Taken into detention from the Queensland town Biloela more than three years ago, the Murugappan family — dad Nades, mum Priya and daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa — have unwittingly become the human faces of the reality of Australia’s cruel and illegal response to asylum seekers. Arriving from Sri Lanka separately in 2012 and 2013, Nades and Priya lodged claims for asylum and were granted temporary protection visas. They moved to Biloela, home to a meatworks known to employ Tamil asylum seekers. This is where they met, married and had children, now four and six.
But after their asylum claims were rejected, the Federal Government has twice tried to deport them and they remain in legal limbo on Christmas Island.
The family is kept in a guarded compound under 24-hour watch, an operation estimated to have cost taxpayers $6.5m, despite the Biloela community lobbying for their return.
Last week little Tharnicaa had to be medically evacuated to Perth with sepsis due to pneumonia. Heartbreaking images showed her distress at being separated from her big sister. Calls for the family’s release grew louder.
The inhumanity of all this was reflected in the Federal Parliament the week before when the Liberal Government and Labor Opposition rammed through the House of Representatives the Migration Amendment (Clarifying International Obligations for Removal) Bill 2021. This is shocking legislation, legalising the indefinite detention in Australia of any non-citizen who has had their visa cancelled but can’t be returned to country of origin. Indefinite detention of someone who hasn’t been found guilty of any offence is wrong because liberty, presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial are surely fundamental rights. It is blatant retaliation to the Federal Court ruling that indefinite detention of non-citizens was illegal under Australian law. In other words, whenever a court rules against government, the government just keeps changing the law until it finds a workaround.
The Rome Statute explicitly details that it is a crime against humanity to hold anyone in detention indefinitely.
This year I introduced a private member’s bill that would have ended mandatory detention. Regrettably but predictably, it received no support from the Government or Labor. The Ending Indefinite and Arbitrary Immigration Detention Bill would have the effect of abolishing offshore detention, which costs us more than $1bn a year. The Bill gives alternatives, moving people into the community almost always in preference to being behind bars. They would have access to housing and financial support and the right to work and access to education and healthcare as required under international law.
As at March/April, there were about 1500 people in immigration detention and about 240 in PNG and Nauru.
Why do we keep people, many of whom have suffered great trauma, in abhorrent conditions when they should walk free? Surely we’re obliged to protect people claiming to have fled for their lives, hear their claims and give them permanent refuge if their claims are accurate. Just as surely we should end arbitrary and often indefinite detention.
Only then will we fall into line with the community of nations and legitimately be seen as a humane, law-abiding country.