A refugee win, but the fight goes on
A refugee win, but the fight goes on

The refugee campaign won a major victory this week, as Tamil refugees Priya and Nades Nadesalingam and their two young children finally arrived home to the Queensland town of Biloela.

The Liberal government pushed relentlessly for them to be deported, but failed due to the overwhelming public support garnered by #HometoBilo and other refugee campaigners, and the resistance of Priya and Nades themselves.

“Priya fought for herself, fought for her family, and now they’re home in Bilo”, said Barathan Vidhyapathy, spokesperson for the Tamil Refugee Council, speaking at the airport shortly after the family landed.

“At the heart of the Home to Bilo campaign has always been the resilience, the courage and the hope of Priya and Nades”, added local campaigner Simeone Cameron. “A group of Biloela locals just sprung up around them and stubbornly refused to accept what our government said was immigration policy.”

From the beginning of her family’s ordeal, when their home was raided in the early hours of the morning and they were bundled into government vans, Priya refused to give in. She resisted every time the government tried to move them, all the while relaying information from within detention to activists on the outside. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people signed the petition and joined protests calling for their release, making their detention a national issue that was impossible for the government or the courts to ignore.

The return of Priya and Nades to Biloela is a victory against Australia’s barbaric border regime, and evidence that resistance can win important gains. But the fight is not over, as they have so far been granted only temporary bridging visas, despite government hints that permanent visas might be a possibility. “We are going to keep fighting until Priya and Nades have permanent safety here in Biloela”, said Home to Bilo co-founder Angela Fredericks. “They don’t deserve any more uncertainty in their lives.”

Vidhyapathy explained that thousands of Tamils and other refugees in Australia face this sort of uncertainty. “They live in fear of being deported back to danger”, he said. “Our homeland of Tamil Eelam is occupied, there’s one soldier for every six civilians ... and yet, when Tamils try to seek asylum, they are often treated very, very harshly by our government, just for seeking refuge. We need to ask ourselves why successive governments have gotten away with this ... There are many more refugees, not just Tamil refugees ... who have been living here for over ten years. We demand that these people are given permanent protection, not just bridging visas, not just false promises.”

Priya hopes that her example can inspire other refugees to stand up and fight back against their treatment. “I have some responsibility”, she explained. “I will be the role model to those people who are in detention. Sometimes people don’t come up and speak for themselves because they are scared of the system ... I’m requesting: never feel afraid to speak up. I hope this gives hope for other people that they can be free too and they can have a good life too.”

The Labor Party saw the public outcry for the Nadesalingams as an opportunity to put on a compassionate face, while reaffirming its commitment to all the anti-refugee policies that have been used to persecute this family and thousands of others. Only a few days after being elected, the new Labor government was celebrating the turning back of a boat of Sri Lankan asylum seekers as a demonstration that nothing would change for refugees under Labor’s rule.

“We thought that since the Australians knew that we were going through tremendous hardship here [in Sri Lanka], that people had no more food to eat, that they would accept us”, one of the people on that boat later told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It didn’t matter what I did there, even if it was sweeping or cleaning toilets. My main objective was to provide a life for my children.”

Climate change and economic crisis will make it increasingly likely that refugees will seek out the aid of wealthy countries like Australia. We need to seize upon the struggle of the Nadesalingam family as inspiration for how we can resist the power of right-wing politicians to decide who belongs here and who does not, and fight for a world where every refugee is free to live a decent life.

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