Big country, small heart: the shame of forcing innocent children to grow up behind bars
'They cried a lot when they got home from school.' Photo: Shannon Morris
TWO little boys are tugging at the same toy and a mother rises to separate them. A little girl runs to her mother for comfort after a game with her playmate becomes a little rough for her. "He's a naughty boy," the girl yells.
Adults who are sipping tea and chatting in a group nearby in the same room break into laughter when they spy the five-year-old boy peeking from behind a big plastic ladder in the indoor playground, his dark eyes filled with apprehension.
Amid the cold reality of life locked away in a detention centre, the sound of children at play is shocking but soothing. For those adults forced to live every day with the physical and psychological trauma of indefinite incarceration, it is a welcome, if fleeting, relief from a 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?
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.
Now there is yet another addition to the list of 800 children (as of October 2012) kept in detention under Australian immigration control. Ranjini and Ganesh Elansingam's son Paartheepan, 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 softly spoken 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-east.
Living happily in Mill Park last year, she and her new husband and the two boys were overjoyed to discover she was pregnant. But last May their lives turned to despair in the space of one phone call from immigration authorities, asking her to report to a meeting. ASIO had suddenly given her a negative assessment and she would be held in detention indefinitely.
In a few hours she was packed off to Sydney's Villawood centre with her two boys. Her devastated husband had to quit his new job and move to Sydney.
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 family and head home to his nearby lodgings.
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 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.
One of the women says some of the children are having periods of depression. They are taken to a nearby school by security guards. The kids in their class last year were starting to tease and bully them about living in a detention centre. They cried a lot when they got home from school and kept asking their mothers when they were going to get out of jail.
One woman said she slept by the roadside for six months with her little boy, now four, as she fled the war in Sri Lanka's north. She told of the time when her son, then six months old, was sleeping under a tree and 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 thought the horrors of her life might end when she got to Australia. But it was no better, locked away indefinitely without explanation.
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.
Trevor Grant is a former chief cricket writer at The Age, and now works with the Boycott Sri Lanka Cricket Campaign and the Refugee Action Collective.