As Australia’s politicians argue over how to respond to people seeking asylum here, journalist PAUL DOBBYN writes of the crisis of a Sri Lankan family stuck in the middle
BABY “Ranjan”, the second child of a Sri Lankan asylum-seeker couple, had 17 days as a technically free Australian citizen before the authorities caught up with him recently.
Then, in the lounge room of his inner city Brisbane suburban home, he was processed by a trio of Federal Government Immigration Department staffers.
The paperwork they brought along with them, filled in by Ranjan’s father, made the child born just over a fortnight earlier in a Brisbane hospital an asylum seeker placed in community detention.
To be present at such a tragic, some would argue necessary, procedure was disturbing.
Yet Dominican Father Pan Jordan lives with such events most days of his life in his chosen ministry to asylum seekers, his own Tamil people in particular.
He is also busy in various parishes and as chaplain to three Brisbane schools – Brigidine, Carmel and Lourdes Hill colleges.
“The schools are very good to me and supportive when I need to head off to an emergency with asylum seekers,” he said.
On the day Fr Pan met with Ranjan and his family, he was accompanied by “Arul”, a Tamil asylum seeker.
Fr Pan had been supporting Arul since his placement into community detention in an Annerley house last October.
“He is on medication for depression … also he can’t sleep,” Fr Pan said. “I have taken him to a special pharmacy organised by the Red Cross so he can get free medication there.”
As Arul’s situation was outlined, a major part of the cause of his depression became clear.
He had entered a nightmarish, Kafkaesque world in his battle with the Federal Government to become recognised as a genuine refugee since his arrival by boat on Christmas Island in February 2010.
In his homeland in Sri Lanka’s northern province of Jafna as a Tamil, Arul had a history of being arrested by the army.
He was also required to sign in every week in a camp run by the army.
Others in his situation had eventually disappeared, presumed imprisoned or worse.
Finally, his family found the 500,000 Sri Lankan rupees (about AUD$3700) to pay people smugglers to get him out.
In Australia, however, Arul’s world was to become a series of legal battles where victories meant nothing.
“We filed a case in the Federal Magistrates Court for judicial review of his claim for refugee status and he won the case after two days on October 26 and 27,” Fr Pan said.
“Then government lawyers challenged him in the High Court and again he won in the High Court.”
This would seem to have been the end of the matter with an outright win for Arul. Not so, as Fr Pan explained.
“He then had to go before the IMR – the Independent Merits Review,” he said.
“They rejected his claim and now we’re back to the start again with me helping him to file his appeal in the Federal Magistrates Court.”
What must all this so-called solution cost, even for one person?
“The Government pays (Arul) $350 a week living expenses, there’s medication, visits to the doctor, endless legal battles which tie up the courts,” Fr Pan said. “So when you consider all the asylum seekers, this must cost millions and millions.”
With this in mind I recalled observations from commentators on the Federal Government’s latest plans to control arrival of asylum seekers by excising Australia from its own migration zone.
One commentator had noted that between early August and late November 5801 people have arrived by boat.
“That is actually up on previous months, suggesting that push rather than pull factors really drive asylum seeker numbers,” the commentator said.
“And it has come about despite the introduction of offshore processing on Nauru, and the announcement of Manus Island (as an offshore processing point).”
I would shortly learn more about these push factors at the inner city house where baby Rajan lived.
Fr Pan’s visit to Ranjan’s family reveals the devolution of the baby’s status as a human being from Australian citizen to an asylum seeker in community detention.
Once the immigration authorities had left the family’s home, Fr Pan explained what had transpired and gave me some background on the household.
There were Ranjan’s parents, their three-year-old daughter and the father’s brother and sister.
As with Arul, all had arrived at Christmas Island, been transferred to the Darwin detention centre and eventually been relocated in community detention in Brisbane.
Fr Pan’s details had been given to them on arrival and they’d become added to his list of asylum seekers needing support as they battled for recognition as genuine refugees.
The family had been in the house, privately owned but rented by the Immigration Department, for the past 18 months.
They’d also been on the legal roundabout and had also been rejected by the IMR.
“Now they have three options,” Fr Pan said. “Immigration will organise their return back to their own country.
“Or they can write a letter to the Immigration Minister asking for compassion.
Or they can ask for a start to the judicial review process.
“It’s the final option they’ve chosen.”
How about option 1, returning to their own country?
“As Tamils returning to their homeland in the north is not an option – they won’t survive,” Fr Pan said.
“Their housing was destroyed at the end of the civil war in May 2009 or taken over by army.
There’s no work for them either – most is being done by Singhalese people from the south.
“Also the Sri Lankan Government is very angry to know these people asked for asylum because they have tarnished the good name of their country.
“In a lot of cases we hear reports of people taken as soon as they arrive back in Sri Lanka by the secret intelligence agency the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) for interrogation.
“We hear stories of torture and disappearances.”
Fr Pan knows of this brutality from first-hand experience.
His ministry to Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Brisbane followed his exposure to the lead-up and aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka’s north.
As many as 40,000 Tamils, mainly civilians, were believed to have been killed in the final days of the battle and up to 300,000 placed into internment camps.
Ranjan’s parents and Arul too were in Jafna in those final bloody days.
“They saw terrible things … for kilometres they walked past dead, mutilated men, women and children,” Fr Pan said.
“I came back in last days of the war after visiting camps and hospitals with wounded people without arms and legs.
“There were about 45,000 pregnant women in these camps. I became emotionally disturbed by what I had seen.”
It’s these experiences which power his commitment.
You can’t help feeling though that he’s tilting at windmills given the Government’s mindset against granting refugee status to asylum seekers.
He reveals he became angry with the Immigration Department officials and told them he was now going to file a case in court on Ranjan’s behalf.
“We have to emphasise the hell these people are going through,” he said.
“These people aren’t allowed to work.
“They are leading a lonely life of total mental agony and despair, waiting with great anxiety to see what happens.
“With these feelings comes the constant threat of self-harm.
“I must help them.”