Shortcuts / 16 June 2022

The Murugappan family’s return to Biloela

Over the past decade, the Murugappan family’s fight to stay in Oz has become the most high-profile asylum seeker case in the country. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take you through the background to the case, how the Queensland town of Biloela took them under its wing, and what happens next with the family going ‘home to Bilo’.

Who are the Murugappens?
They’re a family of 4, including parents Priya and Nades and their 2 daughters Kopika (7yo) and Tharnicaa (5yo). Priya and Nades are both asylum seekers from Sri Lanka – Nades arrived on Christmas Island in 2012 and Priya arrived in the Cocos Islands in 2013.

How did they meet?
Nades and Priya met in Oz through the Tamil community they belong to. The Tamils are an ethnic group from Sri Lanka and many have tried to come to Oz due to links with the Tamil Tigers and their fear of persecution in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil Tigers?
They were a separatist group fighting for an independent homeland for Tamils in north and east Sri Lanka. They lost a brutal 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 and Nades claims he was forced to join the group in 2001.

Wasn’t that a while ago?
Kinda… But some human rights groups say it is still not safe there for people who had links to the separatists. And Nades says that before he fled, he was harassed by the Sri Lankan military and has scars from a government bomb blast.

Right. So what happened after Nades and Priya met in Oz?
They got married in 2014 and settled in the Central Queensland town of Biloela. Nades worked at the local abattoir and they became well established within the Biloela community. And the couple had their 2 daughters in 2015 and 2017.

So everything was going well?
It was until their bridging visas expired in February 2018 and pretty quickly after that the family were removed from their home by Border Force officials and flown to a detention centre in Broadmeadows, Melbourne.

Please explain…
The family’s visas meant they were able to live freely in Biloela while their asylum claims were assessed. But officials found that the family’s case didn’t meet Australia’s protection obligations.

Gotcha. What did the Murugappans say?
Priya and Nades say they are refugees because they believe their lives would be in danger if they returned to Sri Lanka. So the Murugappans applied to the High Court for a review of their case, and their appeal was dismissed in May 2019.

So they were told they had to return to Sri Lanka?
That was the idea. And in August 2019, the Murugappans were taken to Melbourne Airport for deportation, but as the plane departed, an interim injunction was granted over the phone by a judge to prevent them from returning to Sri Lanka.

It all sounds very dramatic…
It was – the plane was forced to land in Darwin and the family was held at a hotel at Darwin airport.

How were they able to get the injunction?
The family’s legal team argued that the youngest daughter Tharnicaa’s claims for asylum protections had never been assessed despite the rest of the family having their claims looked at.

So the Murugappans didn’t go back to Sri Lanka – or Biloela?
Nope, authorities moved the family to the detention centre on Christmas Island, which is northwest of Australia. That was because it had been ruled that the youngest daughter should stay in Australia until her case was heard.

Christmas Island has a nice ring to it…
It’s beautiful, but the family lived in a unit in the detention centre and were rarely allowed to leave. They were in immigration detention after all… 

That must have cost a bit?
It most certainly did. Between 2019 and 2021, it cost $6.7 million to detain the family.

So what happened in 2021?
It was June when Tharnicaa was airlifted to Perth with her mother Priya, suffering from what turned out to be a blood infection stemming from untreated pneumonia.

Yeesh…
Yep, and reports said Tharnicaa had been unwell for several days and requests for hospital care were refused. And the ‘Home to Bilo’ campaign – a group of supporters who advocated loudly for the family – said health services on the remote island had only administered Panadol and Nurofen when Priya raised the alarm about her daughter’s condition.

What did officials say about that?
They denied the reports and said that health services available on Christmas Island “are broadly comparable” to those available in the Oz public health system.

What did the other 2 family members do?
Initially, Nades and Kopika were forced to remain on Christmas Island. It created national headlines and led to an outpouring of support from politicians across the spectrum, activists and family friends.

So politicians supported the family staying in Oz?
Some did – Labor’s then Home Affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally (who had visited the family on Christmas Island) called for the family to be returned to Biloela, and the Greens said the children were imprisoned for the Coalition’s “political gain”.

What was the Coalition’s view?
The Coalition was in power at the time and then-Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said a “range of resettlement options” were on the table. But she ruled out using her discretion as Home Affairs Minister to grant them a valid visa.

That was an option throughout this saga?
Yep – the Home Affairs Minister has the power to grant asylum seeker’s a visa if they consider it to be in the public interest to do so.

So what did they do?
The Coalition’s Immigration Minister Alex Hawke allowed the Murugappan family to live together in Perth in ‘community detention’ while Tharnicaa underwent treatment in hospital – and that arrangement was extended.

But that was a temporary measure?
That’s right – they were only allowed to live in Perth while the family pursued their court case through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Federal Court and High Court.

Why was that?
The Coalition Government’s border security policy was clear – that no one arriving by boat can be permanently settled in Oz. Given the Murugappans were not considered refugees and therefore not owed protection, authorities wanted them to go back to Sri Lanka.

What was Labor’s position on the issue?
The party promised that if they were elected, they would allow the family to return to Biloela on a temporary visa.

How did the Coalition react?
They stuck to their guns. In the days before the 21 May election, then-PM Scott Morrison reiterated that the courts had previously found against the Murugappans and the Coalition’s position remained to never to grant visas to “people who have illegally entered Australia”.

Why was Morrison not for turning?
He said changing the position would risk reigniting the people smuggling trade of boat arrivals. That said, not everyone on the Coalition side felt the same way…

Who are we talking about?
One contrarian was Deputy PM and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce – he had called for the family to be returned to Biloela and during the election campaign, he said his position had not changed.

But then Labor won the election…
They sure did, and not even a week after being elected, Labor’s Jim Chalmers – who was interim Home Affairs minister at the time – announced he had used ministerial intervention powers to enable the family to return to Biloela.

What does that mean?
That the Murugappans are able to lawfully live in the community on bridging visas, ahead of the resolution of their immigration status.

So will they be able to stay in Oz?
We don’t know yet. Because the case has well and truly been before the courts, experts say it is up to the new immigration minister – Andrew Giles – to decide if he will exercise his discretion and grant them permanent visas.

And will he?
Insert shrugging lady emoji… But it’s a tricky one for Labor to manage because they are keen to be as tough on border protection as the Coalition – and the Murugappans aren’t the only people in this situation.

Where does this leave the Murugappans?
For now, they’re back in Biloela following a big campaign from locals to get them out of detention. There were plenty of tears and smiles when they landed and supporters say they hope the family will be granted permanent residency soon.

Watch this space?
You got it. 

Squiz recommends:

Why do Tamil asylum seekers need protection and why does the Australian government say they don’t?The Conversation

Home to Bilo campaigners for Tamil asylum-seeking family await weekend reunionABC News

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