Tamil refugee Ranjini and her two sons made headlines last May when they were taken without warning to Sydney's Villawood detention centre and locked up after Ranjini was labelled an ASIO “security risk”.
The very next day, 33-year-old Ranjini learned she was pregnant.
She gave birth to Paartheepan (Paari) on January 15. The newborn boy has the right to live outside detention with his father, Ganesh, who married Ranjini a year before she was detained and lives nearby in Sydney.
The immigration department gave the now-family-of-five an impossible choice: keep Paari with his mother in detention, or only be together during Villawood's designated visiting hours.
Ranjini signed the paper work, and Paari spent his first night in detention only a few days after being born.
Anthony Bieniak, who runs “Letters for Ranjini”, said on ABC's The Drum: “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.”
Ganesh still has to abide by regular visiting hours and cannot stay overnight, the Sydney Morning Herald said on January 16.
Paari is not the first baby to be born in detention. A young Tamil couple with a negative ASIO check were also being held in Villawood when they had a baby son in 2010.
This is a legal black hole created by Australia's secret intelligence service passing judgement on refugees. Ranjini, and 60 others in the same situation, cannot be deported because they have been found to be genuine refugees.
But they cannot be released, and despite a landmark High Court decision last year that ruled refugees should have a right to learn the reasons for these decisions and have a right to appeal, the federal government is working hard to deny them this.
In Ranjini's case, the negative assessment was not even about her, but allegedly because her former husband — and the father of her two older sons — had links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
One of the costs of such a bureaucratic, secretive and unaccountable process is children being locked up in harmful detention with their parents.
The devastating effects of detention on children is well known and increasingly reported by the media. This pressured the government in 2010 to move hundreds of children out of detention. But hundreds still remained, and the number has steadily climbed again to almost 800 as of last October.
The government denies that children are held in “detention centres”, preferring the term “alternative places of detention”. But this spin does not hide the fact that the harm is the same. Ranjini tells visitors that her boys have become increasingly depressed since being detained, and other parents say they fear long-term trauma.
Keeping children in detention is one of the more unpopular and heavily criticised aspects of the Prime Minister Julia Gillard's overall racist and punitive refugee policy. But it is connected to the plight of all refugees trying to win rights and protection in Australia.
All refugees are an important scapegoat for the government. Adult asylum seekers are blamed for wasting “taxpayer money” and taking jobs, housing and healthcare away from Australians.
The media and government wave the refugee red flag to distract the public, while slicing public spending, in an attempt to mask the source of the financial and social pain felt increasingly by people in Australia.
In the post-“war on terror” world, couching this in terms of “security” and giving ASIO powers over people with a right to protection, further bolsters the fear-induced image of threatening outsiders.
This feeds the hatred that is stoked by the media and by calculated comments from politicians. Refugee becomes "illegal", asylum seeker becomes "boat person" and their right to protection becomes indefinite detention.
Mandatory detention is the punishment brought on refugees for supposedly contributing to society's problems. Continuously trying to deny and strip refugees of their rights — to appeal, control their cases and even make a plea for asylum — is necessary to control this illusion.
The fact that refugees, the most vulnerable and defenceless group in society, have been chosen as this red flag is also no accident. The government, politicians, media and racist commentators can make wild and fabricated claims about them because they have so little opportunity to speak out.
It is about systematically dehumanising people in need, so that they can play this role of distraction for those in power.
The government won't exempt children from this punitive system, because sympathy for refugee children undermines these mechanics, challenges the dehumanisation and pushes more people to question why mandatory detention exists at all.