Asylum seekers become human

Every-one not living under a rock knows that the Biloela community loves the Tamil family Nades and Priya Murugappan, and their daughters Kopika and Tharunicaa, who were taken from their homes in March 2018 in a dawn raid without warning the day their bridging visa expired, and have now been banged up in Christmas Island for several years.

Biloela wants them back, some Liberal backbenchers want them back, even Tony Abbott, when he was still in parliament in passing on a letter of support to then minister Peter Coleman, annotated the letter saying that the family could have a case “if they have as successfully integrated as it seems, there is a … case for giving them [permanent residency].”

Acting PM Michael McCormack disagrees:

    “What we don’t want to see is the boats return,” he said.

Although the parents have failed to gain refugee status, it seems like an exceptional case, which would have no implications for refugee policy and would be win-win-win (for them, the community and the pollies currently infesting the treasury benches.

Personally I think the severe and gratuitous harm being done to the children, who did not choose to be born in Australia, should be a determining consideration. The family should stay.

This 2019 ABC article is an explainer – Who are the Tamil family from Biloela and why are they being deported?

In summary, the parents came separately in 2012 and 2013, before Rudd initiated the ‘Pacific solution’, married and stayed in Biloela. Culturally they found it congenial, and became part of the local community. However, they were found by our government not to be refugees, and in June 2019 we had Tamil asylum seeker family from Biloela loses appeal against deportation which was taken as final by the government. Federal Circuit Court Justice Caroline Kirton:

    In her judgement, Justice Kirton found the initial assessment by the Immigration Assessment Authority, which denied refugee status, had been properly conducted.

    Justice Kirton also noted that Nades had returned to Sri Lanka on three occasions during the civil war and there was no evidence to suggest his family still living in Sri Lanka was at risk from authorities.

    She also noted the passage of time since the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in May 2009.

Her view of the safety of Tamils in Sri Lanka is contested by others. The Saturday Paper says that while a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade country report declared Sri Lanka safe for Tamils, prominent immigration lawyers across Australia have called for the report to be retracted since serious questions about the methodology used were raised in Britain:

    A letter from the International Truth and Justice Project and the Australian Centre for International Justice labelled the conclusion that state-sponsored torture of Tamils is no longer occurring in Sri Lanka a “staggering assertion … [made] in the face of overwhelming evidence from independent and verified sources”.

This is the photo taken back then:

The children were nine months and two years old. Now Tharunicaa, the youngest, is just turning four.

After losing their appeal in 2019 the family was loaded into a plane which actually took off for Sri Lanka.

    Lawyers for the family filed an injunction that forced the plane carrying the Murugappans to land in Darwin. After a night under guard in a motel, they were driven to a local military base, where their phones were taken off them.

From Darwin they were taken to the Christmas Island detention centre were the children are escorted by security guards to school, and are unable to have visitors at home. In fact the quarters in Christmas Island are so cramped that all four sleep in a single Queen-sized bed.

In this article Peter Dutton said that the family were taken to Christmas Island so that they could finally be removed from the country without border officers being inconvenienced by protesters.

While legal proceedings continued the whole family stayed at Christmas until last Monday, 7 June, when Tharunicaa accompanied by her mother was evacuated from Christmas Island to Perth with suspected septicaemia in a six-hour flight. Melissa Davey and Josh Taylor have compiled for The Guardian From first fever to flight: timeline of Biloela Tamil mother’s two-week fight for sick daughter.

It’s horrific reading. When the girl was vomiting with diarrhoea Priya was told she “looks fine” and given more nurofen and panadol, which she brought up. Later when the girl had a 40 degree temp and the mother was begging for a doctor it was “don’t worry, relax Priya, calm down”. In response:

    The Department of Home Affairs said in a statement it is committed to the welfare of detainees, and healthcare on Christmas Island is “broadly comparable” with the broader Australian public health system.

If that is the case we are all in trouble.

There has been plenty of commentary from pediatricians saying that the deprivation perpetrated by our government will have immediate and enduring harmful effects on the children. In fact now we have an open letter to home affairs minister Karen Andrews Royal College of Physicians and eight other peak medical groups.

During the first 17 months of detention in a Melbourne detention centre, the family were only allowed outside for 30 minutes each day. In August 2018 The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne prepared a report on the children when Tharunicaa developed infected teeth. It said Tharunicaa, then 14 months old, was showing behavioural disturbance and a blood test confirmed a vitamin D deficiency.

Kopika was included in the failed asylum claim. However, Tharunicaa was not. This recent article from The Conversation says:

    Current legal action centres around the obligations of the government to consider whether she can apply for a visa in Australia. As Tharunicaa is an “unlawful maritime arrival” she cannot apply for a visa unless the Home Affairs Minister (Andrews) personally intervenes.

    Lawyers argue she has a strong claim for protection based on a range of factors including: the extensive media coverage of the family, the family’s Tamil ethnicity and their “purported” connections to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers).

    In April 2020, Federal Court Justice Mark Moshinsky ruled Tharunicaa had not given “procedural fairness” when her September 2018 request for permission to apply for a protection visa was rejected. That decision was upheld by the Full Court of the Federal Court in February. But further complicating matters, the court also found the immigration minister did not have an obligation to allow her to apply for a visa.

    The ongoing litigation means the family will not be removed from Australia any time soon. But it is not clear whether the family or the government will take the next step and go to the High Court.

What is clear is that the relevant minister has complete discretion in the matter. Part of his problem is that this photo, and a range of cute and attractive photos, have gone viral:

That photo was supplied by change.org (petitions may be found here and here).

Here’s one from Facebook:

Katharine Murphy rips in with If you think Australia making an example of a sick three-year-old is an exception, think again. This is what we do.

Yes, we are implicated because we elect politicians who act in our name. She reminds us what we have done:

    Before Australian authorities responded with passivity and panadol as a preschooler on Christmas Island become gravely ill over the past fortnight, there were the kids on Nauru brought here for urgent medical treatment after they refused food and fluids.

    There was the 14-year-old who suffered from a major depressive disorder and severe muscle wastage after not getting out of bed for four months.

    There was 23-year-old Reza Barati, who was beaten to death during violent rioting in the detention centre on Manus Island in 2014.

    There was the Iranian asylum seeker, Hamid Kehazaei, who was misdiagnosed, treated with broken equipment and left unattended as he grew critically ill on Manus Island. After he died from septicaemia, the Queensland coroner, Terry Ryan, found the death was preventable.

Those cases were the tip of the iceberg, a sample of the cases that made it onto nightly TV. What Murphy calls a “policy of performative cruelty” is much more extensive.

Yet at voting time we only think of controlling our borders, evil people smugglers, queue jumpers, and asylum seekers drowning at sea or being smashed against the rocks at Christmas Island.

Madonna King makes an excellent case for an exception being made in The Biloela family has the might of Australia behind it. We make exceptions all the time in response to particular circumstances. She says:

    This family – living in detention – chose Biloela in Queensland as their home, and quickly became part of its heart and soul. Working. Volunteering. Meeting friends. Helping to build a strong community.

    Biloela is not a flash place, but the people are as down to earth as it comes. They work hard, look out for each other, and can spot a fake.

Now it is PM Scott Morrison, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews and their crew who are looking fake.

She suggests that with 500,000 plus people signing the change.org petition there may be implications for Ms Andrews in her electorate of McPherson on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Kishor Napier-Raman at Crikey in On the Biloela family, the government struggles to find a compassionate way out points out that the political equation has now swung in favour of compassion:

    Peter Dutton, who previously called the children “anchor babies”, is gone from Home Affairs. While his successor, Karen Andrews, defended the family’s detention, she’s no Dutton. Then came Tharnicaa’s hospitalisation, during a relatively quiet news week, at a time when we’re slouching towards an election.

    The last week has been a classic semi-stage-managed government tone shift. First, Coalition MPs were anonymously voicing their reservations. Today there are at least six — Trent Zimmerman, Katie Allen, Jason Falinski, Bridget Archer, Ken O’Dowd (whose electorate includes Biloela), and now Barnaby Joyce — who have called for the government to let the family stay in Australia.

Actually Barnaby Joyce was in favour of the family back in 2019.

Napier-Raman points out that the decision maker is immigration minister Alex Hawke, who has complete discretion. He can make his announcement, take the issue off the front pages, disappear, and we’ll all forget come election time. Solving the issue will favour Morrison.

However, on policy terms the case is more problematic than we’ve been told by the MSM or politicians. I’d highly recommend purchasing the current issue of The Monthly if it has in print Martin McKenzie-Murray’s article Australian purgatory which doesn’t in fact mention the Biloela case.

The Biloela family only had a bridging visa. There are 31,200 legacy Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders who came by boat before Morrison stopped the boats who will never be granted citizenship because the came in a boat rather than by plane. Most have been granted refugee status but there is a possibility, if the country they came from becomes safe, that they can be returned.

Moreover, some 1100 of them are yet to receive their first interview with the Department of Home Affairs – that is, they haven’t even received temporary protection, only bridging visas. The Monthly understands that these interviews are meant to be conducted by the end of June.

Looks to me like Karen Andrews having to clean up the mess left by her predecessors. However, if that leaves us with over 30,000 residents in Australia on temporary visas, we best avoid any moral podiums to lecture others. We will have created our own special brand of blameworthiness.

Meanwhile change.org’s petition update shows the counter last I looked at 544, 473.

3 thoughts on “Asylum seekers become human”

  1. This post started as a preamble to one I wanted to do on the Monthly article I mention towards the end. I just kept finding more stuff.

    Thought I’d post and see what the morrow brings. Multiple sources say that the Biloela case is about to be ‘solved’ in a positive way.

    Hard to see how that could be done without implications for the other 31,200.

    Tony Abbott has said the Biloela family should go back to Sri Lanka and apply from there to get a place in the normal refugee intake. There are precedents for that course of action.

    How could the family trust our immigration authorities?

    Also Priya came from India, not Sri Lanka. If memory serves she fled to India in 2001 when her then fiance was burnt alive for being a Tamil.

  2. The decision we have this morning is that the family will be re-united in Perth, but we don’t have a formal statement yet.

    The Conversation and The New Daily.

    I have to go to work today, but I believe this means the family will be in community detention in the suburbs, will not have access to Centrelink, will not be able to work, and will be subject to a curfew at nights.

    It has been emphasised that this is not a pathway to permanent residence as such. Some government members are clearly worried about children born here being used as an excuse for people to stay.

    I’ve also heard today that some other countries do not regard Sri Lanka as safe in refugee terms, which would rule out returning unsuccessful asylum seekers because of the risk of refoulement.

    As to returning to Sri Lanka to apply for a normal refugee position, as suggested by Warren Entsch and others, we’ve heard that the nearest Australian embassy to Sri Lanka is in Bangkok. Not sure what difference that makes in an increasingly connected world.

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