A Sri Lankan refugee being held in indefinite detention in Australia takes her case to the country’s highest court this week – her last shot at overturning an Australian government policy that was condemned by a United Nations Human Right Committee report as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
Refugee Ranjini is a 34-year-old mother of three small children, and if the High Court rules against her, she will continue to be held in detention without trial for the foreseeable future, for reasons that remain a national secret.
“The core issues in Ranjini’s case are common to more than 50 other refugees deemed a security risk and has serious implications for their liberty too,” her lawyer David Manne said, who is the executive director of Australia’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, and is representing most of the refugees involved.
Ranjini is asking the High Court to release her into the community to live with her family, the two young boys she fled Sri Lanka with who are now age seven and nine, her new husband, and their eight-month-old child.
“It has caused Ranjini, her boys and her husband profound distress and harm,” said Manne. “Every day of detention is another day of damage.
Supporters of Ranjini suspect her detention has something to do with her former husband, a Tamil who was killed during the civil war in Sri Lanka, that they are unable to confirm this.
She fled Sri Lanka in 2008 with her two sons after her husband was killed in the fighting.
The United Nations has accused both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of targeting civilians in the Vanni region where the family is from, according to a March 2011 report.
She first went to India, but after struggling to care for her family, she paid a people smuggler to board a boat to Australia.
She described it as a “painful” journey – the boat ran out of fuel and was eventually intercepted by the Australian Navy, who took the desperate asylum seekers to Christmas Island for processing.
Three years later, they were finally granted refugee status. She thought her long quest for freedom and safety was over.
Ranjini met a man in December 2011 named Ganesh, a Sri Lankan living in Australian as a permanent resident. The immigration Department granted them permission to marry, and they did in April 2012.
But one month later, Immigration officials informed the family that Ranjini has failed a security test and would be detained indefinitely.
The next day she found out she was pregnant. The baby was born in January 2013 and lives with his mother in customdy because he cries when taken out. The older boys live with their mother during the week, but leave the detention facility on the weekends to be with Ganesh.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) conducted the security test that Ranjini failed.
According to the ASIO website, it says part of its work is “to assess whether people applying for entry or permanent residence visas have the potential for espionage, have links with a terrorist organization, or may in other ways be a threat to national security.”
Those refugees who fail the assessment are not told why and have no legal right to appeal. The country is obliged to offer them protection under international law, but under Australian law, they cannot be freed.
In Ranjini’s case, the High Court will be asked to assess whether it’s legal under Australian law and its constitution to detain refugees indefinitely and “whether Australian law puts a different value on liberty for non-citizens, one where liberty is more easily put in jeopardy,” said Manne.
When the court will release its findings is not known, nor the extent the ruling will have on more than 50 other refugees in the same situation.
Australia has been harshly criticized in the past for its policy of indefinite detention, and most recently last month by a special committee of 18 human rights experts assembled by the United Nations.
The committee said the Australian policy was inflicting “serious psychological harm” on the 46 detainees who brought forth their complaints. Ranjini was not one of those who took their complaints to the UN.
“The combination of the arbitrary character of (their) detention, its protracted and/or indefinite duration, the refusal to provide information and procedural rights to (them) and the difficult conditions of detention are cumulatively inflicting serious psychological harm upon them,” the Committee said.
The report said the policy represented 143 violations of international law, and urged Australia to free, compensate and rehabilitate the refugees involved. Image/Theage.com