Four to a bed and escorted by guards: Biloela family describes tough year on Christmas Island

Tamil asylum seeker Priya Murugappan - who along with her husband and two children is facing deportation from Australia - tells SBS News what life has been like away from her Queensland community.

The Muruguppan family.

The Murugappan family. Source: Supplied

The deportation case of a Tamil family from Biloela in Queensland rests with their three-year-old daughter, the youngest person currently held in an Australian immigration detention centre.  

She and her five-year-old sister Kopika - who were both born in Australia - have been detained on the remote Christmas Island, an Australian territory, with their asylum seeker parents for almost 14 months, since a court injunction prevented their deportation to Sri Lanka.

The family had been living in Biloela since 2014 until they were taken from their home in a dawn raid in March 2018 and detained.

One of Kopika's drawings.
Source: One of Kopika's drawings.

Lawyers for the family and the Department of Home Affairs on Wednesday appeared before three Federal Court judges to determine the appeal and cross-appeal of Justice Mark Moshinsky’s decision that a valid application had not been made - and in relation to his findings that the youngest child of the family was not given procedural fairness - when Immigration Minister David Coleman considered lifting a bar preventing her from applying for an Australian visa. 

Conditions ‘not suitable’

Despite last week’s federal budget announcement that a further $55.6 million will be spent on upgrading the Christmas Island detention centre, the family of four have had to share a bed for the nearly 14 months they have been held on the island, mother Priya Murugappan said. 

“We have been given a small room, we don’t have any privacy.” 

“It’s not a suitable place for a husband and wife to live together ... It affects my mental health.”

While the eldest daughter attends a school on the island, Priya says their one-bedroom cabin is not a suitable place for the family to spend the majority of their time. 

She says the cabin has no internet access, the washing machine facilities are frequently broken, the children have no outdoor play area and the family has to be escorted by guards outside of the centre - including to and from school. 

The family's lawyer Carina Ford visited them in February and likened their bedroom to a caravan, saying the conditions were unsuitable for a family with young children.

“I found the visit to Christmas Island, in all honesty, quite overwhelming. For many reasons; its remoteness, the fact that it's quite a stifling hot place, and where they were living was really run down," she said. 

"It's sort of like, you know, tin sheds ... put together … their bed, their bedding arrangements were also an obvious concern.”

Where they were living was really run down. It's sort of like, you know, tin sheds ... put together. - Carina Ford, Lawyer
Robyn Stephenson is a long term Christmas Island resident familiar with the detention facilities operated by the Australian government. She claimed there is other, more suitable, accommodation on the island. 

“Previously when the numbers of refugee families arriving on the island were small, the Australian government was happy to put them in proper houses, which are still available. So why isn’t this family in one of those houses now?” she said. 

The family is currently the only family group held in detention on Christmas Island. There are other detainees held in a separate detention facility.

‘I don’t like it here’

Priya says at five-and-a-half, her eldest daughter Kopika understands her home life is different to that of her school friends and she is often distressed by multiple guards escorting the family everywhere, asking her parents why they live in detention.

“Kopika comes back very upset. Kopika doesn’t like it, she is missing friends,” Priya said. “All the time she is growing up ... she understands ... She wants to go outside and playing with other kids… [Detention] centre is very boring.” 

Asked if the children can have their friends visit them, Priya says it is “not allowed”, adding that the school holiday periods have been especially difficult. 

While her mother was being interviewed, Kopika said: “I like going to school and I don’t like [it] here. I want to go to Biloela. I want to go shopping and I want to go in my dad’s car”.

Ms Ford says the family should be able to live in a community. 

“I do not see how a mother, father and two children can be considered a security risk. There just seems no reason for that at all, for them to be detained in the manner that they are.”

‘No concerns’

A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said “the presence of Serco guards [with the family] is required under section 189(3) of the Migration Act and is in the interests of the family’s security and safety. During any off-site visits, guards are not in uniform and maintain a discrete distance”. 

The family have access to the internet via “a PC located in their accommodation [and] can also readily contact family, friends, support network and lawyers via personal mobile phones,” they added. 

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton
Peter Dutton blamed the family for costing taxpayers money. Source: AAP

The spokesperson said a “purpose-built playroom has been provided for the children” and the family are able to attend “crèche facilities five times a week” as well as picnics, sightseeing and children’s dance and yoga classes.

“The ABF [Australian Border Force] regularly engage around sleeping arrangements to ensure their suitability. No concerns have been raised recently.”

The ABF did not respond to questions about the houses it is claimed refugee families have previously been accommodated in.

Priya and her husband arrived in Australia by boat separately in 2012 and 2013 and say they cannot return to Sri Lanka. Priya says she fled after witnessing bomb attacks and the death of her then-fiance during the civil war, and her husband “faced all sorts of threats because of his involvement with the Tamil Tigers".

Home Affairs Minister and blamed the family for costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

A drawing by Kopika
Source: Supplied

She also believes recent changes in the political regime in Sri Lanka have increased the risk for them if they were to return and their story being shared widely in the media when they first faced deportation has made it difficult for them to go unnoticed. 

The Sri Lankan government previously said it was safe for Tamil families to return and appealed to those who had sought refugee status elsewhere to come back.

from a closed detention environment more than a year ago. The children have now lived in detention for 31 months. 

Speaking after Wednesday’s court hearing, Ms Ford said she did not expect there to be an immediate outcome.

“We will continue to request that the family be released to live in the community while we wait for an outcome from today’s hearing,” she said, adding that a result could be months away. 

Rebekah Holt is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne

7 min read
Published 15 October 2020 at 7:04pm
By Rebekah Holt