It has finally happened. After years upon years, the Tamil family is returning to their Brisbane home of Biloela. And not in a bureaucratic future-tense kind of way. According to the ABC, their flight from Perth has already taken off.
The two parents who sought asylum, and their two Aussie-born daughters, were stoked with this outcome. At the Perth Airport, the mother Priya made a short statement to the media, saying, “Me and my family are very happy to start our journey back to my community in Bilo.”
This family was detained at Christmas Island before getting transported to Perth. They were moved there because the family’s youngest daughter, Tharnicaa, had sepsis. In Priya’s statement, she thanked the Perth Children’s Hospital for supporting her family during this ordeal. She said, “[We] are very grateful to all the Perth Children’s Hospital who helped lots … I have made great friends.”
So, how did we get to this historic decision to move the Tamil family back to their home of Biloela, and what does this mean for other asylum seekers?
How Did the Tamil Family Come to Australia?
The Tamil family, otherwise known as Priya and Nades Murugappan, and their two Australian-born children, Kopika and Tharnicaa, are Australia’s most famous asylum seekers.
They are so known because of the rural town of Biloela in Queensland where they lived from 2013 until 2018 when they were taken in a pre-dawn raid on the family home.
Nades and Priya are both Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka where an intermittent ethnic civil war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil population has been raging since 1983. The war officially came to an end in 2009, but simmering tensions, destruction, and bombings continue to plague the country.
Hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled the country during the decades of conflict, making Tamils one of the world’s largest groups of asylum seekers.
Nades and Priya both arrived separately in Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013 respectively where they lodged claims for asylum. They both moved to Biloela to work at the meat processing plant, known for its policies of hiring new migrants and asylum seekers when they were granted temporary protection visas.
That’s where they met, fell in love, got married, and had two children, Kopika and Tharnicaa.
The BBC reports that the family was well integrated into their community. They went fishing on weekends and would host game nights with local friends. They even provided shelter to a close friend when she fled her abusive husband.
It should be a great Australian success story. And yet, after years of processing their claims, Australia rejected their appeal for asylum and has spent the past three years trying to deport them back to Sri Lanka where ethnic violence is still commonplace.
How Did the Tamil Family End Up on Christmas Island?
Christmas Island is one of seven immigration detention centres Australia holds. It’s the only offshore detention facility, not to be confused with the offshore processing facilities of Nauru and Manus Islands.
Australia currently has 1,483 people in these detention facilities, with about 10,000 passing through them each year. It’s far lower than the 2013 peak of 10,201 in a single month, but far higher than the 2009 low of just 375.
In 2018, the Tamil family were taken from the regional Queensland town of Biloela and put into detention in Melbourne on the basis that they do not qualify as refugees.
From there, they were set to be deported back to Sri Lanka just days later. However, the town of Biloela, some 6,000 people, were up in arms at their deportation and rapidly launched the #HometoBilo campaign.
Lawyers secured an injunction to delay the deportation and but the family was held in detention in Melbourne’s Villawood facility.
In 2019, after a court ruled against their claims, they were given three hours to pack and were put on a flight to Sri Lanka. The Tamil family moved quickly to alert their legal team and supporters and another injunction was granted which ordered the plane to turn around mid-flight.
The family was then moved to the recently re-opened detention centre on Christmas Island in late 2019 where they became the sole occupants.
Why Weren’t They Released From Christmas Island?
The Tamil family were held in a two-bedroom unit on the island detention centre, some 1,500kms from the Australian mainland and 350kms south of Indonesia.
The family was held under constant guard and could only leave to take Kopika to school or to go to the recreation centre. Those trips had to be authorised by the Australian Border Force two days in advance.
The whole operation was revealed in 2021 to have cost $6.7 million.
There were suggestions that Liberal MPs were quietly urging the government to sort the issue out, however, the political cost of backing down over the case was considered too high for the government to stomach.
The new Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews had previously stated that she is a “very compassionate person” in regards to the Tamil family, leading some to consider whether her appointment might’ve resulted in a change in fortune for the family.
— Josh Taylor (@joshgnosis) May 4, 2021
Moreover, pressure to return this family home ramped up when it was revealed that three-year-old Tharnicaa had been unwell, with treatment being refused for her worsening condition.
A medical evacuation was arranged for the girl, who was flown to a hospital in Perth along with her mother Priya, where she was diagnosed with septicemia — a blood infection that can be fatal if untreated.
Pictures of the distressed girl made headlines around the world as the family’s immigration lawyer appealed for compassion.
“It should really change something because maybe it might hopefully be a catalyst for having them released from detention,” lawyer Caina Ford said.
“The case is before the ministers currently to consider so there is no reason that this information is not also information that should be considered.”
WA Premier Mark McGowan took the opportunity to criticise the government for their handling of the Tamil family’s case.
“This issue is longstanding, the family’s been in detention now for years, I think they need to sort it out,” McGowan said.
“If that means they need to use one of their exemption powers under the act, just do it and resolve the issue … and get this very unfortunate and somewhat internationally embarrassing issue past us.”
Even the Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce called for the Tamil family to be returned to their home in Biloela on Channel 7’s Sunrise programme yesterday.
Mr Joyce said the two girls “didn’t buy their tickets” and had a right to stay in Australia “despite what the allegations might be about their parents or their father”.
“Tharnicaa and Kopika were born in Australia. Maybe if their names were Jane and Sally we’d think twice about sending them back to another country which they’re not from,” he said.
“Why not send them to Southern Sudan, why not send them to Rwanda, to Belarus? They’re also countries they were never born in,” Mr Joyce added.
However, despite all of this scrutiny, the Liberal Government still refused to let this family return home.
An Election Promise Kept
In early May of 2022, before the federal election, Anthony Albanese stated that the Labor government wanted the Tamil family to go back to Brisbane. It’s worth noting that the ABC outlined that this wasn’t the first time that Albanese had made this call. Labor’s Matt Burnett also said, “Labor will bring this sorry saga to an end and allow the family to come home to Biloela.”
So, when Labor won this election, they kept their promise. On May 27, Bloomberg reported that the interim Home Affairs Minister Jim Chalmers would provide the Tamil bridging visas and would help them return to Biloela. And Chalmers did exactly that. As previously noted, the Tamil family is flying back to Brisbane. Moreover, hopefully, after all these many years, these folks will rest where they belong.
Labor Has Only Done So Much
Unfortunately, while the Tamil family get to live in Australia, not every person in need is provided such safety. Less than a week after the election, The Sydney Morning Herald noted that Labor had turned back a boat’s worth of Sri Lankan individuals who were seeking asylum. It’s worth noting that this decision was no accident. Minister for Defence Richard Marles told Sky News in an interview, “I think it’s important to say upfront that what this shows is that there is absolutely no change in terms of Australia’s border settings under this government.”
The Conversation also detailed that about 1400 people who sought asylum back in 2013 are still in limbo, after originally being sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea. Some of these folks will be sent to America, while others will be sent to New Zealand. Labor has made it clear that none will be allowed to live in Australia.
But while this all is very disappointing, there are still some notable differences in policy between the Labor party and the Liberal party when it comes to this issue. Labor has promised to up our country’s annual humanitarian intake from 13,750 people per year to 27,000. They’ve also promised to expand the community sponsored refugee program from 1500 to 5000 per year. If only the difference between these two parties was even more drastic.