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‘They’ll be home soon’ - Hope for Biloela family, but other Tamils remain in limbo

After Labor leader Anthony Albanese emerged victorious in Australia’s election last week, fresh hope has been raised for the Murugappan family, a Tamil family of asylum seekers who were removed by Australian authorities from their home in Biloela almost four years ago.

In the run up to the election, the Labor party had promised to grant the family a visa and allow them to return to Biloela.

“To get to that last night was so incredibly special,” said Angela Fredericks, a social worker from Biloela who helps run a campaign to release the family from detention. In the wake of the Labor victory, videos and photographs from the campaign shows the Murugappans embracing each other and shedding tears at the prospect of finally being allowed to leave detention.

“We’ve never seen their smiles so big, we’ve never seen their faces look so relaxed,” added  Fredericks . “The toll of 20-plus years of trauma falling away as they actually finally processing that they are safe.”

The incoming Labor government has previously said that letting the family return home would be “one of the first” priorities. Friends and supporters now hope they will be back in the coming weeks.

Priya and Nadesalingham fled the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka, arriving separately by boat in Australia in 2012 and 2013. Under the migration act, they were both classified as "irregular maritime arrivals". They were introduced to each other by mutual friends and went on to marry and settle in Biloela. Soon they welcomed two daughters into the world Kopika in 2015 and Tharnicaa in 2017.  

Their troubles began when they were taken from their homes by Australian immigration officials to immigration detention in Melbourne. The family has faced many trials in the 4 years since they were removed from Biloela. However, the town rallied behind them and tirelessly campaigned for their return. 

Despite repeated calls by Australians, civil rights organisations and international parties, Morrison's government refused to allow the Murugappan family to return to their home. As recently as last week, incumbent Australian Prime Minister Morrison claimed "there is no protection owed” to the family. “They have not been found to be refugees. And so Australia's rules do not permit permanent visas for people who have not been found to be refugees."

Just before Australians were set to cast their votes, the Liberal party issued a text message to voters nationwide, stating "BREAKING: Australian Border Force has intercepted an illegal boat trying to reach Australia. Keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today. https://vote.liberal.org.au". The attached link led to a website instructing how to vote for the Liberal Party.

The move was condemned by many. Senior lecturer in politics at the Australian Catholic University Benjamin Moffitt commented that the text messages "reeked of desperation". He went on, "I can't think of any time when national security has been used in such a blatant last-minute way". 

Albanese, however, went on to win and become only the fourth Labor leader since World War Two to oust a Liberal prime minister.

The case of the Biloela family has attracted international media attention.

"They've actually given people a glimpse of what it's like for a Sri Lankan Tamil," said Fredericks. "Right from day one I remember talking to people about the UN, Amnesty International – all of these independent human rights groups who say Sri Lanka is not safe for Tamils.”

For other Tamil asylum seekers in Australia, though their cases remain in limbo, the Labor victory has raised hopes.

"There are a lot of other Tamils here in Australia on temporary visas and what a Labor government means is that for a lot of them – they are actually going to get permanent safety,” added Fredericks. "I know having walked with one beautiful Tamil couple, that is life changing."

Others have been more cautious in welcoming the new Labor government.

"Those on bridging visas, waiting for their cases to be heard, or have exhausted all the legal avenues – they are still facing deportation," said Tamil Refugee Council spokesman Aran Mylvaganam. "People who are in similar situations to Priya, Nades and their family have not received any commitment from the Labor Party during the election campaign."

"The process all refugees have been put through has been flawed," he added. "People have been put in a desperate situation where they can't go back to their country, at the same time they can't be with their family members, and that creates mental health issues.”

"We want this uncertainty to come to an end, that's our demand to the Labor government."

"It’s heartening to hear the Biloela family will finally be able to return to the QLD town they call home," tweeted lawmaker Anrew Wilkie. "But we still need a major reset of the way we treat asylum seekers in Australia."


Read more from ABC here, The Guardian here, the Brisbane Times here and the Canberra Times here.

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