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Back to Bilo for a Tamil family



On the outback Queensland website, it describes Biloela in very positive terms: Everyone says ‘G’day’ with a smile and a nod as you walk down the wide streets of Biloela. It’s friendly, warm and welcoming. Buildings wear the tell-tale signs of progress through the decades. … Today, Biloela is a busy commercial and tourist hub, though it still retains that relaxed, country feeling.

On Friday 27 May, interim Home Affairs Minister Jim Chalmers announced: Today, in my capacity as interim Minister for Home Affairs, I exercised my power under section 195A of the Migration Act 1958 to intervene in the case of the Murugappan family. The effect of my intervention enables the family to return to Biloela, where they can reside lawfully in the community on bridging visas while they work towards the resolution of their immigration status, in accordance with Australian law. I have spoken to the family and wished them well for their return. This decision will allow them to get ‘home to Bilo’, a big-hearted and welcoming Queensland town that has embraced this beautiful family.

This decision by newly elected ALP Government was in stark contrast to the statement of former Prime Minister Morrison about the same family on 19 May: ‘There is no protection owed. They have not been found to be refugees,’ Mr Morrison said. ‘And also Australia's rules do not permit permanent visas for people who have not been found to be refugees. That is the government's policy. It hasn't changed.’

This was followed on election day of a text message to some voters that Border Force has intercepted an ‘illegal boat’ so vote Liberal; to keep the borders secure. Such a message flew in the face of Morrison’s strict policy of ‘not discussing on water matters’. when asked by journalists about arrivals of boats or ‘turnbacks’ after the 2013 election.

The case of the Murugappan family illustrates the punitive and puritanical approach of the previous government towards human beings arriving in Australia by boat and then seeking asylum. The tone of each message clearly reflects totally different attitudes towards the people affected. Even the fact that Minister Chalmers rang the family to tell them, and then rang people in Biloela to pass on the news. This humanity and respect would never have occurred under the previous regime.


'The costs of flying this family by chartered plane to Christmas Island, then detaining this family for so long in Christmas Island as well as legal costs in a number of cases must be in the hundreds of thousands, probably in the millions of dollars. All this cost and energy to maintain a harsh and cruel policy, which causes harm to a young family with children.'


The Minister granted bridging visas, just over 30 years to the month from the introduction of Mandatory detention under Prime Minister Keating on 5 May 1992. Back then the law was rushed through in order to defeat an application in the Federal Courts for release of Cambodians to be heard two days later.

It was 2005 before the s195A Ministerial power to release someone from detention was introduced. It was that power that was exercised by Chalmers to grant bridging visas for the family members to be released from detention in Perth, and to be able to return to live in Biloela.

This is not the end of the story, but merely a step forward. Whilst the parents were separately assessed as not meeting the protection visa criteria, their children have never been assessed at all, and that was what sparked a serious of cases in the Courts.

The case illustrates the total power of statutory bars that prevent lodgement of applications for any visas, not just protection visas. There are over 18 sections just dealing with the statutory bars affecting protection visa applicants. The original Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 only had 19 sections in total.

The Minister now can make another decision, this time under s46A (the section that bars ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals from applying for any visa at all) to lift that s46A bar and permit an application be made. The Minister is not limited to only allowing applications for temporary protection visas, which was the strict limitation under the Coalition.

The costs of flying this family by chartered plane to Christmas Island, then detaining this family for so long in Christmas Island as well as legal costs in a number of cases must be in the hundreds of thousands, probably in the millions of dollars. All this cost and energy to maintain a harsh and cruel policy, which causes harm to a young family with children. Is there no alternative?

This significant first step under the new Albanese Government will hopefully lead to the thorough reform of the system and abolish temporary protection visas (TPVs) altogether.  The TPV was first introduced under Minister Ruddock in 1999. That version of the TPV could be converted to a permanent visa after 3 years if the refugee could again prove their protection case.  It was abolished in 2008 but reinstated under Minister Morrison. This time the TPV was much harsher. It was a temporary pathway only, with very little options for a later change to another visa, but never a permanent protection visa

The Morrison TPV caused refugees to be forcibly split from a spouse and dependent children for years, with no exceptions. It is only as a permanent resident that someone can sponsor a spouse and dependent children. I am aware of cases where refugees here have been divorced by their spouse offshore, because the spouse refused to believe that Australia would be so harsh as to not allow them to sponsor their spouse to Australia.

Other cases have refugees forming relationships with Australians, and having children here, but still not being allowed to apply for anything except for temporary protection. This ludicrously punitive and puritanical policy continues to cause mental harm and suffering to people for no reason other than to achieve a political end.

In its election promise, the ALP said it would abolish temporary protection visas, and presumably convert these refugees to permanent residence. This was done in 2008 when the first version of the TPV was abolished under the Rudd government.

It means that refugees who have been separated for sometimes more than 10 years from their family, will finally be able to sponsor their spouse and dependent children. It will also remove the ludicrous and controlling feature of the TPVs that made the refugees seek permission from Immigration even just to visit their family, in a third country, not their home country. Sometimes this was granted, other times refused, in what was a time consuming and arbitrary process.

Hopefully this also means the abolition of the Fast Track review process for Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals (UMA) in the Immigration Appeals Authority (IAA). This flawed system makes it easy to refuse applicants, without a thorough check on their cases by making it possible to exclude consideration of information unless ‘exceptional circumstances apply’.

It is hoped that there will be serious reform of not just this area of Migration law, but others, such as delays in processing visas in the family categories. Many of these delays are due to not having sufficient staff to manage the program.

There are a number of other areas in need of serious reform, especially the appointment process for members for the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). This is because the appointment to the AAT of those with ‘political connections’ rose to 40 per cent of appointments under the Coalition, whereas under previous Governments (Labor and Coalition) it rarely was more than 5-7 per cent of appointments. It became a place to appoint former staffers, and unsuccessful Coalition State and Federal MPs or candidates, irrespective of merit or ability to do the job.

Meanwhile, we hope the Muragappan family will soon be ‘back home in Bilo’, and then able to get permanent residence to make their home in Australia. Certainly, the people of Biloela have strongly supported the family will be relieved, as well as the legal team.





Kerry Murphy is an immigration and refugee lawyer and part-time lecturer on immigration and refugee law at ACU.

Main image: The Muragappan family. (Supplied by Change.org Australia, HometoBilo)

Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, Biloela, Murugappan, TPV, Visa, Immigration, Refugees, Asylum Seekers



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Existing comments

Unless I have missed something nothing has really changed for the Murugappan family!
Dr Chalmers and the PM just pulled off one hell of a political stunt, and sadly at the centre were the most vulnerable people in our society.
I wish the family well and I am happy they are reunited with the community where they chose to call home but until they receive permanent residency they will always live under a cloud of fear and uncertainty. So let’s not get ahead of ourselves with praise because a change of address doesn’t quite qualify for a good outcome. Anna

Anna | 02 June 2022  
Show Responses

That's correct Anna, but the previous government's insistence that they remain in WA was just pure spitefulness. Now that's behind us, let's work to resolve the substantive problem - temporary 'protection' vs settlement and citizenship.

Ginger Meggs | 03 June 2022  

I would say something has really changed for the Muragappan family. There is now a government in place that is not preventing them from returning to their community, a community that wants them and supported them throughout the whole saga.

It’s a bit uncharitable to call the Government’s actions a political stunt. Labor did what it said it would do well before the election campaign started. This was a commitment they could honour in the early days of government. I agree it’s not yet the perfect solution. We still have to see what the Government does about permanent residency and how other refugees will now be treated. But it is a big step in the right direction.

Brett | 03 June 2022  

What a difference human gestures make. How did we get to the place that was so inhumane?

Steve Sinn | 02 June 2022  

The treatment of this family and other refugees has been nothing short of disgraceful. Even more astonishing is that some of the people behind the decisions of the past decade or more claim to be Christians. The gall, the cheek and the absolute hypocrisy of some of our politicians never ceases to amaze. I wish the Murugappan family all the best. The people of Biloela deserve plaudits for their compassion and tenacity in their ongoing efforts to bring this family back to Queensland.

David Ahern | 03 June 2022  

Thank you Kerry for a very hopeful article.

I have seen a report that the Murugappan family will return to Biloela in early June 2022. Australians of goodwill who care about human rights will be grateful when their return actually occurs.

However, the whole history of detention of asylum seekers by LNP and ALP governments has been one marked by great cruelty and inhumanity. It should be a cause of great national shame.

We also have to remember that it was the Keating ALP government that introduced detention in 1992. The then minister of immigration - Gerry Hand - claimed that it would only be an interim measure.

However, it reached a situation where asylum seekers were kept incarcerated for long periods without adequate support for their health and wellbeing and no assurance about when they would be free.
At the same time, ALP and LNP politicians seemed to go out of their way to demonise asylum seekers and to be seen as tougher on them than the other party. It should be remembered that these people had already suffered greatly because of war, repression and natural disasters and this treatment of them

My understanding is that back in the 1990s Sweden showed a great deal of compassion towards refugees arriving there. Most stayed in the community and the only ones who were detained were those who were a genuine security risk. No children were detained.

Australian governments could have followed this more humane approach, but didn't. Let us hope that the Albanese ALP government soon frees all asylum seekers from detention and allows them to remain here and become full citizens if they wish.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 03 June 2022  

While we applaud Gerard Brennan this week for Mabo, let us not forget he was chief justice for Lim.

Marilyn Shepherd | 05 June 2022  

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