A family snatched at dawn, fighting for their lives

It’s the stuff of nightmares. A family with two infant daughters, their house raided by 20 or more armed strangers, bundled into vans, flown half a continent away, imprisoned for a week before again being put into vans, flown thousands of kilometres and placed on another aircraft bound for a land they fled years ago, fearing for their lives.

For Priya, her husband Nades and their daughters – 9-month-old Dharuniga and 2-year-old Kopiga, who were born in Australia – this nightmare became reality in early March.

They were woken at their home in Biloela, central Queensland, by scores of police, Border Force officers and Serco guards. It was 5am. They were given 10 minutes to gather whatever belongings they could, before being separated – Nades in one van, Priya and the daughters in the other. Despite their distress, and her pleas, Priya was prevented from sitting with her daughters during the trip to Gladstone Airport.

“I asked the guards, ‘If it were your children, would you treat them this way, or is it only because we are refugees?’”, Priya related over the phone through a translator on 9 March. “I was humiliated. I was made to feel worthless. I will never forget that experience.”

The family was flown to Broadmeadows detention centre, Melbourne, where they were confined to a room under guard for a week. Priya says Border Force officers told them that if they didn’t sign “voluntary” deportation documents, they would be denied access to a phone and she and her husband would be separated and deported to Sri Lanka.

“We are in house arrest here. We have to stay in our room. The children can’t go outside. There are three guards outside the room. We are living as prisoners”, Priya said. “The children are distressed and disoriented. They don’t understand what is happening. My daughter is asking to go to her friend’s house in Biloela.”

Nades fled Sri Lanka in 2012, fearing for his life, after he was targeted by security forces over his previous association with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers. Eelam means “homeland”), a separatist group that fought for a Tamil state in the north and east of the country.

Priya and her family fled the country 18 years ago due to violence in their home district of Batticaloa, in the country’s east. She came to Australia by boat in 2013. She has not been in Sri Lanka for almost two decades, and her family is no longer there.

Nades and Priya met in Australia and married in 2014. They settled in Biloela several years ago and started a family. Dharuniga and Kopiga were born in Australia. This is their home – they have never been to Sri Lanka and do not hold Sri Lankan citizenship.

Sri Lanka still unsafe

Majority-Tamil lands in the north and east of the country were mostly under the control of the LTTE from the mid-1980s, after vicious pogroms led by members of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority left 3,000 Tamils dead, displaced up to 500,000 and drove thousands to join the Tigers to create a defensive fighting force.

The LTTE built a de facto state, which acted like a wall against incursions from the Sri Lankan military and police, and the colonisation programs designed to undermine Tamil claims for geographical self-determination. But the LTTE was routed militarily in 2009, in a genocidal offensive by the Sri Lankan military that left tens of thousands of Tamils dead.

Numerous agencies, such as the International Crisis Group, the United Nations and Amnesty International, have repeatedly noted the continued institutionalised culture of impunity within sections of the Sri Lankan police, military and security services. Returned Tamils and those with known or suspected links to the LTTE are particular targets of reprisal.

For example, Amnesty International’s latest Annual Report, published on 22 February, noted of the situation last year:

“[T]he Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka said that it had continued to document widespread incidents of violence against detainees, including torture and other ill-treatment, which it described as ‘routine’ and practised throughout the country, mainly by police.”

The north of the country is under heavy military occupation. In Mannar and Mullaitivu districts, in the north-east and north-west respectively, bases are everywhere. In some places, you can’t travel more than five or six kilometres without encountering another.

While the checkpoints have been dismantled, Tamil lands have not been returned, and the army controls sections of the economy. “The government-sponsored colonisation – this has not stopped”, a doctor in Jaffna, the capital of Northern Province, told Red Flag last year.

Local activists and advocates continue to talk about the harassment and intimidation they face, the visits from plain-clothed agents, the relatives still unaccounted for, the friends and family members tortured or exiled.

Last month, a former ranking member of the LTTE, Santharuban, was deported under duress from Australia. On his return, he was handed over to Sri Lankan authorities at Bandaranaike airport, Colombo, and questioned for about four hours.

He has since been visited on several occasions by state security officers. They took the details of Santharuban’s wife and children, including the school they attend. This clearly was intimidation. But he is lucky to face only low-level harassment so far.

The story of his deportation was widely reported, and the Tamil Refugee Council in Australia secured the services of prominent Sri Lankan human rights lawyer K.S. Ratnavale, who nevertheless remains deeply concerned for Santharuban’s future safety. Others have not been so “fortunate”.

Sections of the southern highlands recently were put under a state of emergency after mobs of Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinists, led by monks and reportedly supported by the military, attacked and burned Muslim homes and shops in a wave of violence. It was reported as an exceptional occurrence. But, as Jude Lal Fernando, director of the Centre for Post-Conflict Justice at the University of Dublin, wrote on 16 March:

“‘The Eelam Tamils who demanded self-determination have been militarily defeated. Let us teach a lesson to the Muslims now’ – This is not the mindset of a few extremist Sinhala Buddhists. It is solely a reflection of the way which the Sri Lankan state has been structured; its unitary character, exclusivist nationalist ideology and the support it gets from global powers.”

On top of all this, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the 2009 offensive to wipe out Tamil resistance to their historic oppression, is resurgent in the polls. His party list in February won 239 local government positions out of 340 in district elections, and is calling for fresh presidential elections. That development has many Tamils worried – Rajapaksa is an unrepentant war criminal aligned with hardline chauvinists who believe that Tamils are a foreign fifth column that must be cleansed from the country.

The Australian government cares nothing for these realities. It has forged a partnership with Sri Lanka, the terms of which subordinate the human rights of Tamil people to the realpolitik of international relations.

There is more to it, however, than state alliances. Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton’s recent comments about white South African farmers being persecuted – and that he would consider granting them protection – was calculated.

It was a middle finger to the brown-skinned people he is deporting to real persecution, and a message to the disillusioned hard right of his party and to One Nation voters: “Stick with the Liberal Party. We may not be perfect, but I’m living proof that white supremacy has a seat at the table in this government”.

A flood of support

Priya and Nades begged not to be deported, but relented and signed the documents handed to them in Broadmeadows. Less than a week later, according to Priya, she and Nades were handcuffed, put in a van and taken to an airport. Their baby daughters were separated from them and travelled in another van.

They were flown to Perth, where they were put on an aircraft with several dozen other Tamils, who were deported to Sri Lanka. Their fate is unclear. But a last minute legal intervention resulted in Border Force officers removing Priya, Nades, Dharuniga and Kopiga from the plane.

The Department of Home Affairs failed in its determination to deport the family without challenge. For now they remain locked under guard. And nothing is settled; a prospective nightmare weighs heavier than the one already endured.

Residents in Biloela, and people around the country, have rallied to support the family. Offers of support flooded the Tamil Refugee Council. Around 90,000 people have signed an online petition requesting that the family be returned to their home and allowed to stay. And locals held a vigil and have vented frustrations to their state and federal representatives, members of the National Party.

“The way the family was treated is an absolute disgrace”, said Angela Fredericks, a family friend and resident of Biloela. “Handcuffed like criminals. Separating babies and infants from parents. Has Australia learnt nothing from our history?”

The town’s response has been widely reported, mainly because places such as Biloela – in rural Queensland and National Party territory – don’t fit political commentators’ and politicians’ stereotype of inner-city, bleeding heart latte sippers. It goes to show just how much human decency can shine when people are put to the test of “love thy neighbour” – be they from foreign lands or otherwise.

Win, lose or draw, there is something to take from this.

Meanwhile, the campaign will continue. Priya, Nadesalingam, Dharuniga and Kopiga should be returned to their home in Biloela and given permanent protection so they can continue building their lives in peace.

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Ben Hillier is media coordinator at the Tamil Refugee Council and an editor of Red Flag.