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  • Back to Bilo: The Murugappan family and Australian refugee policy

Back to Bilo: The Murugappan family and Australian refugee policy



There are times when the singular should punch its way through and become the norm. In Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, notably those arriving by boat, compassion and fairness have rarely threatened a policy deemed cruel, costly and ineffective.  

A modification of sorts to this Fortress Australia approach was briefly permitted in the form of Medivac legislation, which allowed those detained in Australia’s offshore concentration camps some respite in seeking medical care in grave circumstances on the mainland. The legislation operated for eight months but was repealed by the Morrison government in December 2019.

The fate of the Muragappan family has been a continuous, scandalising flashpoint about the nature of Australia’s border protection policies. The parents, Nadesalingam Murugappan (Nades) and Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam (Priya), respectively arrived by boat in 2012 and 2013. In Australia, they married. Two children, Kopika and Tharnicaa, followed, as did a move to the central Queensland town of Biloela. Through this time, their claims for protection were assessed.

Despite immaculate credentials – hard working, locally adapted, and appreciated by the small community – the Department of Home Affairs found against the claims for asylum. The family was removed from Biloela in 2018, spending over 1,000 days in detention in Melbourne and Christmas Island. 

In June 2021, the family were moved into community detention in Perth after the youngest child, Tharnicaa, fell ill with a blood infection.  On 23 June, then Immigration Minister Alex Hawke announced that bridging visas had been issued to enable the ‘three members of the family to reside in the Perth community’ as Tharnicaa’s medical needs, and the family’s legal matter, were dealt with. In doing so, he refused to change her status.

The general assumption in Australian policy since the 1990s is that maritime arrivals who lack authorisation will be mandatorily detained. Since then, an assortment of extravagantly cruel initiatives have been implemented, including the blanket refusal to settle any such arrivals in Australia. Offshore detention centres were created and justified as places of salvation for those who did not drown. The living were left to suffer psychological and physical ruin at the hands of a sadistic system.


'The campaign, whilst a remarkable example of community mobilisation, is as much a testament to human kindness as it is about the lack of fairness in a beastly policy that gave birth to it.' 


The campaign for the return of the Murugappans has been relentless and stoic. It also made enough of an impression on the new Labor government. With the election still fresh, interim Home Affairs Minister Jim Chalmers announced on May 27 that the family would be able to return to Biloela, ‘the big-hearted Qld town which has embraced them so warmly’.

Taking full advantage of the generosity and voting meter, Chalmers made sure to distribute a photo of himself on social media, sporting a broad smile. But the detail was less impressive than the fanfare. For one, the family only received precarious bridging visas.

In his statement on the family, Chalmers also reiterated a commitment to the status quo on arrivals. ‘This Government remains committed to Operation Sovereign Borders and keeping people smugglers out of business.’  Australia’s border protection authorities would continue to ‘intercept any vessel seeking to reach Australia illegally, and safely return those on board to their point of departure or country of origin.’

In his statement, Chalmers continued to perpetuate old myths about the inherent wickedness of people smuggler rackets, a troubling point given the inherent, inextinguishable right to seek asylum guaranteed in such documents as the UN Refugee Convention. 

In its 2021 national platform, the Labor Party also revealed no interest in abandoning the offshore processing system, nor any desire to bring people processed in offshore centres to the mainland. It would accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees per year and negotiate resettlement deals with third countries.  That said, there are a few notable electoral commitments.

One is to abolish Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs) and replace them with a pathway for eligible refugees to seek permanent visas.  The numbers within that cohort are not negligible.  According to data from the Department of Home Affairs relevant till the end of April, 19,345 people were granted either a TPV or SHEV, with 6,416 from Iran; 4,499 from Afghanistan; 2,307 stateless; 2,174 from Sri Lanka; 1,265 from Pakistan; 1087 from Iraq; 385 from Sudan and 277 from Somalia. 

Another is to provide a range of services to those seeking asylum – among them social services, income, crisis housing, health care and mental health – as their claims are being assessed. Almost remarkably, appropriate references to the Refugee Convention will be reintroduced into the Migration Act 1958 (Cth).

Supporters of the family in Biloela have busied themselves with finding accommodation and furniture while making school arrangements for the children. Angela Fredericks, one of their most vocal defenders, is mulling over birthday arrangements for Tharnicaa. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has issued a public call for the grant of permanent visas.

The reaction to the Murugappan family has been singular in both detrimental and admirable ways. Governments have attempted and failed to promote them as dark examples of what not to do when seeking asylum in Australia. Their defenders have, in turn, responded with compassion, incessant activism and abundant generosity.

While it would be a mistake to regard this focus as mawkish and overly venerating in nature, few refugee or asylum-seeking families seeking sanctuary can claim to have specialised community websites defending their cause. Few can count on a Facebook page liked by 24,632 people or donations to replace lost income. 

The campaign, whilst a remarkable example of community mobilisation, is as much a testament to human kindness as it is about the lack of fairness in a beastly policy that gave birth to it. As Priya herself acknowledged, ‘I had the support of Nades and we had the support of the people of Bilo. But many others don’t have that support.’ It will be up to the new Albanese government to make up the difference.





Dr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: The Murugappan family speak to the media outside of Perth Airport on June 8, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Matt Jelonek/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Muragappan Family, Refugees, Asylum Seekers, TPVs, Biloela



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Existing comments

What would Jesus do? Clearly not what our former Christian Prime Minister did.
Maybe our new Prime Minister will consider the scriptures.

Jan Wright | 10 June 2022  
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'consider the scriptures'

Well, I suppose a separation isn't a divorce, a Mosaic concession to the stiff necked although in the beginning it was not so, and a cohabitation isn't a remarriage in the absence of an annulment.

But, Scripture isn't independent of Tradition because of the keys. Who's to say that Tradition, when considering continuing Revelation, can't discover that to gain the whole world isn't only possible by selfishness? Philanthropy is quite a good way of gaining the approval of the masses. The phrase 'satanic counterfeit' exists because it is possible to mask evil in a casing that is, not merely appears, very good.

At the end of the day, it's not what you do but how you do it, and orthodoxy is the study of what is entailed by the 'how'.

roy chen yee | 10 June 2022  

Thanks Roy.
The point is that the scriptures ask us to be kind and humane in our decision making especially about matters affecting others which is the 'how' not unkind and inhumane.

Jan Wright | 11 June 2022  

It is important to distinguish between the inhumane treatment of this family while their claims for protection are processed and the question whether their claims for protection can be established.

In my view there must be some consistency in how the thousands of asylum seeker claims by people from Sri Lanka (and elsewhere) are assessed and ultimately determined. Not all claims are valid under either International or Australian law. There is a question whether an invalid claim should receive special treatment just because it receives Media attention. I think not if the claim for protection is not established under the rule of law to be valid.

Some consistency in process and outcome is in my view important. But there is no excuse ever for cruel and inhumane treatment of people while their claims are processed under the rule of law.

Brendan A McCarthy | 10 June 2022  
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Brendan makes an important point. And "hard working, adapted and appreciated" is not what the courts evaluated. They evaluated their claims of need for protection. Please do not conflate people's rights to seek asylum with policies to stop people smuggling. Chalmers is not saying people should not seek asylum. Twelve thousand missed the boats and have asylum in Indonesia. Let's have a fact-based, evidence-based discussion.

This cruelty could have been avoided. The Bilo family shine the light on the cruelty of this government we have voted out but it also shines a light on the deep vein of fairness that exists in this community. There is no country in the world - none - with an example of community response similar to that of the Bilo family.

Now argue all you like about Sri Lanka but the deepest, most comprehensive evaluation of persecution in Sri Lanka post the end of conflict is on record. The British Upper Tribunal on Migration completed it last year with assistance of many expert sources on Sri Lanka from around the world. It revealed so much.
One example - detention camps, where torture was often practiced during the civil war, no longer exist. The report highlights the pivot post-war in Sri Lanka.

John | 10 June 2022  

The left in Australia sees people smuggling as an Australian "myth." It troubles me greatly.

Just for contrast, the big global news on migration and refugees last week was President Biden and leaders of twenty Latin American countries signing a new agreement to confront the consequences of mass migration, making specific numerical pledges to allow more people fleeing political and economic strife to cross their borders.

The agreement, called the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, commits the United States to taking 20,000 refugees from Latin America during the next two years, a threefold increase.

Not big numbers. A drop in the ocean - over one million have presented at the USA border in the last year.

In return for the pledges by the Biden administration, other countries agreed in the document to step up their efforts to allow the entry of migrants before they reach the United States. Mexico said it would accept as many as 20,000. Canada pledged more. Costa Rica, Colombia and Brazil all said they would increase their efforts to deal with an overwhelming flow of refugees.

As part of the deal, and core to the agreement, the countries also committed to a new effort to crack down on human smuggling. All countries agreed to fight people smuggling.

An Australian myth, indeed.

John Kilner | 11 June 2022  
Show Responses

Brendan, leaving aside the incoherent labels of 'Left' and 'Right' in Australia, I note that Saint Pope John XXIII was a very accomplished people smuggler – bribing govt officials, the whole deal. Great work!

Paul Fyfe | 14 June 2022  

Sorry, that should have been addressed to John.

Paul Fyfe | 14 June 2022  

The author said, "Chalmers continued to perpetuate old myths about the inherent wickedness of people smuggler rackets." Twelve hundred dead on one of the world's most dangerous oceans is not an "old myth."

I am working on a book on the issue. I have interviewed many refugees on people smuggling. All say the same thing. Give people safe passages. That's where the discussion should be. Interestingly, the countries of the America's concur, evidenced by their determination to stop smugglers by signing to the Los Angles agreement last week. This agreement is an important one and signals greater regional cooperation for an area now becoming one of the world's hotspots for sources of refugees. At the least, the agreement signals the seriousness of the problem. The focus is safe passage. Biden said it was a good beginning and he is right.

John Kilner | 15 June 2022  

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