Relief for one Biloela family. But this fight isn’t over

15 June 2021
Ben Hillier

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke won’t even say their names. But the government has relented to public pressure and is moving Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa into community detention in Perth. It is a small win for the family. While they will still be deprived of many rights and liberties, their period of intense isolation under constant surveillance is at an end—for now at least.

That there is relief for this family is down to tenacious, unrelenting campaigning. The government has been forced to offer a concession against every reflex of its regular judgement. Everyone who has played a role in fighting for the family’s freedom deserves credit, in particular the stalwarts of the Home to Bilo campaign—Angela Fredericks, Simone Cameron and Bronwyn Dendle. But none have earned this respite and deserve more credit than Priya and Nades, who have campaigned under the most difficult of circumstances.

“When they abducted us from Biloela at 5:30 in the morning, the way they handled us gave me the courage to fight back”, Priya told me earlier this year via video link from Christmas Island. Her resilience has been the foundation of one of the most remarkable campaigns of the last decade. Priya and Nades have fought not just for themselves and their family, but for every other refugee denied their rights by Australian authorities.

This new development hopefully puts the family a step closer to a permanent return to their home in Queensland. That is where they should be—not in Perth detention but rebuilding their lives among friends in Biloela. Minister Hawke has not ruled out allowing them to reapply for temporary protection. That too would be welcome. Yet, as the ministerial statement today notes, the decision “does not create a pathway to a visa … Anyone who arrives in Australia illegally by boat will not be resettled permanently”. So we cannot rely on grace or good conscience on the part of the government to guarantee the safety of this family.

Hawke claims that his decision to transfer them from Christmas Island to Perth is motivated by “appropriate compassion”. No-one in the refugee movement should take this at face value. Compassion is a quality that the federal government has had infinite opportunities to display. It has refused to do so on almost every occasion. Like when it chose to send police and Border Force agents to storm the family’s home at 5:30am in March 2018. When it gave them just ten minutes to pack their belongings. When it separated the family, left behind Tharunicaa’s still-warming milk and flew them across the country to the Broadmeadows refugee prison.

When it coerced them into signing “voluntary” deportation documents under the threat of family separation. When it ignored a mother’s pleas that appropriate medical care be provided to her children as their condition deteriorated in the isolation of that place. When it attempted several times to deport them by force. When it refused to allow any new evidence to be presented to bolster their legal cases for protection.

When it sent the family to Christmas Island so that virtually no-one would be able to visit them. When it dogmatically refused even to hear the protection claim of Tharunicaa. When, with no compunction, it spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat and potentially destroy the family. When it refuses to acknowledge the dangers in Sri Lanka or to reconsider its own departmental advice even now that the people responsible for carrying out the genocide against Tamils—the Rajapaksa brothers—are back in control of the government, and human rights organisations around the world report that the country situation is deteriorating.

There is no compassion. There is only a concession. The fight is not over.

So often these last years we have watched as governments, Labor and Liberal, broke the spirits of asylum seekers. Sometimes lawyers counselled against publicly campaigning for refugees, believing that the courts were the only avenue, and that media attention would hinder an individual’s case, rather than aid it. Sometimes refugees were deported after relenting under the weight of unending hopelessness; sometimes because they were coerced into signing those “voluntary” removal forms.

Yet the government’s determination to deport this family has been exceeded by the will of the movement to free them. All the resources that the state brought to bear have, so far at least, crashed on the solid rock of the campaign’s conviction. Several times we almost lost Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa. If you look at the available footage of the deportation attempts, you will see Priya resisting, delaying what seemed inevitable, while Nades filmed or took photos on his camera and comforted their daughters. Their resistance has inspired thousands.

And while one conclusion to be drawn is “always resist”, this isn’t just a tale of pluck trumping power. It’s a story that contradicts one of the foundational narratives of Australia’s “border protection” regime—namely, that government policy has been a response to public attitudes. Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa were isolated on Christmas Island because the government thought that the family being out of sight would dim public support for their cause.

Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island were commissioned in the first place as detention facilities because governments know that when asylum seekers are allowed to join the rest of society, or are even in close proximity, basic human decency tends to break down many of the anxieties, fears and hostilities that were stoked in the first instance by the very same governments, and their helpers in the media, that oversee the imprisonment and deportation of refugees. Proximity tends to encourage understanding. And understanding has a history of breeding solidarity.

It has been the greatest lie of twenty-first century Australian politics that the public has somehow been behind the increasingly fascistic “border protection” regime; that governments and the media have been reacting to, rather than creating, a consensus about denying people the right to seek asylum. This campaign has shown that when people are humanised, rather than demonised, the government can not only lose control of the narrative but lose the argument entirely.

Still, this one concession to one family has taken more than half a million signatures, significant media support, the backing of prominent conservatives and a whole town pleading for their friends to be returned. And it has taken a family that fits the model of “deserving”: hard working, community minded and living in an area crying out for people. With all this going for them, Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa still spent more than three years locked up and only avoided deportation by the skin of their teeth.

But thousands of others have been deported. And so many others—on visas that will eventually expire, on visas already expired, locked in Melbourne’s Park Hotel or stuck on Nauru or in Papua New Guinea—have no such support. They don’t have entire towns campaigning for their release. They don’t have celebrities sending messages of encouragement. They don’t get the same sympathetic media attention. While the odious regime of mandatory detention, offshore detention and temporary protection remains, their lives will continue to be shattered.

The announcement today is a great relief. It shows that, against all odds, there are still victories to be had. But this family is still not in the clear. And the torment continues for thousands across the country. That’s why the campaign for refugee rights cannot and will not end.


Join the speakout on Wednesday night, 5:30pm at the Perth Children's Hospital, to keep up the pressure on the government to provide permanent protection.

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