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A little girl in a flowery frock and pink tiara enjoying her fifth birthday with a koala-topped cake is an image guaranteed to soften even the hardest of hearts. But when Tharnicaa Nadesalingam smiled sweetly for the cameras recently in a Queensland park, it also marked the end of a four-year ordeal as it was the first time she had ever celebrated a birthday outside of immigration detention.

Indeed, the Federal Government squandered more than $7 million keeping “Tharni”, big sister Kopika, dad Nades and mum Priya behind bars, despite the fact the Queensland community of Biloela was more than happy to continue providing them with a safe haven.

Nades and Priya arrived by boat in Australia separately a decade ago as Tamil asylum seekers fleeing Sri Lanka. They later met in Biloela, married and welcomed two daughters. But when their asylum claims were rejected, authorities tried twice to deport them while detaining the family like criminals.

It took a change of government to enable their recent return to Queensland from Western Australia, where they had been living in legal limbo after Tharni became gravely ill while on Christmas Island and was flown to Perth for emergency treatment.

Showing compassion that was so conspicuously absent during the Coalition’s reign, the new Labor Government first granted the young family bridging visas followed by permanent residency last week.

For his part, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has described the whole sorry saga as something “Australia can’t be proud of”. “We are a better country than that, we can do better than that,” he said.

He’s right, we can do better and it’s beyond time we did. No one should have to go through the trauma this Sri Lankan family has faced for simply fleeing danger and seeking to become fully fledged, productive members of our society.

That’s why I have re-introduced a Private Member’s Bill to Federal Parliament designed to end Australia’s policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers and refugees, a practice at odds with numerous international agreements to which Australia is a party. As the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre rightly noted, it’s time to put humanity back into home affairs.

According to the most recent Government figures, as of 31 March 2022 there were 1,512 people held in Australian immigration detention facilities. Another 563 people were living in the community after being approved for a residence determination and 10,993 “Illegal Maritime Arrivals” were living in the community after being granted a bridging visa.

As at 30 June, there were 112 people on Nauru. Just last year, Australia signed a new agreement to continue an “enduring” form of offshore processing for asylum seekers on the remote Pacific island – locking us into more of the same out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach.

Australia’s regional processing arrangements with PNG, meanwhile, ended on 31 December 2021, and the 105 people who remained in PNG at this date are now considered the responsibility of the PNG Government.

Offshore detention is not only cruelty on steroids but staggeringly expensive, with the Government blowing $9.65 billion of taxpayers’ money on the punitive practice since July 2013.

It costs about $360,000 per year to hold someone in immigration detention in Australia and an eyewatering $460,000 to keep a person in hotel detention, as was the case with the poor souls kept in limbo for years on end at Melbourne’s Park Hotel. Compare this to $4,429 for a refugee or asylum seeker to live in the community on a bridging visa.

My Ending Indefinite and Arbitrary Immigration Detention Bill provides alternatives to detention by moving asylum seekers and refugees into the community almost always in preference to being behind bars. It will also ensure they have full access to housing and financial support, education, health care and other government services, as well as the right to work, as is required under international law.

Importantly, the Bill outlines specific conditions on how and why a person can be detained and will rule out long-term and arbitrary detention by setting limited time frames.

I moved a similar Bill during the previous Parliament. When considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, it attracted 437 public submissions that were overwhelmingly supportive. Given this appetite for change, why are there still so many people still being held in immigration detention in Australia and more than 100 languishing on Nauru?

The bipartisan policy of mandatory detention is immoral, illegal and should have been ditched years ago. With the Biloela bungle thankfully behind us, let’s commit to doing better, Mr Albanese, and never make the same hideous mistake again.

This opinion piece was published in the Mercury newspaper on 11 August 2022.