Still in detention after 10 years, Tamil refugee must now fight cancer

April 25, 2019
Protestors outside the Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne, February 2018.

Sivaguru Navanitharasa is a Tamil refugee who fled Sri Lanka in 2008. After staying for a year in Malaysia with no legal status, he set out for Australia, where he has been detained for nearly 10 years, first on Christmas Island and then in Villawood detention centre.

Navanitharasa is now in MITA immigration detention centre in Broadmeadows, Melbourne, where he faces a new challenge: overcoming cancer.

Navanitharasa has been recognised as a refugee, but remains in detention because ASIO classified him as a security risk. This was due to his previous membership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that, in response to anti-Tamil discrimination and repression, fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Since the LTTE has never committed violent acts in Australia, there was never any justification for considering former members a threat to Australia's security.

Yet Navanitharasa, along with nearly 50 other Tamils (and a few refugees from other countries), continued to be detained on “security” grounds, despite being recognised as refugees.

Though most of the other refugees have since been released, Navanitharasa remains in detention, even though his adverse security assessment was rescinded in 2016.

Two other Tamils are in the same situation.

After ASIO's change of mind, Navanitharasa submitted a new protection visa application, which was rejected.

He took his case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, but is still waiting nine months later.

After facing traumatic experiences in Sri Lanka and nearly ten years in Australian detention, it is not surprising that he is suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Now he faces a new problem. Last year he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), after being taken to the Northern Hospital as an outpatient.

Dr Nilanthi Kanapathipillai, an Australian medical practitioner of Tamil family background, visited Navanitharasa in MITA in April. With Navanitharasa’s consent, she obtained his medical records from the Northern Hospital.

Navanitharasa had been taken to the hospital four times. On two of the four visits there was no Tamil translator, even though Navanitharasa speaks virtually no English.

He was diagnosed with CLL Stage 0 in May 2018.

Kanapathipillai concluded that the disease had advanced to Stage 1 when she saw him in April. She reported that he was at high risk of immune suppression.

She recommended that he be admitted to hospital as an inpatient so that his medical problems can be investigated and treated.

She also recommended a formal assessment by a psychiatrist in the presence of a Tamil-speaking interpreter.

She said that, in her view, Navanitharasa will require years of intensive, regular dedicated trauma and depression counselling.

She recommended “on both medical and humanitarian grounds” that he be released into the community where he could mix with other Tamils.

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