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The quality of mercy

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 18 November 2011

There is a Tamil man from the north of Sri Lanka, sitting in an Immigration Detention Facility in Victoria. He has been assessed as a refugee but is not allowed to be released. He is married. His wife is living with an Australian family.

The husband and wife are not allowed to spend time together. ASIO will not give him a security clearance. He will be in detention forever. It is sending the man and his wife mad. They are suicidal.

This situation, created by Australian politicians and government officials, is worse than a Kafka novel; it is worse than what happened under Apartheid.


Denisan Santhiyoku and his wife Antonet Innasimuthu met in the process of fleeing Sinhalese violence at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Antonet was granted refugee status and released from detention Denison was not.

Denisan has spoken to Australians concerned about the welfare and mental health of the couple. A record of conversation was compiled from a number of conversations.

"Denisan came from a fishing family, was educated and did a degree in fisheries at university. After that he worked for the Sri Lankan Government in the Fisheries Department. In 2000 there was pressure on him to join the EPDP."

Here it should be explained that the EPDP (Elam People's Democratic Party) was a pro-government Tamil organisation funded by the Sri Lankan Government to undermine the activities of the LTTE. Those who belonged to it and worked for it were regarded as turncoats by Tamils in the north. Denisan refused to join the organisation. His father was adamant that his son should not get involved in politics. Denisan left his job and he and his father went prawning.

"The prawns were running in an area controlled by the LTTE; as for all business people regardless of their politics or wishes, they had to pay tax to both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government." In 2003 Denisan ceased fishing and returned home. There was further pressure on him to join the EPDP. He fled the country to Malaysia where he worked as a volunteer for the Catholic Church for six years. "By then, young men were being kidnapped and murdered in Sri Lanka. The war was at its worst and it was too unsafe to return to home so he came to Christmas Island from Malaysia by boat. Antonet was on that boat. They were separated at Christmas Island but made a commitment to each other and married in Maribyrong Detention Centre as soon as they were advised it was permitted. (24/6/11)

They have been refused any time together since arriving here on 12/7/2009. Denisan is now in his 9th year of being a refugee."


Serco have assessed them as being dignified, intelligent and hard working but advised that they can never spend any time together. Denisan has been assessed as being a non- violent person. He avoided getting involved in confrontations on Christmas Island, even though provoked.

There are several possible explanations for Denisan's continued incarceration and they can all be sheeted home to the Sri Lankan Government and ASIO. One is that he is the victim of mistaken identity, another that the Sri Lankan Government has fingered him as being a member of the LTTE because he refused to join their puppet organisation the EPDP.

ASIO have no independent means of ascertaining the background of Tamil asylum seekers. They must of necessity rely on the Sri Lankan Government for advice and clearances. But worse either through a mindset that has evolved over the past ten years or because of continued vigorous lobbying by the Sri Lankan High Commission on behalf of their government or both, ASIO has deprived itself of the means and will to overturn unfair, ill-advised and biased decisions relating to refugees in the predicament of Denisan. And of course there is no review of ASIO decision making, so mistakes and incorrect decisions can hide behind the veil of secrecy; as I said just like Apartheid – a Kafkaesque nightmare, with no-one in ASIO or government having the courage to deploy commonsense or courage.

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Bruce Haigh worked in Sri Lanka and on the Refugee Review Tribunal.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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