Biloela Tamil family fighting deportation from Australia to learn their fate over the phone

While the family's court proceedings usually attract a group of supporters, due to social distancing requirements the decision on Friday will be delivered directly to lawyers over the phone.

Mother Priya Murugappan has been evacuated from Christmas Island for medical treatment.

Mother Priya Murugappan has been evacuated from Christmas Island for medical treatment. Source: Supplied

A Tamil family fighting deportation from Australia will find out whether they will be likely to return to their rural Queensland home this week as the Federal Court prepares to deliver its

After almost two months of deliberation, Justice Mark Moshinsky will on Friday hand down his verdict on whether two-year-old Tharunicaa has a right to apply for a protection visa after the three other members of the family - Priya, Nades and four-year-old Kopika Murugappan - exhausted their options.

While the court proceedings usually attract a throng of protesters in support of the family, Friday’s much-anticipated verdict will be delivered to the family’s lawyers over the phone due to social distancing restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Supporters wait for the judgment for Biloela Tamil family facing deportation at a hearing in the Federal Court in Melbourne last year.
Supporters wait for the judgment for Biloela Tamil family facing deportation at a hearing in the Federal Court in Melbourne last year. Source: AAP

The family's lawyer Carina Ford told SBS News she didn’t believe the lack of publicity would hamper public sentiment in favour of the family, who are currently the only detainees in the Christmas Island immigration centre. 

“If anything, immigration detention in the current circumstances has actually caused an even greater media profile for this case and that’s because of the circumstances in which they are being detained,” she said.

“There’s a lot of sympathy in the community about their detention given what people are experiencing at the minute with self-isolation and long periods at home - they have been doing that since March 2018.”

Lawyers acting on behalf of the family have argued that steps had been taken by the government which required that a ruling be made on Tharunicaa's bid for asylum, which hasn’t happened.

If the court rules in favour of the family, the two-year-old would be entitled to apply for a bridging visa while her claim is assessed but the Department of Home Affairs holds the right to make the final decision on whether she is allowed to remain in Australia permanently. 

In this outcome, Ms Ford said she hoped the government would allow the family to remain together and return to the community while an application for asylum was underway.

“The youngest child would clearly be eligible to put in for a bridging visa application and we would hope, given that the preference is not to separate the family unit, that it would therefore potentially mean the family could be reunited outside the detention centre and potentially return to Biloela,” she said.

“The preference has been with the minister to not separate the family unit and we would hope that would remain the case, particularly in the current circumstances."

If their arguments were denied, Ms Ford said the legal team would consider an appeal. 

The verdict will be the culmination of a two-year battle to keep the family in Australia after they were removed from the rural Queensland community of Biloela in March 2018 and taken to a Melbourne immigration centre.

Following a last-minute injunction to halt the family’s return to Sri Lanka in August last year, they were moved to the recently reopened centre on Christmas Island, an Australian territory located approximately 350 kilometres off the Indonesian coast.

Biloela resident and long-time advocate for the family Angela Fredericks said she was “feeling quite exhausted” ahead of the decision, after leading the charge for her friends to be returned to their community.

“This has just been dragging on for so long, and if you look at common sense I think the right answer should be back in Biloela,” she said, adding that the family were feeling “very flat”.

In terms of the impending decision, Ms Frederiks said she had “learnt to have no expectations”.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see what comes out on Friday,” she said.

The family claims they would face persecution if forced to return to Sri Lanka because of past family links to the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The Department of Home Affairs has repeatedly insisted the family does not meet the criteria for a protection visa.

“The family has gone through multiple court processes. At every single turn they’ve been found not to be refugees,” Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told SBS News last year.

He controversially accused the parents of having "anchor babies" and said the case is costing taxpayers "literally millions of dollars".

Australia is pushing for an independent investigation into the spread and origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Australia is pushing for an independent investigation into the spread and origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Source: AAP

"It's been made very clear to them at every turn that they were not going to stay in Australia and they still had children," he said. 

He has also said 1,500 other Tamils who arrived in Australia by boat have "safely" been deported back to Sri Lanka.

Last week, shortly after arriving on the island despite concerns about the spread of COVID-19. 

People arriving on Christmas Island are required to self-isolate for 14-days before reentering the community in a bid to prevent an outbreak on the island, but Ms Ford said many of the guards had not been complying with the requirement. 

“There are about 10 to 15 staff daily coming into contact with us. If I was living in my own house then I could control who comes in and doesn’t come in and I would feel safer,” Priya told SBS News.

So far, no cases of coronavirus have been reported among guards or detainees on Christmas Island.

"All staff are adhering to social distancing and general safety guidelines issued by the Department of Health," a spokesperson for the Australian Border Force said.

"All programs and activities available to the family have been reviewed to support social distancing advice."

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6 min read
Published 15 April 2020 at 5:37pm
By Maani Truu