Two Years On, Still In Villawood


Mr and Mrs Jayaraman* live in a small red brick house. It could be just about anywhere in western Sydney. Their three children play in the afternoon sun as their parents sit outside at a small table.

But there’s a subdued feeling in the home. Even their three children seem unusually quiet. Their four-year-old child Raj walks outside the house a few metres away, but his parents aren’t worried. He can’t go far, and there aren’t any roads to worry about. He and the rest of his family can’t leave the small residential compound in Villawood detention centre that is, indefinitely, their home.

Mrs Jayaraman and her children made the perilous journey by boat from Indonesia to Australia in October 2009 along with 78 others. They were picked up by the customs vessel Oceanic Viking and made headlines when then PM Kevin Rudd attempted to send them back to Indonesia.

A standoff began when the asylum seekers refused to get off the vessel, and ended with the government giving all the asylum seekers letters that "guaranteed" them resettlement.

But despite almost two years passing since the standoff and despite the guarantees of the Australian Government to resettle them within three months, the family remain in detention.

"The government promised us that we wouldn’t be in Indonesia for long. That wasn’t true. Then they said we wouldn’t be on Christmas Island for long. That wasn’t true either," Mrs Jayaraman says.

Mrs Jayaraman and her children are still in detention because she received an adverse security assessment from ASIO. This means that she and her children can’t be granted visas to stay in Australia.

But because they were also found to be genuine refugees Australia can’t send them back to Sri Lanka or involuntarily anywhere else. Due to this loophole in administrative law they remain indefinitely in detention.

"I can’t understand what this negative security assessment is. I still just don’t understand it, and it’s been almost two years," says Mrs Jayaraman.

The uncertainly of their predicament is visibly affecting them. Mrs Jayaraman has dark circles under her eyes, and her voice is shaky as she talks about her life in detention. Her husband was on a separate boat but also has an adverse assessment and so also remains indefinitely detained.

From the outset the Jayaramans were kept in the dark. Had they been able to check a television or read a newspaper they would have learnt they were being sent back to Indonesia.

Customs logs released under Freedom of Information law show that after the Oceanic Viking picked up the passengers they were told nothing about their destination for at least six days.

"We need to tell them something, they are now beginning to ask/demand where they are going. No trouble as yet, but naturally there is some frustration amongst them not knowing…they seem to trust us which is good and we haven’t made any promises, but it’s time to tell them something," wrote the Commander on the Oceanic Viking on 23 October 2009.

Three days later in another email he wrote "the PII’s are agitated and asking questions. I still haven’t received any response to their requests for information … rather they know what’s in store for them now, rather than it be a surprise when the Indon Officials come onboard and start processing them."

Mrs Jayaraman was one of only a small number of women on board. She was pregnant at the time. She says she attempted the journey because the war in Sri Lanka had destroyed her home, and she feared for her children’s safety.

Once the asylum seekers learnt of the intention to return them to Indonesia some of the men began a hunger strike and refused to get off the ship. The government negotiated with them, resulting in guarantees of resettlement if they were found to be genuine refugees. All 78 of the passengers were.

But at this point Mrs Jayaraman and her children were sent on a different path. The Immigration Department was notified on 11 December of Mrs Jayarama’s adverse assessment and on 18 December of her husband’s. Even so, later in December the family was still removed from Indonesia and taken to Christmas Island.

Mrs Jayaraman has no idea of the details of the assessment against her. It’s believed that it hangs on a perceived connection with the Tamil Tigers — she worked in the judicial system in the north as a court officer. Because she does not hold a current visa she can’t ask for a review of the evidence that ASIO holds, or even ask what any part of the evidence against her is.

She also says she was not interviewed by ASIO before the assessment. The first time the Jayaramans were ever spoken to by ASIO officers was in July this year, almost 18 months after the initial assessment was made.

Mrs Jayaraman says that while she had been informed of the assessment before leaving Indonesia, she still believed the guarantee of resettlement outlined in the letter to the asylum seekers would be honoured. She did not fully understand what an adverse security assessment would do to her prospects of resettlment.

"Still we haven’t had any reasons given to us by ASIO for why we can’t come here. I just don’t understand how we can be negatively assessed without even an interview."

Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition says the family have not been treated fairly by the government: "When they were on the Oceanic Viking they were told they would be resettled and what we saw was the government resort to a disgraceful subterfuge by issuing people that they believed had adverse security assessments with three minute visas so they could get them to Australia and then immediately detain them."

"Effectively they’re indefinitely detained because of the adverse security assessment with no recourse to the courts, with no commitments on the government to review their adverse security and with no evidence they’ve given about what the assessment is based on."

New Matilda asked Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s office what steps were being taken to resettle the refugees, and if resettlement was no longer being explored what efforts were being made to resolve their situation. The minister’s office did not respond to questions.

The Jayaramans sought a review of their assessments through the courts. They first brought an action in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal but this could not be heard because the Jayaramans didn’t hold valid visas. They then continued on to the Federal Court to challenge the ruling, but in December last year this was rejected, and the court held that the Adminstrative Appeals Tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear the case. The Jayaramans have now exhausted all legal options.

"Even a criminal can know the term of their sentence, and yet we have no idea how long we’re going to be here," says Mr Jayaraman.

The Human Rights Commission released a report into detention centres in May this year and were highly critical of the current law regarding security assessments:

"In the Commission’s view, this is contrary to basic principles of due process and natural justice. The Commission supports the recommendations made by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security that access to AAT review should be extended to refugee applicants."

More cases like the Jayamaran’s are emerging. Stephen Blanks, the secretary of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, says there are so far over 30 individuals who have been identified as refugees and who also have adverse security assessments.

Mr Blanks says the HRC recommendations should be adopted to ensure that these individuals don’t remain indefinitely detained.

Mrs Jayaraman’s children have had difficult lives. Her four year old son Raj was born into a world of bloodshed and incarceration. His first birthday was spent in northern Sri Lanka, in the middle of a vicious civil war. His second birthday was spent in the Indonesian Detention centre Tangung Pinang, the third on Christmas Island and the fourth here in Villawood. Her youngest child Suthi, who is only 10 months old, was born in detention.

"My children have seen horrible things, things they should not see," she says.

Kate Gauthier, the chair of Chilout, has been researching the impacts of detention on children and recently released a report on its impacts. She says that the children of parents who receive adverse assessments effectively face the prospect of being detained their entire childhood.

"Long term detention has really serious effects on children’s mental health and their development. Children who have been in detention show significant developmental delays in their physical, emotional and mental development," she says.

Mrs Jayaraman says that her children are already out of touch with the outside world.

"My son doesn’t understand money, or shopping, or how to speak to people in the real world. If he wants something all he knows how to do is request it from Serco. What kind of a life is that?"

The security assessment also restricted the Jayaramans’ movements, even within the detention centres they have been housed in.

"When we were on Christmas Island my children couldn’t even play outside. They could see all the other children but not play, all because of the security assessment."

As the sun begins to set Mrs Jayaraman’s voice grows hoarse. The uncertainty of her family’s situation is constantly on her mind. Eventually her voice cracks and tears slowly stream down her face. Her children, not understanding what is wrong, try to comfort her. While it may look like suburbia the place that her children think is home is still a prison.

* Names of asylum seekers in this story have been changed.

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