After 50 men were freed from detention in March, the fate of asylum seekers who remained behind is unclear.
Australia says it will allow a Tamil family of four to leave immigration detention on remote Christmas Island, but instead of allowing them to return to their home in Queensland will place them into “community detention” in the western city of Perth, some 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles) away.
The Murugappans, whose two children were born in Australia, were sent to Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, after the asylum claims of parents Nades and Priya were rejected, and while the courts considered their legal appeals and the situation of their youngest daughter, Tharunicca.
Their plight was thrust into the spotlight again last week after the three-year-old had to be medically evacuated to a Perth hospital because of a serious blood infection thought to have developed as a result of pneumonia that had been left untreated.
Immigration minister Alex Hawke, who did not mention the family by name, said that in making his decision he was “balancing the government’s ongoing commitment to strong border protection policies with appropriate compassion in circumstances involving children in held detention”.
Angela Fredericks, a friend of the Murugappans who has been leading the campaign for their return, said that while news the family would be reunited was welcome, they should be allowed to return to Biloela.
“Community detention is no guarantee of safety and peace for this family,” Fredericks said in a statement. “Nades is keen to get back work in Biloela to support his young family, Priya wants to enrol Kopika at Biloela State School to continue her education, and we promised little Tharni a big birthday party when she got home. Australia knows this family’s home is in Biloela.”
The family of four was suddenly removed from their home in an early morning raid by immigration officials in March 2018, and sent to an immigration detention centre in Melbourne, Australia’s second-biggest city. Their case prompted a nationwide outcry in a country notorious for its hardline approach to asylum seekers and refugees, sending thousands who tried to arrive by sea to “offshore processing centres” and telling them they will never be allowed to settle in the country.
Nadesalingam and Priya, who are Tamils from Sri Lanka, arrived separately by boat in 2012 and 2013, and sought asylum. They met and married in Australia, but were detained after Priya’s visa expired.
“The government would not be removing the family from detention this week if Tharunicca hadn’t become seriously ill,” the University of Canberra’s Michelle Grattan wrote in the Conversation. “To the extent the government is exercising compassion now, it is compassion driven by the bad publicity it is suffering.”
Writing on Twitter, opposition leader Antony Albanese recalled visiting Biloela in 2019 and the community’s love for the young family, “It was clear to me that this family should be allowed to go HomeToBilo. Let’s just get it done.” he said.
The state premier of Queensland Annastacia Palaszczuk also showed her support for the family.
“It’s a long way from Biloela where their friends and neighbours have campaigned for so many years for their freedom,” she said in a statement. “Biloela is a community of 6,000. Everyone knows each other and looks after each other. I look forward to the day when the family can home to Bilo.”
In October 2019, the United Nations requested that Australia allow the family to stay and gave the government 30 days to comply.
Last week, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the government was looking at “resettlement options” for the family, but in a third country rather than Australia.
Although born in Australia, Tharunicca and Kopika, do not have the right to Australian citizenship by birth.
An attempt to deport the family was made in August 2019 after their asylum applications were rejected, but a Federal Court judge granted a last-minute injunction forcing their plane, which was en route to Sri Lanka, to land in Darwin. Their legal action continues.