In 1995 the Jaffna peninsula was being pounded by mortar by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The city of Jaffna had long been been a Tamil Tigers stronghold. Peace talks had broken down after the Tigers attacked and destroyed Sri Lankan navy gunboats and fired anti-aircraft missiles at airforce planes over Jaffna.
In retaliation the newly elected president Chandrika Kumaratunga ordered an army offensive to retake the city. The battle of Jaffna raged throughout the year, bombing highly populated areas, displacing citizens, claiming the lives of hundreds of civilians and sending thousands to the overcrowded hospital with serious injuries.
For Tamil civilians, Jaffna was a dangerous place to be. “There was this heightened fear,” says lawyer Kevin Kadirgamar. He was six years old when his family fled. “I remember when things got really dangerous, I remember some hours of tension. We had to move from Jaffna down to Colombo, that was a bit of a process and quite an escapade.”
The experience would give him a fundamental empathy for refugees of war. The Tamil family and their two young sons found shelter in Colombo. “But it was apparent that there was no real certainty, no real future for us in Sri Lanka.” His school teacher parents found jobs in the Maldives. “My parents had already made the decision that the long term future for their children was in Australia.” It took six years to get here, as the family went through the skilled migration pathway. It was a new start, a new identity. “I do feel like one of the lucky ones. In comparison to what some of my clients have had to go through, it doesn’t compare at all. To the extent of having to jump on a leaky boat to take an arduous journey to Australia.”
The young Kadirgamar embraced his new country wholeheartedly, particularly its fairness and egalitarian rule of law. “We were really fortunate to come to a place like Darwin because regardless of cultural background which was celebrated, there was a real and strong sense of unity, as Northern Territorians and as Australians.”
After high school, he remained in Darwin and attended Charles Darwin University. “By the time I had finished year 12, I had moved around through 10 different schools. Finally I felt in a place where I was rooted and had my network, my community around me. I felt like I really belonged.” He went on to help to establish Multicultural Youth NT, a youth-led initiative for positive change in the community.
In his third year of law school, he started a clerkship with Ward Keller, Darwin’s oldest law firm. Just as he was about to graduate, the firm opened an immigration practice. This was at a time when detention centres started opening up in Darwin and asylum seekers were detained there. “We began to hear stories about the desperation in which they had left their countries and also the very bleak and very uncertain future they were facing. You are looking at people who have come from very difficult circumstances, who are not conversant in English most of the time. There weren’t many avenues to them to get legal representation to pursue applications which involve complex sets of criteria to be met.”
They also didn’t have any money for lawyers, so Kadirgamar stepped in. “I was privileged to take on some of those cases on a pro bono basis.” The laws were toughening and intractable, the work is, in his words, “politically charged”. He adds: “And the more concerning [cases] related to young people and children who are just left with no legal avenue at all and face life in absolute limbo.”
Mojgan Shamsalipoor, now 29, was in a Darwin detention centre when she met Kadirgamar. “I couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer, I had no hope. He just came into my life like a miracle and started working for me. When I didn’t have a voice and he became my voice and fought for me.”
Shamsalipoor fled Iran as a teenager after suffering sexual abuse at the hands of relatives. Her sexual abuse, says Kadirgamar “was from people who had links to the Iranian government which made it far worse”.
She was released into the community on a bridging visa while her application for refugee status was being considered. She was enrolled in a school in Brisbane and received treatment for post traumatic shock, before marrying an Australian permanent resident of Iranian descent. “She was among caring compassionate Australians and began to flourish”, says Kadirgamar.
Yet her application for a protection visa was rejected, after she didn’t feel able to fully disclose her sexual abuse to the authorities. Without notice, she was dragged into a vehicle and flown to Wickham detention centre in Darwin. She was faced with returning to Iran or indefinite detention. “I could see the impact that was having on her mentally,” Kadirgamar says. “I see that in a lot of my clients. It is not the physical confines of the detention centre, or the conditions that cause the greatest harm. It is the mental anguish of not being able to see past the next day that has a draining impact.”
While the immigration minister chose not to use his discretionary powers to intervene, numerous Australians have supported Shamsalipoor. She is now back in the community on a bridging visa. “What I have found is that government policy stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of many thousands of normal Australians who believe in fairness and compassion. That is what defines Australia,” says Kadirgamar.
“He made us feel there is hope. Not false hope, but he approaches things in such a pragmatic way. He is just the most authentic person, he lives his beliefs and he lives his values,” says Jessica Walker, one of the teachers at Yeronga State High in Queensland who have advocated for Shamsalipoor.
When he was a finalist for 2018 Young Australian of Year, Kadirgamar told reporters the treatment of asylum seekers is “a stain on the soul of our nation”.
Now he says: “I was talking about people in offshore detention, Manus and Nauru. I have clients as young as five detained in those places. It leaves a lot to be desired in terms of fairness and compassion. There is a duty of citizenship for all of us to stand up and say no, that is not the country that we are, we do not accept that, and to jealously guard Australian values. We all have the opportunity to help them find a much brighter future.”