Biloela family allowed to live in community detention – but not to go #HometoBilo

Home Affairs Minister Alex Hawke has announced the whole Murugappan family will be allowed to reside in community detention in Perth, close to the hospital where their youngest member, three-year-old Tharnicaa, is being treated.

Hawke’s decision releases the family from detention at Australian immigration facilities on Christmas Island. However, the minister has not yet reached a decision regarding whether he will use his powers to allow the family to return home to their community of Biloela.

Tharnicaa Murugappan was flown to Perth for urgent treatment of sepsis one week ago, accompanied by her mother Priya, after two weeks of feeling unwell in Australia’s immigration detention centre on Christmas Island. The pair left behind husband and father Nades, and Tharnicaa’s five-year-old sister, Kopika.

The minister described his decision of reuniting Sri Lankan Nades and Priya Murugappan and their children Kopika and Tharnicaa in Perth as one in which he was “balancing the government’s ongoing commitment to strong border protection policies with appropriate compassion in circumstances involving children in held detention.”

“The family will now reside in suburban Perth through a community detention placement, close to schools and support services, while the youngest child receives medical treatment from the nearby Perth Children’s Hospital and as the family pursues ongoing legal matters,” Hawke’s statement reads. “Today’s decision releases the family from held detention and facilitates ongoing treatment, while they pursue ongoing litigation before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Federal Court and High Court. Importantly, today’s decision does not create a pathway to a visa.

“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 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.”

“We know that Australia’s detention program is harmful to the physical and mental health of those held, especially children.” – Royal Australasian College of Physicians

Marie Austin is part of the #hometobilo campaign that began with a group of Biloela residents who wanted to do whatever they could to help Nades, Priya and their girls stay in Australia. Austin first spoke to Eternity in 2019, describing how she had never considered the possibility of being involved in political activism until she saw the injustice experienced by her local, Tamil friends.

Today, Austin told Eternity she was grateful for Hawke’s decision but that it did not go far enough.

“I’m thankful to minister Alex Hawke for having the courage to make this decision in order for the family to be together and enable the children to experience a semblance of a ‘normal’ living arrangement. My understanding is that the family will still be in detention – just in a different form,” Austin said. “So while today’s decision is welcomed, we’re no closer to having our friends home in Bilo where Nades will be able to work and provide for his family, and Kopika can attend her school.”

Austin said that when she visited Priya, Nades and the girls in detention in Melbourne three years ago, one of the many things that stuck in her mind was a poster on the wall in the meeting room that said ‘Remember the rights of the children’.

“It’s a pity that it took a four-year-old girl, who has spent the majority of her life in detention (despite adamant claims from our government there are no children in detention!), to become seriously ill ‘on their watch’ in order for them to look a little more compassionately at their situation,” she said.

Under the Migration Act, Hawke has the authority to release the family and grant them permanent residence. However, the political implications of him exercising that power for compassionate reasons are tricky terrain. The Coalition is divided on the matter. On one hand, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has presided over the development of extremely harsh policies relating to people seeking asylum in Australia, both in his previous role as Immigration Minister and as current Prime Minister. On the other hand, in recent days Liberal MPs Katie Allen, Trent Zimmerman, Jason Falinski and Nationals MP Ken O’Dowd all called for the family to be returned to the mainland in response to pressure from the Australian public.

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice.” – Deuteronomy 24:17

Over the weekend, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians – representing over 25,000 physicians – and eight other medical bodies said they held extreme concerns for the family’s wellbeing, with acting president and paediatrician Dr Jacqueline Small issuing a statement on behalf of medical professionals.

“As health experts we are calling on the Australian Government to urgently release the Biloela family from detention – Tharnicaa, Kopika, Priya and Nades Murugappan,” the statement read. “We know that Australia’s detention program is harmful to the physical and mental health of those held, especially children.

“We are extremely concerned that this family has been held in indefinite detention for more than 1000 days; on Christmas Island since August 2019 and in mainland Australia prior to that from March 2018. This is most of Tharnicaa’s life.”

Marie Austin told Eternity that “the Bible urges us so many times to look after the ‘foreigner’, right alongside the fatherless and widows.”

Speaking to Eternity today, Austin quoted two Bible verses: Exodus 22:21, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” and Deuteronomy 24:17, “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice.”

“We have a responsibility to look after our friends and seek justice on their behalf,” she said.

Earlier this year Austin spoke to Eternity specifically regarding the power the Home Affairs Minister had to release the family, with a fervour to see her friends brought home to Biloela that had not been dampened by the years.

“We have an immigration act that provides for intervention in such cases as this, where with the stroke of a pen, a minister can choose – as a generous and humane act and in the interests of the public – to grant them a visa at any time. Just as has been done for others in the past,” she said.