother … security threat
By Michael Gordon –
Ranjini was found to be a genuine refugee before ASIO decided last week she is a security risk for Australia. But the government won’t tell her why, and now she’s facing a life in detention.
IT SHOULD have been cause for unbridled joy. Having fled the trauma and tragedy of life in Sri Lanka, Ranjini had been found to be a refugee, married the man who would be a father to her two boys and begun a new life in suburban Melbourne. Now she was pregnant.
Instead, confirmation of the pregnancy last Saturday only compounded her feeling of complete and utter despair. It came two days after Ranjini was told, without warning, that she had been deemed a threat to Australia’s national security and whisked away with her sons to the Villawood detention centre in Sydney.
The nightmare began with a telephone call from an Immigration Department caseworker on the Thursday morning. Ranjini’s husband, Ganesh, answered the phone and was told that a regular monthly catch-up scheduled for the next day had been brought forward to that afternoon.
It seemed odd because the meeting had been set a month earlier, and re-confirmed twice early last week. The request for the two boys, Pirai, 8, and Kathir, 6, to come along too was similarly disconcerting, but Ganesh brushed aside any feelings of unease, arranged to finish work early, picked up the boys from Mill Park Primary, and drove his wife to the meeting.
For 30 minutes the family waited in the reception area before Ganesh, 36, was asked to remain outside while Ranjini and the boys were ushered to an interview room. About 10 minutes later an official appeared and matter-of-factly informed Ganesh that his wife had received an adverse security assessment from ASIO and, with the boys, was bound for Villawood.
Ganesh, a Tamil who came to Australia in 2004, was given five minutes to say goodbye and hug his crying wife and the boys before half a dozen or more security people appeared. He can’t remember what was said. He was numb. Then they were gone. Two days later, after his wife was taken to hospital suffering nausea and headaches, the pregnancy was confirmed.
Ask Ganesh, who fell in love with Ranjini after visiting her in Brisbane over Christmas, how he, his wife and the boys are feeling now and the response betrays his incredulity. ”I can’t find the words to say,” he says.
Ask any of those who have come into contact with Ranjini since she arrived on Christmas Island in 2010 and the response is more expansive. ”I am in total shock,” says Nathalie Klapper, who struck up a friendship with Ranjini when she moved into community detention in Brisbane in April last year and spent time with her every week for a year.
”There is nothing subversive or political or nasty about Ranjini whatsoever,” Klapper says. ”She’s the most positive, upbeat, strong person despite all the horrors that she has been through. All she wants to be is someone who contributes to this society and cares for her boys.”
”I can’t speak highly enough of her,” says Jenny Sims, a minister at the Chermside-Kedron Community Church in Brisbane, where Ranjini was asked to prepare the flower arrangements after becoming a regular. ”She’s a loving, caring, gentle person who has been through a lot of trauma.”
Pam Nielsen, who met Ranjini earlier on, after she was transferred from Christmas Island to the Leonora detention centre, south-east of Derby in Western Australia, and then to Inverbrackie centre in the Adelaide Hills, agrees. ”She’s a kind, generous, little woman. Every time I met her, talked to her, all she wanted to do was please me.”
Ranjini, 33, is the 47th asylum seeker in the current caseload to receive a negative ASIO assessment and, as a consequence, be cast into a kind of limbo land with no solution in sight. Under existing laws she cannot be released into the community and it is extremely unlikely that she will be accepted by another country for resettlement. She could never contemplate a return to Sri Lanka, not least because her fear of persecution in that country has been found to be genuine.
Because she does not know what she is accused of doing, or saying, she cannot defend herself. Because there is no mechanism for an independent review of ASIO’s finding, she, like the other 46, faces indefinite detention, along with two boys who were beginning to show signs of recovering from the traumas of their past.
The lack of transparency, and the capacity for long-term and indefinite detention to do harm to those deemed security risks, was amply demonstrated during the Howard years. It was then that two Iraqis spent more than five years on Nauru before one was finally cleared for release into the Australian community (after attempting suicide and suffering acute mental illness) and the other was accepted by Sweden.
The case for a better way was argued with passion at Labor’s national conference in December, when Fremantle MP Melissa Parke moved a resolution that the National Security Legislation Monitor be asked to advise on establishing a mechanism so that adverse assessments could be reviewed in a way that protected ”intelligence sources and methodology”.
The monitor was established in 2010 to regularly review and report on the “operation, effectiveness and implications” of Australia’s counterterrorism and national security legislation. A year later, eminent Sydney lawyer Bret Walker, SC, was assigned the monitoring task, which did not extend to ASIO’s powers to issue adverse security assessments.
The case for reform was pressed again in March, when a majority of a Labor-chaired parliamentary committee recommended that the government find a way to review negative decisions and to allow appeals – and explore alternatives to indefinite detention. Coalition members of the committee disagreed.
”I’m not trying to jeopardise national security, but I do not accept the argument that there is not one person in the whole of Australia who can adequately review an assessment of ASIO when someone’s liberty is deprived,” the chairman of the committee, lawyer Daryl Melham, remarked at the time.
But two months on, there is no sign the government is responding with any sense of urgency to the national conference resolution or the committee’s recommendations. Repeated requests to interview Attorney-General Nicola Roxon on the issue have been deflected and Prime Minister Julia Gillard is yet to ask Walker to do what the conference demanded.
The lack of progress was underscored in stock answers issued this week by a spokesperson for the acting Attorney-General, Jason Clare, in response to queries from The Age. ”Introducing a new appeal mechanism for adverse security assessments, which would operate over and above current mechanisms, raises complex legal questions,” said the emailed reply.
”The government will continue to consider and methodically work its way through these complex issues before commenting further.”
In the meantime, the federal government’s duty of care to those found to be refugees, but subject to adverse ASIO findings, is being tested in a case being run by law firm Slater & Gordon; the number of acts of self-harm by those with negative assessments is increasing and apprehension is growing among those found to be refugees but awaiting their security clearances – especially Tamils who fled Sri Lanka.
The significance of Ranjini’s case is that so many Australians have come into contact with her since she arrived at Christmas Island in the second half of 2010, and find the person they have come to know completely at odds with ASIO’s finding.
Their sense of injustice just might put more pressure on the government to find a way to balance the imperative to investigate potential security threats with freedoms that have long been taken for granted – like the right to procedural fairness.
In separate letters to Roxon and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, Nathalie Klapper describes a woman who has suffered enormous loss and trauma ”yet continues to come up smiling”. Her devotion to her boys was reflected in the weekly trips on public transport from Brisbane’s Wavell Heights to the Gold Coast to take Pirai for counselling.
”Following many conversations with Ranjini, I believe that her only desire is to be welcomed as a citizen of Australia, to see her boys grow up and be happy here and to give back to Australia by working and volunteering so as to be of assistance to others,” she writes.
It was at Inverbrackie that Ranjini’s love of music and art was discovered by members of support group the Hills’ Circle of Friends. Soon enough, locals donated a violin and art materials and Ranjini became close to a member of the group, former art teacher Pam Nielsen. There was no more moving moment than the afternoon she tentatively began playing the violin in the garden, surrounded by asylum seekers, children and visitors.
”My relationship with her just grew out of support and friendship,” Nielsen tells The Age. Her sense that Ranjini would find happiness and peace was reinforced when she visited Brisbane and Ranjini, then in community detention and still awaiting a decision on her refugee status, cooked lunch and they watched the boys play footy in the backyard.
The boys’ progress was demonstrated when eight-year-old Pirai sat on the back step with Neilsen’s husband, Trevor, and told him the story in the Australian children’s picture book Wombat Stew. ”He pretty much recited the whole thing,” says Nielsen.
Ganesh’s best friend, Dave Panchalingam, says Ranjini was making progress, too: taking violin and dressmaking lessons, painting, learning English and volunteering. ”She was really, really happy about the new life, but the day after their first-month wedding anniversary they were separated.”
While friends say Ranjini’s focus was squarely on the future, she also openly touched on fragments of her own sad story, including the death of her first husband, a fighter with the Tamil Tigers, and her work caring for orphans during Sri Lanka’s civil war.
Klappers is convinced that she would have been candid during her interviews with immigration and other officials. ”Ranjini told me several times that she was always honest in all her meetings with Red Cross and Immigration as she preferred to ‘just tell the truth’,” she wrote to Roxon and Bowen. ”She has a life philosophy of kindness and goodness and honesty. I have found her to be a woman of integrity, someone I can only respect.”
Niromi de Soyza, the author of Tamil Tigress, came to Australia on a student visa by plane in 1990 before seeking asylum. She openly declared that she had fought for the Tigers and been trained in the use of firearms, and says she remains grateful for the opportunity Australia afforded to start a new life.
But de Soyza suspects that if she had come by boat in recent years she, too, would have been given an adverse ASIO assessment and insists the driving motivation of Tamils who fled to Australia is to get away from violence and trauma – not perpetuate it or seek revenge.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the deputy chairwoman of the parliamentary inquiry, says the case demonstrates the need to change the ASIO Act so that assessments can be reviewed.
“The treatment of Ranjini and her two young boys is nothing short of shameful. Ripping a young mother who has been found to be a refugee needing protection out of the community and her sons out of school to be thrown into indefinite detention with no explanation or ability to challenge their incarceration seems simply unbelievable in Australia,” she says.
But not unbelievable for Ganesh, who attempted to visit his wife at Villawood yesterday. ”I couldn’t see my wife,” he said in a text message. ”She is not well and unable to come to common area where we can meet. The kids are OK, playing with scooters and asking me to stay with them.”
Courtesy The Sydney Morning Herald 18/05/2012