Big country, small heart: The story of Paartheepan Ranjini

Two little boys are tugging at the same toy; a mother rises to separate them.  A little girl runs to her mother for comfort after a game with her play-mate becomes a little rough for her. “He’s a naughty boy,” the little girl yells.

The watching adults who are sipping tea and chatting in a group nearby in the same room, break into instant laughter when they spy the five-year-old boy peeking out from behind a big plastic ladder in the indoor playground, his gorgeous dark eyes filled with apprehension.

Amidst the cold, stark reality of life locked away in a detention centre, the sounds of little children at play is both shocking and soothing. For those adults forced to live every hour of every day with the physical and psychological trauma of indefinite incarceration, it is welcome, if fleeting, relief from the unrelenting sorrow of their pitiful existence.

Yet, at the same time, it is also a chilling reminder that the most innocent, the most loved and the most vulnerable people in society – children-- are being punished, and irreparably damaged, for the sins of their birth. The Australian Government says many of these children do not have to be in detention, but where else can young children be but with their mothers, especially those whose mothers are widows ?

Destructive psychological impacts

Dr Susie Burke, the senior psychologist at the Australian Psychological Society has documented the effects of detention on children since 2004. “Holding children and young people in detention is particularly harmful. It accentuates developmental risks, threatens the bonds with parents and carers, limits educational opportunities, has destructive psychological impacts and worsens the effects of existing trauma,” she said.

Today, there is yet another addition to the list of 800 children (as of October, 2012) kept in detention under Australian immigration control. Paartheepan  Ranjini and Ganesh's  son born on Tuesday evening, is  the seventh Tamil child under nine years old incarcerated in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre.

Ranjini’s first husband , a driver for the Tamil Tigers, was killed in the civil war which ended in 2009. She fled Sri Lanka by boat in fear of her life and the lives of her two sons, now aged nine and seven.  She is a small, softly-spoken, gentle woman who cannot understand why the boot of Government remains on her throat a year after she was granted refugee status and was adapting to life in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs.

ASIO's assessment

Living happily and productively in the community in Mill Park in Melbourne last year with her new husband and the two boys, they were all overjoyed to discover she was pregnant. Their lives, though, suddenly turned to darkness and despair in the space of one phone call from Immigration authorities last May, asking her to report to a meeting.

ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) had given her a negative assessment, meaning she would now be held in detention indefinitely without explanation or hope.

In a few hours she was packed off to Sydney’s Villawood detention centre with her two boys. Her devastated new husband suddenly had to quit his new job and move to Sydney, where he knows no-one, and find a place near Villawood.

The most joyous moment in the lives of a new, loving couple – the birth of their first child -- soon turned to sadness and distress when Ganesh this week had to leave his wife, two step-sons and new baby in the detention centre, and head home to his nearby lodgings all on his own, to dwell upon the inhumanity of it all.

Children behind bars

Ranjini and Ganesh, though, are imbued with a quiet strength and resolve that inhumane Government policy cannot break. They are hell-bent on survival, as are the three other Tamil women being held in Villawood under indefinite detention because of negative ASIO assessments.

They have been locked away for more than three years. Two are widows with four children between them and the other is unmarried without children.

Together, with Ranjini, they are all pulling together to try to ensure as normal life as possible for seven little kids – at least three of whom were born in detention -- whose only crime is to have Tamil mothers who were trying to flee from war, torture and rape after their husbands were killed.

One of the women said that some of the children were starting to have periods of depression. They are taken to a nearby school by security guards. The kids in their class were starting to tease and bully them about living in a detention centre. They cry a lot when they get home from school and ask their mother when they are going to get out of jail.

This is the start of the irreparable psychological damage that Dr Burke and other psychologists talk so much about, only to find Government authorities dismissive and uncaring.

Unending horror

One woman said she slept by the roadside for six months with her little boy, now four, as she fled from the war in the north of Sri Lanka. She explained how one night when her son, then six months old, was sleeping under a tree she heard a shell whistling through the air. She grabbed her baby in her arms and within seconds the shell hit the spot where he had been sleeping. She knows he is lucky to be alive but despairs for his future.

She was also in 20 different refugee camps, being on the run for so long. She said she thought the horrors of her life might end when she got to Australia. She said it was no better, being locked away indefinitely without any  explanation or hope of release.

After she told her story, she looked up with tears in her eyes and asked softly: Can you help me?

I didn't know what to say. But I knew what to feel. And that is shame. Shame that I live in a big country with such a small heart.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.