Young Sri Lankan widow Ranjini and her two little boys aged six and nine, are trapped. In every sense of the word.
She’s a refugee, granted asylum in Australia in September last year.
Ranjini’s first husband was killed in Sri Lanka in 2006. She and her children arrived in Australia on Christmas Island in 2010 and spent the next two years in detention facilities across Australia.
The two little boys have effectively grown up in detention. In Australia.
But after finally being released into the community in September last year, life for Ranjini and her boys was starting to look hopeful for the first time.
Ranjini re-married in a colourful ceremony last month. And this year she sent her kids to Mill Park Primary School in Victoria. Everything was finally coming together.
She wasn’t expecting what came next. Immigration officials asked her and her sons for a chat where they were told Ranjini had been given an ‘adverse’ security assessment by the nation’s intelligence arm the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
These checks rely on factors as vague as ‘threats to integrity of borders‘ to evidence of terrorist involvement. However, most ASIO security checks appear to come back ‘adverse’ due to a connection, however loose, to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a militant group fighting for an independent nation for Tamil people.
Ranjini may have had family involved in the Tamil group. Or, she may not have. The point is, we’ll never know.
Five minutes after being told of her adverse check, Ranjini and her children were taken away. Ranjini’s husband Ganesh tells the story:
“In the meeting, they said that Ranjini has got an adverse security assessment. I was allowed only five minutes to chat with them and they were taken away,” he said.
“We were happy and the kids were even happier … we wanted to start new life with hope. But now we are shocked…We are separated. There has been too much pain before. Are we going to be put through the same pain in Australia as well?”
The short answer: most likely.
You see, Ranjini and her sons now exist in a state of absolute limbo. She cannot be sent ‘home’ to Sri Lanka because she has been granted refugee status. But she cannot stay in the Australian community either. Nor is it likely any other country will take her, given she has a negative security assessment.
Here’s the kicker: there is nothing she can do about any of it. Ranjini and others like her cannot appeal their assessments. ASIO doesn’t tell them or anyone else what it was exactly that led them to find against her. It’s a mystery to Ranjini and it would be a mystery to a court as well, if she were allowed to take it that far.
And ASIO has been wrong before. In 2004, for example, ASIO was forced to pay around $200 000 compensation to a refugee who had been locked up for two years, having been falsely classified as a national security risk.
Villawood Detention Centre has become her new ‘home’ … and it may be for the rest of her and her children’s lives.
Ganesh, who has to remain in Melbourne for an income, cannot easily visit his wife in the Sydney detention centre.
Human rights advocate and barrister Julian Burnside has worked on these exact cases and said the system that created them was ‘insane’.
“To lock someone up for what may be the rest of their life is unconscionable to the extent that you simply cannot square it with the tone of Australian democracy,” he said.
“In another case for the non-citizen I challenged the ASIO negative security check on judicial review in Federal Court. The people involved swore they had never done anything wrong or anything that might have flagged the attention of ASIO.
“But ASIOs argument to the court was that the judge cannot know why they made their security assessment, because that cannot be released, and therefore the judge cannot find the security assessment to be wrong and the judge had to agree.
“It is horrifying. I’ve had to tell these people what has happened but I can’t tell them it makes sense because it doesn’t make sense to me. The refugees I explain this to are obviously very distressed at the prospect.
“For asylum seekers who come by boat there is the added sting of an added element to these security checks and that is ‘may have had involvement in or connection to people smuggling’. Now, this could be your father but that’s still enough to give you a negative security cross.
“Now, I understand the importance of national security and I know we do not want terrorists in this country. I understand all that, but at some point we have to recognise that something in this system has gone grossly wrong.
“At the very least changes need to be made so that anyone who has a negative security check has the right to be represented by responsible counsel and the right to know the basis of that security check as long as counsel never shows it to anyone else.
“The whole country needs to understand what is going on here and they need to ask themselves: is this the country that we want to be?”
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s official position is that ‘third country options’ will be sought for these refugees living in limbo. But as Julian Burnside asked: ‘who would take them’?
There are currently 47, including Ranjini, in detention awaiting a trial that will never come.
As GetUp noted, one of them attempted suicide last week. The activist organisation has started a campaign to change the ‘no trial, no appeal’ status of refugees found to have negative security checks.
Deputy Director Sam Mclean said it was time the Government acted on its own recommendations.
“We have been keeping an eye on this issue since a parliamentary inquiry forwarded recommendations for ASIO decisions of this type to be appeal-able and reviewable. This is a classic example of exactly why that needs to happen,” he said.
GetUp’s campaign calling on Attorney-General Nicola Roxon for action was so popular last night the site began to crash.
This story was originally reported by Steve Cannane, for ABC’s Lateline.