The Guardian • Issue #1966


Biloela family is test case for broader refugee rights’ movement

On Saturday 12th June, Priya Murugappan issued a heartfelt plea for justice on behalf of herself and her family. Her daughter, Tharnicaa, turned four while fighting pneumonia and sepsis in a Perth hospital where she had been evacuated from Christmas Island, more than 1500 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. The family has been detained on the island for the past three years. When they entered detention Tharnicaa was just nine months old. Priya’s husband, Nades, and oldest daughter, Kopika, six, remained in immigration detention while Tharnicaa was being treated on the mainland, but were flown to Perth on 15 June, however still in detention.

Nades and Priya arrived in Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013 respectively, seeking asylum from persecution following the end of a brutal 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka. They were both considered “irregular maritime arrivals” under the Migration Act – boat people. Eventually, they were both granted Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and settled in the small Queensland town of Biloela where they got married and had their first child, Kopika in 2015. Tharnicaa was born in June 2017. Both of the girls are Australian-born.

Barely one day after Priya’s bridging visa expired in June 2018, the family were arrested in their home by immigration officials and imprisoned in the Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne. They were moved to Christmas Island in 2019 after activists and supporters prevented a deportation attempt. Despite the Federal Court ruling that the pair could be lawfully deported, an injunction against deportation proceedings is currently in place while the courts determine whether four year old Tharnicaa is eligible for refugee status.

The community in Biloela rallied around the family to call for them to be released back into the community. Supporters across the country soon joined them. Now, as Tharnicaa lies sick in hospital, the calls for justice have been renewed with increased urgency. The government has so far continued its cruel hardline border “protection” stance.

However, at time of writing, the federal government is under pressure to decide the fate of the Murugappans within the next few days. There is division within the government with some coalition MPs calling on the government to allow the family back into the community. This growing minority includes Nationals MP Ken O’Dowd – whose electorate of Flynn includes Biloela, the family’s hometown – as well as Liberal MPs Katie Allen and Trent Zimmerman. Senator Stirling Griff, and Independents Rex Patrick and Andrew Wilkie have also called for the family to be brought back to Australia.

There is some debate over whether the decision should ultimately be left to the courts. In May 2019, the High Court denied special leave to appeal a Federal Court decision which held that the parents, Nades and Priya, should be deported to Sri Lanka. The High Court stated that the best option for Nades and Priya was to return to Sri Lanka and apply to be resettled in Australia. This essentially exhausted two adults’ legal avenues.

In February, the Federal Court found that Tharnicaa had been denied procedural fairness. The decision to deport her has been sent back to the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, Alex Hawke. It is open to Mr Hawke to grant the family any visa he wishes under section 195A(2) of the Migration Act if he believes it is in the public interest to do so. The question is, will he?

As even the Australian so eloquently put it, arguments against allowing the family to be brought back home “don’t pass the sniff test.” What exactly is the “public interest” which would be protected by refusing to grant the Murugappan family visas to remain in this country? What are we, the Australian community to which Morrison addresses his xenophobic bile, being protected from in this instance? A family from a small Queensland town who were peacefully living their lives until they were dragged from their homes? A sick four-year-old Australian-born child?

It doesn’t add up. Until of course, you realise that the government’s contemptuous stubbornness is not about the Murugappan family at all but feeds into a much bigger narrative about “us” the Australian community vs “them” the racist, xenophobic spectre of the illegal immigrant stealing our jobs and our “way of life.”

Only then does the $6.7mil spent detaining this innocent family in the defunct Christmas Island detention centre, make some sort of sense within the frame of the government’s twisted logic. While working class Australians suffer due to stagnant wages, unemployment, and outright greed by the wealthy, the government points to refugees as a scapegoat for our nation’s problems. Meanwhile, the rich get richer. Families like the Murugappans are not the reason we are struggling. Australia has more than enough resources to support our current population and to settle more refugees within our community, if only the money which is wasted torturing innocent refugees was spent on supporting people who need it.

The Murugappan family is a test case for the broader refugee rights movement in Australia. Around thirty refugees are still detained in the Park Hotel in Carlton. There are fears among conservative MPs that allowing the family to stay in Australia could set a political precedent for hundreds of similar cases. This is precisely why it is imperative that we maintain pressure on the government to bring them here and let them stay.

Australia’s human rights record on refugees is one of the worst in the world. It is a source of shame on an international scale and, perhaps more disturbingly, a source of inspiration to countries like Spain, which sees hundreds of thousands of refugees each year crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa.

The growing outcry against the treatment of the Murugappans shows that Australians will no longer stand for the cruel and inhumane treatment of refugees in our name. We do not buy the government’s claim to “protection” of our community. The wool cannot be pulled over our eyes in regard to the causes of economic strife. The position of the Australian community is clear – refugees are welcome, xenophobic politicians are not. It remains to be seen whether the government will listen, and if it doesn’t, it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to take collective action to force them to.

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