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The Murugappan family and the cynicism of refugee politics

  • 24 June 2021
  On 15 June, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke released a statement on his decision regarding the fate of the Murugappan family, one half of whom were in Perth, the other on Christmas Island. The family, he concluded, would be able to ‘reside in the Perth community.’ Hawke’s decision took into account ‘the government’s ongoing commitment to strong border protection policies with appropriate compassion in circumstances in children in held detention.’

During the course of their community detention placement, the family would have access to schools and support services, with the youngest daughter Tharnicaa able to receive medical treatment from the Perth Children’s Hospital. As this happened, they would continue to exhaust their legal options to remain in the country. ‘Importantly,’ warned Hawke, ‘today’s decision does not create a pathway to a visa.’

In that most qualified way, the Minister announced on 23 June that he had issued bridging visas to enable the ‘three members of the family to reside in the Perth community… while the youngest child’s medical care, family’s legal matter, are ongoing.’ Hawke had refused to use his available powers under section 195A of the Migration Act to change the status of Tharnicaa. ‘The fourth family member’s visa status is unchanged.’ Predictably, that tireless advocate for the family Angela Fredericks wondered ‘what precisely’ the minister’s objective was ‘in denying little Tharni’. 

The decision was made as an exception to the rule. It is one that has marked the refugee politics of the LNP and Labor Parties since the dying days of the Rudd government: those arriving by boat without valid documentation will not be permitted to settle in Australia, being designated illegal maritime arrivals.

The Murugappan family have found themselves in the middle of this nasty tangle, their fates politicised and manipulated. Nadesalingam Murugappan and Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam both arrived by boat in 2012 and 2013 respectively. They married in Australia and had children, Tharnicaa and Kopika. As they were awaiting the assessment of their claims, they made a home in Biloela. The central Queensland town took to them.

In 2018, the family was removed from Biloela and detained in Melbourne. The Department of Home Affairs saw no merit in their asylum claims, despite the genuine dangers that would face a returning Tamil family with suspected links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While deportation to Sri Lanka was foiled by a Federal Court injunction, the family was then moved to Christmas Island