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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Explained: A Tamil family and their fight to stay in Australia

Who are the Murugappans, the sole occupants of a detention centre on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, and what led to protests against their deportation from Australia?

Written by Sonal Gupta , Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: June 16, 2021 8:07:20 am
A participant holds up a sign at a "Compassion not Detention, free Tharnicaa and the Biloela Family" rally in support of the Tamil asylum-seeking family in Melbourne, Australia, June 12, 2021. (AAP Image/James Ross via REUTERS)

Under intense public pressure and media glare, the Australian government finally allowed a Tamil family of four to move from a detention centre in a remote island to the mainland even as they continue their fight against deportation.

The Murugappans, Priya and Nades, along with their daughters Kopica (6) and Tharnicaa (4) who were born in Australia, were taken to the detention centre on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean in 2018, after their asylum claims were rejected and their legal appeals were under consideration in courts.

While there have been sustained calls for the release of the family from the detention centre, the family was in the headlines again last week after Tharnicaa developed sepsis and pneumonia and was airlifted to a hospital in Perth along with her mother. After over a week of separation, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke allowed the father and sibling to join the others in the city, where they will stay in a “community detention” government housing.

The younger daughter’s worsening health has initiated an outpour of sympathy from supporters and politicians for the family, popularly known as the ‘Family of Biloela’ (a Queensland town where they lived). The family’s detention and possible deportation have sparked protests across the country, with a campaign ‘Home to Bilo’ at its forefront.

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Who are the Murugappans and why are they detained?

Priya and Nades are Sri Lankan refugees who fled the country fearing Tamil persecution amid the civil war. While Nades arrived in Australia in a boat in 2012, Priya came in 2013 – both deemed as illegal migrants to the country.

According to court documents, the visa application for Tharnicaa was stopped because, though she was born in Australia, she is considered an “unauthorised maritime arrival” according to Australia’s Migration Act 1958 as her parents are “unauthorised maritime arrivals”.

A press release dated December 21, 2018, by former minister of home affairs Peter Dutton states that their asylum claims were rejected by the courts five times.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Priya had applied for a “fast-track” process, which was open to unauthorised maritime arrivals for a temporary visa in 2017. However, in May 2017, the immigration authorities rejected her application stating that she would not be targeted in Sri Lanka while acknowledging that she had faced danger in the past.

Priya and Nades had met and married in Australia, where both their daughters were born. They were living in Biloela for four years before they were shifted to the detention facility in Christmas Island.

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What does the Federal Court say?

In February 2021, the Federal Court of Australia upheld a ruling by Justice Mark Moshinsky- made in April 2020 – that Tharnicaa’s visa application was not granted procedural fairness, delaying the family’s deportation.

In December 2018, a Federal Court had rejected their claims for asylum and after losing their final appeal in a High Court in May 2019, they were to be put on a flight from Melbourne to Sri Lanka in August. However, in a dramatic injunction by the court, the deportation was delayed till a case for the youngest daughter was heard.

Lawyers representing the now four-year-old contended that no Australian official had assessed whether Tharnicaa was owed protection by the country.

In April 2020, Justice Moshinsky, while providing a background of procedures followed while considering the child’s visa application, concluded, “applicant was not afforded procedural fairness in the conduct of the August 2019 Assessment.”

Since then the family had been housed at Christmas Island, which, according to The Guardian, has cost Australia 1.4 million taxpayers dollars in a year. The Department of Home Affairs has also submitted to the Senate that the cost of detaining the family on the island was 3.9 million dollars for the period August 30, 2019 to October 31, 2020. The Murugappan are the only occupants at the detention centre.

A participant holds up a sign at a “Compassion not Detention, free Tharnicaa and the Biloela Family” rally in support of the Tamil asylum-seeking family in Melbourne, Australia, June 12, 2021. (AAP Image/James Ross via REUTERS)

Protests across Australia and political support

Before they were shifted to Christmas Island, the Murugappans were detained in a centre in Melbourne, picked straight from their home in Biloela in March 2018. The move enraged the quiet town of Biloela, sparking protests and vigils by its residents.

“In the 24 hours since they were served the deportation notice, the emotional swing that has occurred in this community has been extraordinary. From the extreme despair and grief of last night to the rage today. I’ve never seen a rage like that in Biloela. We’re a polite town,” a friend of the family had told The Guardian.

The protests at airports and politicians’ offices spread to an online campaign, #HometoBilo, which now has a dedicated website. A ‘’ petition also gathered momentum, urging the ministers to reconsider their decision.

Several politicians also joined in. Senator for New South Wales and Labor Party leader Kristina Keneally has tweeted her support to the Tamil family with the hashtag ‘let them stay.’

In September 2019, Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale had also accused the government of “cruelty”, in a Melbourne rally, according to the Australian Associated Press.

The Coalition, an alliance of the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia, has also backed Biloela sentiments demanding that the family be allowed to come home. In a recent development on June 12, a Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman called on Hawke to use his powers to bring the family back from Christmas Island and grant them a long-term stay. MP Ken O’Dowd echoed the demand, reported The Guardian.

What next?
For now, while the family will be allowed to reunite, the deportation remains under contention. “As required by court orders, I will consider at a future date whether to lift the statutory bar presently preventing members of the family from reapplying for temporary protection, for which they have previously been rejected,” the latest statement from Hawkes states.

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