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Back to Bilo: The Murugappan family and Australian refugee policy

  • 09 June 2022
  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 The legislation operated for eight months but was repealed by the Morrison government in December 2019.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