Australia has granted three members of the Murugappan family, who were detained for more than two years on remote Christmas Island, three-month temporary visas to work and study in Western Australia, two weeks after the family’s youngest child had to be medically evacuated to the state.
Immigration minister Alex Hawke said he had exercised his powers under Article 195A of the Migration Act to give the family so-called bridging visas with rights to work and study.
“Under section 195A a Minister can intervene to grant a person a visa if it is in the public interest to do so,” he said in a statement. He did not elaborate on which of the Murugappans had not been given the visa.
Priya and Nadesalingam Murugappan, both ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka, met and married in Australia in 2014, after travelling separately to the country by boat.
Both their daughters – Kopika and Tharunicca – were born in Australia and the family lived in the rural Queensland town of Biloela for four years before they were arrested in March 2018 when an earlier bridging visa granted to Priya expired.
They were first taken to Melbourne, then to Perth and then back to Melbourne before being sent to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean while the courts considered their legal appeals and the situation of their youngest daughter, Tharunicca.
Home to Bilo, the campaign group set up by Biloela residents, family friends and supporters, said it was Tharunicca who had not been given the bridging visa.
“Today’s news is another huge step in the long journey home for Priya and her family, but still there is no certain pathway home to Bilo,” Angela Fredericks, who heads the group said in a statement. “While we welcome Priya, Nades and Kopika being granted bridging visas, we wonder what precisely is the Minister’s objective in denying little Tharni one. The family must stay together, and they need to be back in Biloela soon.”
The family’s treatment has triggered a public outcry in a country notorious for its hardline approach to asylum seekers and refugees, sending thousands of people who attempted to reach Australia by sea to “offshore processing centres” and telling them they will never be allowed to settle in the country.
There was shock earlier this month when it emerged that Tharunicca had had to be evacuated to a Perth hospital because she had developed a potentially life-threatening condition thought to be the result of untreated pneumonia.
Under pressure, the government last week allowed the family of four to leave Christmas Island, placing them into “community detention” in Perth, the capital of Western Australia and some 4,000 kilometres (2,485 miles) from Biloela.
The Murugappan’s supporters say the family would be at risk if sent to Sri Lanka, which is currently led by Gotabaya Rajapaksa who engineering the final assault on the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in which the United Nations estimates tens of thousands of civilians died. Rajapaksa, who was defence minister at the time, has also been accused of human rights abuses including forced disappearances and torture.
Last week more than two dozen Anglican bishops signed a letter calling on the Australian government to release the family and allow them to return home, noting that sending them to Sri Lanka was an “unsafe option”.
More than half a million people have signed a petition urging ministers to let the family return to Biloela.
In October 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Committee requested the family be moved out of detention and allowed to return to home, giving the Australia government 30 days to comply.