No charge. No trial. No appeal.


Security rulings demand scrutiny as lives are in limbo.

A WOMAN flees war-torn Sri Lanka where she witnessed horrors and lost loved ones. She is found to be a genuine refugee and eventually seeks asylum in Australia. She lives in the community for over a year with her two young sons, who attend school. Local acquaintances describe her as a caring woman and devoted mother, trying her best in a new country.


But then, newly pregnant and recently remarried, the woman is given a negative security assessment by ASIO and returned to detention, at Villawood, with her children. As is the case with assessments of this kind, the basis on which the nation's intelligence agency came to its decision remains secret. Her acquaintances say ASIO has not approached them for information. The woman is left in the dark, unable to defend herself or seek a review of the decision. All she can do is appeal to the immigration minister to intervene. In the meantime, her life is left in limbo. As a refugee, international law prohibits her forced repatriation to her country of origin. But having been judged a security risk, she may be held in detention indefinitely and with little prospect of deportation to a third country.


This is the disturbing predicament of detainee Ranjini, as Age journalist Michael Gordon reports today. While the individual case comes as a revelation, the serious human-rights implications of a system that is beyond scrutiny on the grounds of national security have been evident for some time. Ranjini is simply the latest asylum seeker - the 47th in ASIO's current caseload - to be caught in the web of secrecy.

It hardly needs to be said that ASIO bears a grave responsibility in screening prospective Australians from volatile parts of the world to ensure their presence poses no threat to the community or to the nation's broader security or strategic interests. Indeed, ASIO's grounds for giving Ranjini a negative security assessment may be entirely sound, but we simply have no way of knowing.


To voice concern about a system that demands every decision be taken on faith and be immune from independent scrutiny is not to call ASIO's professionalism into question. It simply seeks to affirm the principle of natural justice, which at the very least accords individuals the right to know the case against them. This principle ought to be sacrosanct when fundamental freedoms, including those of children, are at stake.


At present, however, the public cannot even know the general criteria that trigger an ASIO investigation. As ASIO director-general David Irvine recently explained to a Labor-chaired parliamentary inquiry into Australia's immigration detention network: ''Once the criteria for making assessments are known, then you will find very quickly that all the applicants will have methods of evading or avoiding demonstrating those characteristics.''


The committee recommended in March that the ASIO Act be amended to allow for administrative review of security assessments of refugees and asylum seekers in a manner that does not compromise national security.


It also questioned whether indefinite detention need always be the consequence of a negative assessment. The process for review would need to balance human rights against national security, but the task is hardly beyond the capacity of Australia's experts.


Of course, when it comes to asylum seeker policy, politics too often trumps principle. Despite the committee's recommendations and a similar call for reform at Labor's national conference last year, acting Attorney-General Jason Clare would only commit the government to ''methodically work its way through these complex issues before commenting further''.


Ranjini may be waiting a long time before the government speaks.

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