The Home Affairs Minister has refused to reverse the decision to deport a couple and their two young daughters, who are currently in detention, despite efforts from their community.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has refused to grant a young family of asylum seekers a visa, despite a last-ditch bid to block their deportation by residents of the small central Queensland town they have called home for several years.
The tight-knit community of Biloela, seven hours north of Brisbane with a population of less than 6,000 people, has been fighting for almost a year to free Nadesalingnam, his wife Priya, and their Australian-born daughters Dharuniga and Kopiga.
But speaking in Brisbane on Monday, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told SBS News: “The family has gone through multiple court processes. At every single turn they’ve been found not to be refugees."
“They were told before they had children that they were not going to settle ever in Australia, and they resisted that at every turn.”
Nadesalingnam and Priya arrived separately by boat in 2012 and 2013 having fled the war in Sri Lanka. After being processed on Christmas Island, they met in Queensland, married, and started a family in Biloela.
But one day after Priya’s bridging visa expired last March, the family were removed from their homes and placed in a Melbourne detention centre - 1800km from Biloela.
The government says Nades and Priya came to the country illegally, a decision upheld by the Federal Court in June - rejecting an appeal by the family to avoid deportation. From 1 February, the family can be deported back to Sri Lanka at any time.
Community rallies behind family
With all legal avenues extinguished, the Biloela community fear the family could face persecution if forced to return.
"The family were literally given ten minutes to get their bags together and get in the car,” said friend and Biloela resident Angela Fredericks, who has been spearheading efforts to free the family.
“From talking to the neighbour, she was awoken by the screams of Priya and when she ran outside she saw all these armed police officers and border protection workers.
“End of the day, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbours. And it’s Australian to fight for your mate.”
'It’s Australian to fight for your mate.'
- Angela Fredericks, Biloela resident
Local resident and friend Bronwyn Dendle told SBS News: “It just defies logic, to be honest”.
"They became a part of the community from when they arrived. So they’ve made every effort to act like Australian citizens.
“Even for me to explain to my little kids, they keep saying ‘why is Kopiga still in jail?’ And I have to say ‘I can’t answer that’. The only thing I can think of is their parents were born in the wrong country.”
A series of solidarity rallies are being planned in the coming weeks across the eastern states in the hope the Tamil family are freed. Two will be held in the electorates of Mr Dutton and Immigration Minister David Coleman.
But Mr Dutton said the family will not be granted visas.
“I’m sorry to see the circumstance, which is of their own making, but we provide support to people who are refugees who are recognised as refugees under the convention," he said.
"We are not going to allow people to come here by boat and stay here permanently. We’ve been very clear about that.”
According to Home Affairs Office statistics, the couple were two of almost 6,000 illegal maritime arrivals (IMAs) of Sri Lankan background, who were granted bridging visas between 2011 and 2013. Of the 10,600 IMAs currently having their asylum status reviewed, almost 17 per cent are from Sri Lanka.
Aran Mylvaganam from the Tamil Refugee Council says many Tamils, an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, have fled persecution in the war-ravaged country. He believes Priya and Nades, both Tamils, will face a bleak fate if deported.
“You know the family are not doing well. They are facing irreversible damages to their health as a result of this indefinite detention. The current situation for Tamils in Sri Lanka is very bad,” Mr Mylvaganam told SBS News.
"Disappearances are still going. Torture is still being used on Tamil people … under these circumstances, no Tamils should be sent back to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Australia Somasundaram Skandakumar said many Tamils had returned to the country voluntarily.
"Since the end of the conflict in 2009, many Sri Lankans who failed to obtain asylum in Australia have been repatriated, both voluntarily and involuntarily after the Australian Authorities were fully satisfied that there were no justifiable grounds to consider their cases," he told SBS News in a statement.
"Meanwhile many Tamils who had left the country have chosen to return to Sri Lanka to visit family and friends while there are others who are investing there towards economic and social projects for the betterment of their compatriots."
'The Shire of Opportunity'
Biloela sits in Queensland’s Banana Shire, 150 kilometres from Rockhampton and the coal-mining region is affectionately known as the 'Shire of Opportunity'.
An opportunity was offered to Nades and he was employed by the local abattoir. He also volunteered around the town with Priya. Biloela cattle farmer Scott Jensen says such a work ethic makes them worthy Australians.
“Anyone that is prepared to work hard, pay taxes, doesn’t matter where they come from, if they’re prepared to do that ... they should be allowed to stay in the country,” Mr Jensen said.
“This case is an excellent example of migrants that do a city to rural migration, and a real success case,” added Ms Fredericks.
"So if anything, use this family as an example of what we want in our migrants in Australia."
Around 1,350 asylum seekers who arrived in the country illegally by boat currently remain in Australian-run detention centres.