'Accidental activists' win battle to bring friends home to Bilo
After 1,544 days away from their beloved Biloela, the Nadesalingam family are finally free to go home to Bilo. And, just as refugee activists and supporters have always said – all it took was a single decision of the government.
The interim Home Affairs Minister, Jim Chalmers, announced this afternoon (Friday) that he had exercised his powers under the Migration Act to give the family bridging visas, fulfilling a pre-election promise to let them go home.
“The effect of my intervention enables the family to return to Biloela, where they can reside lawfully in the community on bridging visas while they work towards the resolution of their immigration status, in accordance with Australian law,” he said.
“This decision will allow them to get ‘home to Bilo’, a big-hearted and welcoming Queensland town that has embraced this beautiful family.” – Jim Chalmers, Interim Home Affairs Minister
Chalmers said he had spoken to the family and wished them well for their return.
“This decision will allow them to get ‘home to Bilo’, a big-hearted and welcoming Queensland town that has embraced this beautiful family,” he said.
“I cannot believe it,” Pryia Nadesalingam said in a message passed on by her friend Angela Fredericks of the Home to Bilo campaign. “My prayer is that this government will make a change to the lives of every single refugee who comes here.
“All refugees are survivors. They need hope. I had the support of Nades and we had the support of the people of Bilo. But many others don’t have that support. So I want to help.”
Significantly, Mr Chalmers’s statement does not say that the family have been given permanent visas. At this stage, it appears that the family will need to continue their legal battle to be granted permanent residency in Australia as a refugee.
The long road home to Bilo
At 5 am on March 5, 2018, Australian Border Force immigration officers and police arrived at the family’s home. They told them that their visas had expired the previous day and were being deported. They were initially taken to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation facility in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows and then transferred to Christmas Island Detention Centre in August 2019.
Since then, the Tamil family has continued to fight for the opportunity to return home to Biloela in a protracted court battle with the Australian government. In September 2021, then Immigration Minister Alex Hawke announced he would grant twelve-month bridging visas to Priya and Nades and their eldest daughter, Kopika. However, Hawke chose not to use his powers to extend the same provision to the family’s youngest daughter, Tharnicaa. So, while the family was assured of being able to remain in Australia for the coming year, they had to stay in Community Detention in Perth and could not return to their home in Biloela in Queensland.
And then came the Nadesalingam family – a real family with real faces.
Throughout the entire ordeal, support for the Nadesalingam family has swelled among the Australian public. The Coalition Government had ceased informing the Australian people about “on sea matters” and “maritime arrivals”, and journalists had been effectively banned from Australia’s offshore detention camps. Aside from a few prominent asylum seekers who themselves became reporters from inside the camps, there were few asylum seekers whose faces the Australian public could see. People seeking asylum in Australia were regarded as a “border security” matter and categorised as a “defence” issue.
And then came the Nadesalingam family – a real family with real faces. A Tamil mum and a dad who had fled their homeland of Sri Lanka, met here, married and had two beautiful daughters. There was Nades, who worked at the local abattoir. And Priya, who cared for their daughters Kopika and Tharunicaa.
Real people living real lives in the rural town of Biloela, Central Queensland. They quickly became the face of people seeking asylum in Australia.
As their faces and story became known, Australians from all walks of life, including church and charity leaders from multiple denominations, urged the government to show compassion and allow the family to stay in Australia. But compassion was not forthcoming.
Honour where honour is due
Tonight Eternity wants to pay tribute to two Christian women whose efforts are why Australians know the Nadesalingam family’s faces and plight: Marie Austin and Angela Fredricks.
“Marie Austin does not consider herself an activist. In fact, she says she’s about as far from activism as you could get,” Eternity’s Kaley Payne reported in September 2019.
But in May 2018, Marie had travelled over 1200kms to ask a question on ABC’s political panel show Q&A about her friends Priya, Nades and their two daughters.
“On the 5th March at dawn, Mr Dutton’s border force removed our friends Priya and Nades and their two Australian-born daughters from their home. They have been since held at a Melbourne detention centre …” said Marie to the panel and a national television audience.
“Our town loved this little family and we want them. We want them to come home. I personally have travelled – along with other people from Biloela – the 1800kms to Melbourne to visit and support this family in whatever way we can. The question has been asked of Mr Dutton to exercise his discretionary powers to allow these people to stay and a petition with 100,000 signatures has also been presented, calling for their return to Biloela. Our question tonight is: what more could we do to ensure Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa return home to Biloela.”
“We’re just community members who know this family and see the injustice of their situation,” Marie told Eternity.
Marie first heard about the Tamil family who’d come to live in Biloela through work. She learned of Nades’ medical needs and wanted to help. That Sunday, at her local Baptist church, Marie heard a sermon on the Good Samaritan.
“I just felt like I needed to follow through on this feeling that I could help this family in some way,” she says.
She and her husband met with Priya and Nades and formed a friendship. Marie says they didn’t see each other frequently, but Priya would “always make a point of coming over to say hello and give me a hug when I saw them down town.”
“I think perhaps, in a small way, meeting them has taught me the need to speak up for people who can’t speak for themselves,” she said. “I don’t like attention – I don’t like public speaking. I have been shoved out of my comfort zone, knowing that if I didn’t say something then it might not be heard at all.”
“Going on Q&A to ask my question was one of those times. I didn’t even know what Q&A was! I’d never watched it. But I was asked by a few people in Biloela to consider going and making our case for Priya and Nades.”
“We’re just community members who know this family and see the injustice of their situation.” – Marie Austin
Angela Fredericks first met Priya, Nades and Kopika at the Biloela Hospital. Afterwards, she seemed to bump into them everywhere in the small town. She says they were “generous souls” who worked hard, volunteered and were always willing to help others.
While Priya and Nades had a Hindu faith background, they formed a close relationship with a Catholic nun in Biloela through Nades’ volunteering work with the St Vincent de Paul Society. They lived across the road from the Catholic Church, and Priya would often go across to the church to light a candle and say prayers. Priya would bring first Kopika and then baby Tharunicaa to the ‘Mainly Music’ sessions at St Gabriel’s Anglican Church, where Angela attended.
“All my life I have been Christian and have spent a lifetime learning about Jesus, the son of God who stood up for people who were downtrodden, marginalised or poor. He often challenged leaders and political figures, even though he knew it would impact his reputation and advancement, ultimately costing him his life,” she told Anglican Focus in October 2019
“Jesus fought not just to transform individual’s lives but to change the systems that perpetuated inequality, poverty, exclusion and exploitation. The fourth Anglican Mark of Mission is to “transform unjust structures of society”, and for me this is exactly what it means to be a Christian – it is our role to speak out and challenge unjust systems.”
And so they did, organising vigils, petitions, and letter-writing campaigns. They learned to brief the media about the results of court cases and the family’s health needs. They did TV interviews, gave quotes to journalists via text message late at night after they had finished their work and taken care of other responsibilities. They counted days and marked disappointing milestones. They obtained and shared new photographs. And they hashtagged everything #hometobilo.
In doing so, they kept the plight of the Nadesalingam family – the faces of Nades, Priya, Kopika and Tharnicaa – before the Australian public. So much so, that the Labor party pledged to send them home to Biloela when running a federal election campaign.
“Our support for the family remains firm, and as Christians, the very least that we are required to do, right up there with loving God, is to love our neighbours. Although Priya and Nades have come here from another country, they are our neighbours. God’s word contains many verses about how we should look after foreigners,” a resolute Marie told Eternity in September last year.
“I am watching God’s plan coming into fruition … Today’s decision shows that we as a nation can do better and we can learn to love one another just as Christ taught us to” – Angela Fredericks
Angela spoke to Eternity last December when organising a Christmas card campaign to advocate for the family with MPs.
“Jesus’s birth was surrounded by forced migration, political unrest, oppression and injustice. If we want to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas it is about honouring Jesus’s love and sacrifice and inviting those who are displaced or oppressed into our homes,” she said.
Tonight, after 9.30pm and tired, faithful Angela texts a quote through to us in response to the news.
“I am watching God’s plan coming into fruition. Australia is leaving behind decades of division, fear and the dehumanisation of asylum seekers and we are learning to recognise our common humanity. Today’s decision shows that we as a nation can do better and we can learn to love one another just as Christ taught us to,” she says.
News that the family can return to Biloela was announced earlier on the @HomeToBilo Twitter account.
“We have spoken with Priya and Nades and they share our overwhelming sense of joy and relief at this news, and we all welcome the decision to issue the entire family with bridging visas. But this family will never be safe until they have permanency in Australia,” it read.
“The family anticipates leaving Perth in early June to finally return to us in Biloela, where they can start rebuilding their lives. Their journey home to Bilo marks the end of a long, painful chapter in their lives, and the beginning of a lifetime of healing and recovery. Priya and Nades would once again like to thank the hundreds of thousands of Australians who have supported them over the last four years.”
While the Tamil family’s fight to stay in Australia is not yet over, the battle to bring them home to Bilo has been won. And that is, in large part, due to Angela and Marie – two Christian women who became accidental activists because they were following in the way of Jesus.
There are, of course, others whose names should also be honoured –Biloela residents who have also fought to bring their friends home. But here, we name the two Eternity knows and say thank you.
Thank you, Angela. Thank you, Marie.
This article originally referred to the family as the Murugappan family, but having been made aware of the following update from the Home to Bilo campaign we are retrospectively editing our articles:
“This family’s name is Nadesalingam. Tamil people commonly take the husband/father’s first name as their family name, in preference to surnames which are closely associated with castes.
For many years, the #HometoBilo campaign avoided using Nades, Priya, Kopika and Tharnicaa’s full names, for fear that this would further compromise the family’s safety and security if the former government forced them to danger in Sri Lanka.
We are grateful to journalists and media outlets who are addressing the family using the correct family name, Nadesalingam.”