Biloela family to reunite on Australian mainland but visa status expected to remain unchanged

By Sarah Martin

The immigration minister, Alex Hawke, is set to announce on Tuesday that the Murugappan family will be released from detention on Christmas Island and allowed to reunite on the Australian mainland.

Hawke will use his ministerial discretion to allow the family to return but the government is not expected to make any substantive changes to their visa status which is still being argued in the courts.

There have been increasing calls for the minister to intervene in the long-running saga. It is expected the family will be allowed to live in community detention while their legal appeals against deportation are finalised.

Biloela, the Queensland town where the family lived for four years, does not have any community detention facilities, however, meaning it is possible the family will not be able to return to their former home which has been the focus of the Home to Bilo campaign.

Initially, the family will be reunited in Perth, where the youngest daughter, Tharnicaa, is being treated in hospital after suffering sepsis and pneumonia while in detention on Christmas Island.

On Monday night, the Home to Bilo advocacy group campaigning for the family said that the father, Nades, had been instructed by Australia Border Force that he will “get some news tomorrow”.

“Priya & Nades have never given up. Tomorrow, we all hope the minister does what he’s always had the power to do. Bring this family #HomeToBilo,” the group said on Twitter.

The likely relocation of the family comes after the WA health director, general David Russell-Weisz, wrote to the federal home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, urging the family to be reunited to ensure the best health outcome for four-year-old Tharnicaa.

The Sunday Times reported that Tharnicaa’s clinical team from WA’s Child and Adolescent Health Service recommended “urgent family reunification in Australia” to manage the complex and comprehensive health needs of the two daughters.

Support for the family has been building over recent months, but the hospitalisation of the youngest child prompted Coalition backbenchers to join calls for the family to be allowed to resettle in the community.

The Tamil family, Priya and Nades Murugappan and their Australian-born daughters, Kopika and Tharnicaa, were detained on Christmas Island in August 2019 after they lost a bid to gain refugee status that would have stopped their deportation.

In May 2019, the high court refused them the ability to appeal against a federal court decision that they be deported back to Sri Lanka. This has left the family to argue its case that Tharnicaa was denied procedural fairness by the decision.

Hawke, who has the ability to grant the family a different visa to end the long-running court process, has been considering departmental advice on the case, along with submissions from the family’s legal team.

It is understood Hawke and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, have discussed how best to resolve the matter in recent days, however, Hawke’s decision will not be considered by cabinet.

Speaking in the UK on Sunday, Morrison said that it would be against government policy to offer permanent settlement in Australia to someone who had arrived by boat.

“Settled? Well, that wouldn’t be government policy for a pathway to permanent settlement. That is not the government’s policy,” Morrison said in response to a question about whether the family would be settled in Australia.

“There are options that are being considered that are consistent with both health advice and the humanitarian need and the government’s policy.”

Earlier on Monday, the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, said the family was being reunited in Perth but authorities were also working within Covid-19 restrictions.

“These are difficult circumstances [and] I appreciate that, and states also have a role to play and certainly with the daughter in Perth at the moment with her mum, I understand that also the health authorities in WA also make these considerations as to whether the whole family gets reunited.”

Biloela Tamil family’s plight back in the spotlight: how the story unfolded – video
Biloela Tamil family’s plight back in the spotlight: how the story unfolded – video

The shift in the government’s position comes as a growing number of Coalition backbench MPs publicly criticised the ongoing detention of the family, which has been fighting the government deportation order since 2018.

The parents arrived in Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013.

Nationals MPs Ken O’Dowd and Barnaby Joyce, along with moderate MPs Trent Zimmerman, Jason Falinski and Katie Allen, have spoken in favour of a ministerial exemption for the family, with calls for them to return to the Queensland community where they lived for four years.

O’Dowd, whose electorate includes Biloela, spoke to Hawke on Friday about the case, with the minister reportedly agreeing the case had gone on too long.

Last week, Andrews suggested the government was considering resettlement options for the family, but then appeared to dig in against calls for them to return to the mainland, saying the courts had found them not to be refugees.

“That means there is no obligation for us to provide protection to them, which means that they should be returning to their home country of Sri Lanka,” she said.

Other senior ministers have also suggested that allowing the family to stay could restart the people-smuggling trade.

The social services minister, Anne Ruston, said the government did not want to see a return of the “disgusting sights” of people smuggling, including deaths at sea, while the attorney general, Michaelia Cash, warned of the “consequences of blinking” on border security.