The Guardian • Issue #1967

Murugappan family reunited, but still a long way to go

On Tuesday, 15th June, the Murugappan family were reunited in Perth, pending a government decision on whether they will be allowed to stay in Australia permanently. Tharnicaa, aged 4, was released from Perth Children’s Hospital the previous Saturday, where she had been receiving medical treatment since the 25th of May.

This is a small victory, but it must be kept in perspective. The Murugappans will not be allowed to return home to Biloela. The Minister was keen to emphasise that the decision “does not create a pathway to a visa.” In a media release on the 15th of June, he stated:

“In making this determination I am balancing the government’s ongoing commitment to strong border protection policies with appropriate compassion in circumstances involving children in held detention […]. The Government’s position on border protection has not changed. Anyone who arrives in Australia illegally by boat will not be resettled permanently. Anyone who is found not to be owed protection will be expected to leave Australia.”

Apparently, “appropriate compassion” means leaving the family in limbo in community detention. While they’re being held in Perth, the girls will be able to go to school again, but Priya and Nades will not be able to work and will have to live on welfare payments from the government. Judging by what the government pays its own citizens, it is a safe guess that this will be insufficient. The family will also have no access to medicare.

While community detention is clearly a step up from offshore detention facilities like Christmas Island, where the family were detained for almost three years, it can have long term impacts on families. People living in a constant state of limbo in community detention suffer from poor mental health due to their inability to do meaningful work and their uncertainty about what the future holds.

These stressors have been known to delay development in children in what a 2019 report by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) called “a domino effect” which spreads from parents to children. The Murugappans are feeling this stress too. In a media release via, Priya Murugappan said:

“Please, we want to go back to Bilo. We are safe in Bilo. My husband can work. My daughters have friends. Bilo is home.”

Her pleas continue to fall of deaf ears as the government remains steadfast in its determination that the Murugappans will not be allowed to remain in Australia. On Friday, 18th June, supporters held rallies and vigils in cities across the country calling on the government to let the Murugappans return to Biloela and be permanently resettled in Australia. The family have also been reunited with some friends and supporters from Biloela, who are concerned for their wellbeing as they attempt to adjust to yet another form of detention.

Jana Favero, ASRC Director of Advocacy says that far from being a compassionate option, “[c]ommunity detention is just another form of cruelty.” A form of cruelty which our government is currently putting almost 450 people through with no end in sight. There is no deadline for the Minister to make a decision about the Murugappans, but he could decide at any time to grant them a visa using his discretionary powers under the Migration Act. Keeping them in detention is a political choice, a choice which has the potential to destroy lives.

Indefinite detention, whether onshore or offshore, is a form of cruelty. As was argued in Guardian #1966 “Biloela family is test case for broader refugee rights movement,” there is no good reason not to allow the family back home to Biloela. Priya and Nades are beloved members of their community. Both of their daughters are Australian born. They do not pose a threat to Australia. Attempts to sow doubt about the danger they face in Sri Lanka are insidious and dangerous. We must not allow our government to continue to torture refugees in this way. Let them stay.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More