Meet the Murugappans

Will Biloela be a trigger for a more enlightened refugee policy?

The family name is Murugappan. That’s Mu-ru-gappan. It’s not hard to say. A bit of practice and it rolls off the tongue.

The mother of this family, Priya, came to Australia on a boat in 2012. The father, Nades, arrived here in 2013 by similar means. The two met for the first time after their arrival. 

A few months later, Labor PM Kevin Rudd made an election promise that future boat people would be held offshore and never settled in Australia. After the election a victorious Tony Abbott seized on it as his “bipartisan” refugee policy centerpiece – which says a lot about how such policies are born.

Because they arrived before that deadline Priya and Nades were able to marry and make a home in Biloela, Queensland, where the couple found a welcoming, nurturing community and a job for Nades. In 2015 they had a daughter, Kopika, and two years later a second daughter, Tharnicaa, was born.

In Biloela they speak of Murugappan family members as people normally do, by their names. But when pressed to talk about them, Coalition ministers refer to them in the terms defined by the laws they drafted – “non-refugees” or “illegal non-citizens”. 

Over nearly four years the family became part of the Biloela community. To people around them they were good citizens – not in the legal sense used by official Australia as a tool for excluding people, but rather as friendly, helpful neighbours.

To Biloela people and other Australians, the sudden removal of Nades, Priya, Kopika and Tharnicaa in a Border Force raid on the family home in 2018 was a shocking assault on community values. The government defined it as the excision of illegal non-citizens.

In 2019 the Murugappans were in a plane headed for Sri Lanka when the Federal Court found that Tharnicaa’s eligibility for a visa had not been resolved. After the plane was forced to land in Darwin, the family was sent into detention on Christmas Island. 

Biloela had been a far cry from the chronic mayhem and murder that prompted Priya and Nades to seek safe haven in Australia in the first place. In Sri Lanka’s early post-colonial years, their Tamil minority had been denied citizenship by Sinhalese majority governments, sparking a Tamil independence movement and attacks on government targets.

From 1983 until 2009 the island was wracked by a savage civil war. The final government victory was marked by the killing of thousands of Tamil civilians who thought they were in a government-authorised “safe zone”. That military campaign was overseen by defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is is now Sri Lanka’s president.

International observers have since accused Rajapaksa and others of war crimes, and this year the UN Human Rights Office reported persistent government intimidation of Tamils. Despite all this, Australia has supplied Rajapaksa’s government with navy patrol vessels and drones, partly to stop Tamil refugee boats at source. It maintains that close working relationship.

To determine refugee status of Tamils, immigration ministers refer to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Sri Lanka information report, which currently asserts that “Sri Lankans face a low risk of torture”. The US State Department begs to differ, and last month a UK immigration tribunal found that DFAT’s unreferenced assertions were unreliable. But Australia continues to rely on advice that Tamils are safe in their homeland.

Immigration minister Alex Hawke says that allowing the Murugappan family to stay in Australia risks restarting “the trade in human misery” – the government’s stock descriptor for the business of ferrying asylum-seekers here.

No link has ever been established between stopping boats carrying asylum-seekers – which to this day continue to be stopped by turn-backs on the high seas – and detention on remote islands. And the government’s confected outrage at “people smugglers” has to be seen in light of its collusion with Sri Lankan authorities to demonise Tamils as “non-refugees”. 

Frustrated at court findings that asylum-seekers have human rights, the Morrison government has denied the Murugappans an identity, held the parents and their Australian-born children captive for years, and sought at every turn to return them to an oppressive regime they risked their lives to escape from. The mental health toll on the family has to be colossal.

Bigotry, spin and subterfuge have been hallmarks of Australia’s official position on refugees ever since John Howard began dog-whistling over the Tampa’s miserable human cargo nearly 20 years ago. Biloela is showing us that appearances to the contrary, there is still decency to be found in Australia. Perhaps this will be a turning point.

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