Immigration

How two women from a conservative Queensland town made the deportation of a local Tamil family national news

Tharunicaa and Kopika, left, at the detention centre on Christmas Island in January, and their 'Home to Bilo' campaign supporters. Source: AAP

As the case of the Tamil family from Biloela returns to court on Friday, those behind the 'Home to Bilo' campaign say they're continuing their fight for them to stay and the attempted deportation "doesn't pass the pub test".

It was a sunny spring evening when more than 50 people from the central Queensland town of Biloela gathered at their local park with candles and neon Post-it notes displaying handwritten messages of hope.

Carrying signs declaring “bring them home” and “let them stay”, the mood was one of sorrow, but also, defiance.

Just over a week earlier, on 5 March 2018, a Tamil family-of-four from their tight-knit community had been grabbed from their home at dawn by and taken to an immigration detention centre in Melbourne, with plans to deport them back to Sri Lanka. The news spread quickly through the town of 5,728 residents.

At the vigil, some reported seeing the street outside the family's home cordoned off by police. Others shared their sorrow at the loss of their friends and colleague from the local abattoir.

The first community vigil held Biloela's Lions Park on 14 March, 2018.
The first community vigil held Biloela's Lions Park on 14 March, 2018.
Jacinta Jackson/Facebook

One of the organisers of the vigil was local social worker and friend of the family Angela Fredericks, who would later become the face of the fight to bring Priya, Nades and their two Australian-born daughters back to Biloela.

What she didn’t know then was that their number of supporters would grow to be hundreds of thousands, and almost two years later the family would still be fighting to stay in Australia from a detention centre on Christmas Island - a remote Australian territory off Indonesia

Nades, Priya, Tharunicaa, and Kopika in detention.
Nades, Priya, Tharunicaa, and Kopika in detention.
Home to Bilo/Facebook

“We are a community that looks out for one another. And like most rural towns, if people are here to work hard we appreciate that,” Angela told SBS News.

“To actually get that amount of people to mobilise about something was absolutely gobsmacking," she says of the first vigil.

"I was just so proud of this town that night because we do care about one another and we don’t care where people have come from - we care what they do once they’re here.”

Angela addresses a protest calling for the return of the family to Biloela.
Angela addresses a protest calling for the return of the family to Biloela.
Supplied

Priya and Nades had settled in the rural town almost four years before they were taken into detention, seeking asylum from persecution they feared in Sri Lanka.

They arrived separately in Australia by boat, each with their own justification for seeking protection; Priya said her ex-husband had been burnt alive in front of her, while Nades claimed to be a political refugee due to his links to the banned Tamil Tigers group.

Once settled in Biloela, Nades took up much-needed work at the abattoir and they had two daughters, Kopika, now four, and Tharunicaa, two.

A group of around 100 friends and supporters of the family stand underneath a billboard for the campaign in Brisbane.
A group of around 100 friends and supporters of the family stand underneath a billboard for the campaign in Brisbane.
AAP

The Department of Home Affairs has repeatedly insisted the family do not meet the criteria for a protection visa, despite the widespread support of their community who say they desperately need foreign workers to keep the town afloat.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has also rejected calls to use his discretionary powers to intervene, accusing the couple of having “anchor babies” to try and keep them in the country.

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

The refusal has meant the family are now pleading their case before a judge, with the Federal Court set to rule on whether two-year-old Tharunicaa has the right to apply for a protection visa after the rest of the family exhausted their options.

The first hearing for the matter will begin on Friday, but it will likely be some time before a decision is made. 

If the court rules in the family's favour, it does not mean they will be allowed to stay in the country permanently; only that Tharnicuaa has a right to have her application assessed by the government, who maintain the decision-making body. 

While the legal process has been taking place, the family have been the only people detained on Christmas Island for more than five months, forced to share a single queen-size bed.

Their isolation on the island - which has also been used recently as a coronavirus quarantine area - has already cost the Australian taxpayer more than $27 million.

‘We just knew we needed to do something’

The Home to Bilo campaign has amassed more than 270,000 petition signatures and significant bipartisan support, including that of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, as well as former deputy prime minister and National Party leader Barnaby Joyce and conservative commentator Alan Jones. 

The idea to do something to support the family was born as Angela, who has no previous experience with political advocacy, had breakfast with fellow resident and social worker Bronwyn Dendle after the family had been taken into detention.

Messages of hope written during the Home to Bilo's first event in Biloela.
Messages of hope written during the Home to Bilo's first event in Biloela.
Jacinta Jackson/Facebook

“We were very much just ‘we can’t let this happen’,” Angela said. “So, we just started talking to other people.”

They began by sending a Facebook message to a group of their friends detailing what had happened. One of their friends suggested starting an online petition.

“I actually just Googled it … and then we sat down and put the story together and got that up and running on Saturday morning. Come Monday, we were being contacted by media,” she said.

That same weekend, a Central Queensland health conference was scheduled to take place in Biloela. The pair took the opportunity to spread the story to local politicians and an ABC journalist who was in attendance.

Celebrations for Kopika's birthday in Biloela featured on the front page of the local paper.
Celebrations for Kopika's birthday in Biloela featured on the front page of the local paper.
Supplied

“I’m a big believer in fate and I just feel that all the right people were there that weekend to make this happen,” she said. “We had no idea what we were doing, we just knew we had to do something to get our friends back.”

Since that first weekend, the Home to Bilo campaigners have organised national marches across the country, crowdfunded tens of thousands of dollars to pay legal fees, delivered a petition signed by 190,000 people to Immigration Minister David Coleman, and regularly featured in newspapers and on nightly television bulletins.

Meanwhile, the ‘Bring Priya, Nades and their Girls Home To ­Biloela’ Facebook page, which provides regular updates on the family’s situation, is followed by more than 12,000 people.

But despite the widespread support, the family’s future remains more uncertain than ever.

‘These are real people’

Angela told SBS News she was once a Coalition voter, along with many in the town. Almost 40 per cent of the electorate of Flynn, which includes Biloela, voted for Liberal National candidate Ken O’Dowd at the 2019 election. One Nation candidate Sharon Lohse came in third with almost 20 per cent.

“Out here, a lot of us don’t really take an interest in politics because so often we miss out on funding … so we just go along with what our parents have always done,” she said.

“I think we’re used to seeing outrage in the big cities, so when it was conservative, outback Queensland making some noise about something, it was like ‘oh, these guys don’t speak up much, what are they saying?’”

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Since the early days of the campaign, Angela has always carried a photo of the family with her during interviews as a reminder of why she was speaking out. 

“From the get-go, this is just a story about my friends,” she said. “I don’t want to get into political policy, this has opened my eyes to it, but it has just come back down to: these are real people.”

A guard is seen at the entry to the Christmas Island detention centre, where the family have lived for more than five months.
A guard is seen at the entry to the Christmas Island detention centre, where the family have lived for more than five months.
AAP

At the end of last year, 1,450 people remained in Australian immigration detention.

Many of them have received no publicity at all, while a few had online campaigns but received very little media attention.

Executive director of Change.org Sally Rugg said the Home to Bilo campaign has “captured the hearts of Australia” because it humanises Priya, Nades and their daughters, sharing details of the girls' personality as they grow up in the media.

“People who are seeking asylum are constantly dehumanised, they're referred to as 'boat people', they're referred to by numbers, they're locked up offshore ... so it’s easy to think of these people as some sort of problem,” she said. 

“With Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa, we know them, and once we know people it’s impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Angela and Bronwyn deliver a petition with more than 250,000 signatures to the Federal Government in Canberra.
Angela and Bronwyn deliver a petition with more than 250,000 signatures to the Federal Government in Canberra.
AAP

“They could have been a family who in a couple of years' time was on the front page of the Australia Day website championing the journey for new Australians.”

Simone Cameron, another key member of the Home to Bilo campaign said: “It doesn’t pass the ‘pub test’ that this family hasn’t been allowed to stay.”

“Particularly when we’ve seen examples of how many times the immigration minister has intervened.” 

Both the Immigration Minister and the Home Affairs Minister have the power to allow people to remain in the country, even if they don't meet the requirements for a visa. 

In September, Mr Dutton said he had used his discretionary powers to allow people who arrived by boat in Australia to stay on three occasions; for two interpreters who assisted Australian defence forces in the Middle East and a stateless Rohingyan orphan.

"It needs to be in a very specific set of circumstances," he said. "But we've said as a rule if you come by boat you aren't settling in Australia."

Simone, who now lives in Malaysia after growing up in Biloela, met Nades when she was teaching an English language course for the influx of temporary workers on 457 visas (which has since been abolished) employed at the abattoir where he worked.

Simone and her daughter Isabelle visit the family at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation.
Simone and her daughter Isabelle visit the family at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation.
Supplied

“The smell, even though I was nowhere near the factory, was so overpowering,” she said. “The fact that we’ve got people who are willing to move to a place like Biloela and do a job that’s so tough like the meatworks, that’s another big issue for sure.”

While the family were detained at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), Simone would take her 10-year-old daughter Isabelle to visit them often.

“It was very intense because you can’t really offer them anything except a hug and a chat,” she said. “There’s never any happy answer you can give them except ‘we’re here, we’re not going anywhere and we’re going to keep trying’.”

Now though, with the internet connection so bad on Christmas Island, Simone says she is unable to video chat with the family.

‘This can all be stopped’

As the family prepares for the court's decision, a group of about 10 core members of the Back to Bilo campaign continue to work behind the scenes, using social media to coordinate tasks from their homes across Australia, and in Simone’s case, Malaysia.

Despite the recent focus on the legal proceedings, Angela said the group are still hoping the Home Affairs Minister will use his discretionary powers to allow them to stay - especially if the courts rule in their favour.

SBS commentator Craig Foster
SBS commentator and human rights activist Craig Foster speaks at a rally for the family in September.
AAP

“The court thing is going to keep ticking behind the scenes, but at any point, this can all be stopped,” she said while preparing to travel to Christmas Island to be with the family.

“The minister can literally say ‘OK, you know what? There are enough reasons that this family deserves to be in Australia.’”

As to whether she will continue advocating for asylum seekers after the Home to Bilo campaign has wrapped up, Angela said she doesn’t really have a choice.

“I honestly don’t think ethically, I could just go back to my normal life,” she said. “I think this has definitely sparked something within me.”

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