RESIDENTS of the Central Queensland town of Biloela have ramped up a campaign demanding the return of a local asylum-seeker family seized by Australian Border Force officials and placed in a Melbourne detention centre.
In a dawn operation on March 5, Tamils Nadesalingam and Priya and their two Australian-born daughters were taken from their home.
The couple were put into separate vans, driven to Gladstone Airport and flown to a detention centre in Melbourne.
Priya and Nades were settled in Biloela after fleeing torture and suffering in Sri Lanka.
Their fate is uncertain, with supporters in the town told that the couple’s visas had expired.
The Federal Government has been advised that Sri Lanka is now safe for them to return to their country of origin.
During the past three months in custody the younger of the two Australian-born daughters, Tharunicaa took her first steps and has been learning to walk.
The tight-knit Biloela community – where a school pickup takes five minutes because there is one set of traffic lights – has refused to give up its fight for the family to be returned to its town, with an online petition gaining national support with more than 100,000 signatures to date.
“The whole town is saying this is an outrage, how could they (Border Force officials) do that,” Biloela social worker and petition organiser Angela Fredericks said.
“We are a town of five thousand. Watching the petition numbers go up has been mind-blowing.”
Another Biloela resident Marie Austin appeared on ABC TV’s Q&A program on May 28 to ask the panel what could be done to persuade the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton to allow the family to stay in Australia.
“Our town loved this little family and we want them to come home,” Ms Austin said. “I personally have travelled, along with other people from Biloela, the 1800 kilometres to Melbourne to visit and support this family in whatever way we can.
“What more could we do to ensure that Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa return home to Biloela?”
Q&A panellist, Coalition senator Jim Molan said he would present the Tamil family’s case to Mr Dutton.
Ms Fredericks said the contribution of migrant families had been very important to sustaining Biloela.
About seven years ago, a team of locals from the churches, council, school, local health sector and the Police-Citizens Youth Club formed a reference group to examine the feasibility and acceptance of introducing refugees into the local community.
The result was the settlement of a group of 24 Burmese adults and 15 children, who had lived in refugee camps in India and Malaysia for as long as nine years.
The group arrived in 2011 as part of a federally funded one-year pilot program that targeted regional areas with high employment.
While that program has not continued, the families settled in Biloela encouraged their friends to settle there as well, and eventually more than 100 people of different nationalities, including Afghan, Ethiopian and Sri Lankan people came to Biloela to work.
Nades worked at the town’s meatworks, after he and his wife arrived in the town four years ago.
One of his first jobs was to work as a volunteer for the St Vincent de Paul Society.
Nades and Priya had earlier arrived separately in Australia by boat seeking asylum in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war.
While yet to comment directly on the Biloela case, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ delegate for migrants and refugees and a former boat person Bishop Vincent Long is on the record defending the rights of asylum seekers.
“We must find a more just, humane and effective way in dealing with the complex issues of seeking asylum and refugee protection,” a statement released by Bishop Long said last November.
“Inflicting more pain and harm to a small group of people who have caused us no harm is not worthy of all fair-dinkum Australians.”