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Biloela family united but still in legal limbo

THE detention of the Murugappan family has attracted international attention this week after the hospitalisation of the youngest child, Tharnicaa, with a blood infection in Perth.

The Tamil family have been held on Christmas Island since August 2019 when Australian Border Authorities removed them from their home in Biloela, Queensland.

The federal government this week released the family into community detention in Perth following significant public pressure.

On Wednesday 23 June, the three oldest members of the family were granted bridging visas, providing them work and study rights while they reside in the Perth community.

Chris Breen, Refugee Action Collective’s spokesperson, views the move to community detention as only halfway to freedom.

“Their fate is still in limbo,” Mr Breen said.

“The halfway house of release to community detention in Perth was an attempt by the Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to save face.

“We have seen vindictive manoeuvres from the coalition before following political pressure for more humane treatment of refugees.”

Public outrage followed the news that Australian-born Tharnicaa had been sick for ten days and denied medical attention on Christmas Island.

Supporters across the nation held vigils and protests calling on the federal government to let the family stay in the country.

A Change.org petition to bring the family back to Biloela has gained over 500,000 signatures.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has remained firm on the coalition’s position that allowing the family to stay in Australia would encourage people smugglers.

“We do not believe anyone who has come by boat should be allowed to be permanently resettled in Australia,” Mr Hawke said.

Nades and Priya came to Australia under international and Australian laws that give all people the right to seek safety from persecution, regardless of how they arrive.

Tamils are an ethnic group native to Sri Lanka who faced violent persecution after the 26-year civil war fought between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese majority government, which ended in 2009.

A 2021 United Nations Human Rights Office report summarised the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, observing “deepening impunity, increasing militarisation of governmental functions, ethno-nationalist rhetoric, and intimidation of civil society.”

Although Tamils face ongoing discrimination in Sri Lanka, the Australian government does not classify the Muragappans as legal refugees due to its official position that Sri-Lankans face a low risk of torture on a day-to-day basis.

Mr Breen said the treatment of the Murugappan family is not an exception.

“It epitomises the heartlessness of the government’s racist immigration policies,” he said.

“The failure to treat Tharnicaa promptly recalls the delays that caused the death of Hamid Khazaei from a cut foot on Manus Island.

“Like Hamid, Tharnicaa was put out of sight and mind on a far-flung island.”

Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Khazaei died in 2014 after contracting a leg infection in Manus Island detention centre.

A Queensland coroner found that his death resulted from errors in health care provided by Australia’s offshore detention system.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist and refugee, was detained on Manus Island from 2013 to 2017.

Mr Boochani, writing in The Saturday Paper, observed that, “Many may see the plight of the Murugappan family as an isolated case, but I look at it as an embodiment of the multidimensional nature of Australia’s detention system.”

“The disjunct between the government’s professed humanity and the reality of its choices is agitating,” he said.

Refugee Action Collective is hopeful that the ongoing protests will have the power to galvanise a shift away from harsh border politics that keeps refugees in detention.

Meanwhile, the family remain in legal limbo still a long way from their home in Biloela.

Detaining the family has cost Australian taxpayers at least $6.7 million.

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Amelia Costigan

Amelia is a freelance writer and researcher who writes about the intersections of politics, the media and popular culture. In her academic research, she has studied the complex relationship between social media and democracy. Amelia also works as an English and Literature tutor and has a passion for education policy.

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