Biloela community members and friends of the Murugappan family gathered for a dawn vigil on Friday morning to mark the three-year anniversary of their detention.
Three years ago, a Tamil asylum seeker family from the small Queensland town of Biloela were forced from their home at dawn and shipped to a Melbourne immigration detention centre with plans to deport them to Sri Lanka.
The Murugappan family have since become a well-recognised symbol of Australia’s asylum seeker policy; their faces regularly appearing on newspaper front pages and television bulletins across the country.
On Friday, at dawn, their former community members gathered at Lions Park in Biloela to mark the three-year anniversary of the family's detention and reflect on a journey that has seen their friends become the only family detained on Christmas Island.
“We really felt a yearning to do a 5am vigil because that is the time that they were taken,” friend, Biloela resident and spokesperson for the Home to Bilo campaign Angela Fredericks told SBS News.
“It’s about honouring everything that’s happened … everything this family has been through the past three years.”
The location of the vigil was also symbolic; it’s the same park where about 50 Biloela residents first gathered in the days after the family were removed on 5 March, 2018, to call for their return.
At the time, they carried signs declaring “let them stay” and “bring them home”, but had no idea their campaign would garner national attention and their supporters would one day grow to be hundreds of thousands.
The broad national support for the family is reflected in the number of events that were held across the country on Friday to mark the anniversary. A final vigil will be held on Christmas Island by locals in support of the family.
“Before we knew it, we basically had vigils popping up everywhere,” Ms Fredericks said.
“And of course, our counterparts in Melbourne, who have stuck with us throughout this whole journey, wanted to do something that day as well. So, that’s where the dawn to dusk vigil idea came from.
“The family started their day in Biloela, and they ended the day in Melbourne, so it’s a bit of symbolism - the journey they took that day, and little did we know it was the start of huge things to come.”
In Sydney, Labor senator Kristina Keneally said the family had won unexpected supporters, such as broadcaster Alan Jones and former prime minister Tony Abbott.
"It seems to me the only three people in Australia who are unmoved are (Home Affairs Minister) Peter Dutton, (Prime Minister) Scott Morrison and (Immigration Minister) Alex Hawke," she told the crowd on Friday night.
Parents Priya and Nades both arrived in Australia separately by boat, claiming fear of persecution for their Tamil ethnicity and links to the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam group in Sri Lanka.
They had settled in Biloela almost four years before they were taken into detention, where Nades found employment at the local meatworks and they had two daughters; Kopika, now five, and Tharunicaa, who is three.
The government has repeatedly said the family does not meet the criteria for a protection visa.
In a statement to SBS News, a department spokesperson said: "The government’s policy is clear; no one who attempts illegal maritime travel to Australia will be permanently settled here".
“The government’s preference in every case is for foreign nationals who do not hold a valid visa and who have exhausted all outstanding avenues to remain in Australia to depart voluntarily.
“Those unwilling to depart voluntarily will be subject to detention and removal from Australia.”
A lengthy legal process aiming to stop their deportation is ongoing, hinging on Tharunicaa’s right to apply for asylum. All other family members have exhausted their appeals.
Last month, the full bench of the federal court upheld an earlier ruling that found Tharunicaa was not given procedural fairness when her application for a protection visa was assessed.
The ruling was appealed by the federal government, while lawyers acting for the family also issued a cross-appeal against a second ground, which was dismissed.
Their lawyers are now considering whether to seek leave to appeal the ruling in the High Court.
But despite the ongoing court battle, supporters say the only path to freedom for the family is for Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, who took over the job from Alan Tudge in December, to use his discretion to allow the family to remain in the country.
"The Australian courts have repeatedly rejected the Government’s attempts to deport the family to Sri Lanka. It is long past time that Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to use his discretion under the Migration Act and allow the family to return home to Biloela,” Labor’s home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally said.
"Peter Dutton, Alex Hawke and Scott Morrison are simply choosing not to intervene, allowing this cruel and inhumane saga to continue at considerable cost to the taxpayer."
Like this story? Here's where else you can find SBS News content and follow us:
SBS News website: Save our website sbs.com.au/news as a favourite.
SBS News newsletters: Get the latest delivered to your email inbox by subscribing here.
Apple News: Follow the SBS News channel here on an Apple device.
Twitter: Follow us at twitter.com/SBSNews
Instagram: Follow us at instagram.com/sbsnews_au
YouTube: Subscribe at youtube.com/c/sbsnews
TikTok: Follow us at tiktok.com/@sbsnews_au
Reddit: Join us at reddit.com/r/sbsnewsau
SBS also publishes news in 68 languages online and on radio. Find your language at sbs.com.au/language.