Born into detention: the plight of Ranjini and Paari


Ranjini's newborn baby spent his first night in detentionWhen Ranjini’s newborn baby spent his first night in detention with no prospect for freedom, both of Australia’s major parties were silent. Anthony Bieniak shares their story in the hope of ending the legal limbo.

There weren’t any candles left when I arrived. The first words Ranjini’s husband said to me when I introduced myself were ‘thank you’. I still hate it when he thanks me. This gentle and innocent man has had his family sent through hell by a Government that I voted for, and he still feels the need to thank me.

We had gathered in a park outside Attorney General Nicola Roxon’s office for a candlelight vigil to show our support for this family. Ranjini, pregnant at the time with her new husband’s first child, had been sent to Villawood Detention Centre due to an adverse security assessment. She had fallen into a legal black hole that left her effectively stateless and a prisoner for the rest of her natural life.

There were no charges or court hearing. Her fate was decided in secret and she is still yet to be told what it is she is suspected of that makes her too dangerous for Australia.

Her refugee status means she can not be returned to Sri Lanka. The Government justifies her continued detention in Villawood by claiming they are seeking a third country who will volunteer to give her a new life, a search that grows more unlikely by the day. Until a country is found, or the Government finds its heart, Ranjini will be a prisoner.

Ranjini shares her unit at Villawood with her newborn baby Paartheepan (Paari) and her other two sons aged six and eight, who were picked up from primary school in Melbourne’s northern suburbs one day, never to return.

The older children ask regularly when this nightmare will be over. Ranjini tries to answer but knows that the children will not understand. She still can’t believe it herself.

In my time running Letters For Ranjini, I have been often left in tears by the letters people have sent. The common themes are shame, embarrassment and hope – hope that surely this can’t go on much longer, not in Australia, not in the land of the fair go.

My fear is that it can. Only a few days ago, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who has the power to release Ranjini into community detention with any security measures he deems necessary, made the choice to send baby Paari and his mother back behind the fences of Villawood. Both major parties stayed silent on the matter while a three-day-old baby boy spent his first night in apparently ‘non-punitive’ detention.

This awful situation does not only affect Ranjini. More than 60 people currently find themselves trapped in this mire.

The hopelessness is hard, but the most heartbreaking part is the false dawns. In October, the High Court ruled their detention invalid – but jubilation turned to frustration when it was revealed that they would remain in detention for processing until the Government announced their response. Three months later, these detainees are still waiting.

Shortly after the High Court ruling, following months of campaigning, the Attorney General announced that former Federal Court judge Margaret Stone would be engaged as an independent reviewer for ASIO assessments. This should have been celebrated as a major victory for these vulnerable refugees has again become another anxious wait. In mid-December, six weeks after the review was announced, the detainees had heard nothing. The Attorney General’s office confirmed that not a single case had been reviewed. Worse still, a positive finding from these reviews comes without guarantee – ASIO can choose to ignore the review altogether.

These setbacks and empty promises have broken many. Suicide attempts are all too common for people facing indefinite detention, including the tragic story of one man who attempted suicide in the hope his mentally ill brother might receive the care he needed. It is cruel beyond our wildest imaginations, and it is happening just 27 kilometres from Sydney’s CBD.

”I have to be strong for them – I don’t like to cry because I know they get sad too,” Ranjini told Leila Druery from ChilOut when asked about her boys. Her strength in guiding her children through a life that has broken grown men is remarkable.

The letters and cards that so many have sent have been a source of that strength. Her husband still recalls the way her face lit up when she read the first batch of letters. Despite everything, the family still has hope that one day they will walk free in Australia, that this “life full of grief” can still have a happy ending.

Throughout all the shame and tragedy that this sheer denial of justice has caused, there is one thought that has always motivated me. Ranjini’s plight has touched so many people, it has caused more than 200 people to send letters, cards, love and embarrassed apologies to this mother who is trying to raise her three boys in the face of the most heartless of Government policy.

This is a democracy, and one day we will reach a critical mass. Every time someone tells Ranjini’s story, we are one vote closer to fixing this desperate legal limbo. One day soon this incredible family will take their first steps as welcome Australians. That will be all the thanks I need.

Anthony Bieniak is a web-designing refugee advocate from Melbourne who currently operates Letters For Ranjini. View his full profile here.

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