THE plight of boat people being allowed to stay in Australia is being tested after a Tamil family from Biloela was granted a mid-air temporary reprieve from deportation.
Mother Priya and her husband Nadesalingam and their two Australian-born children were removed from a plane taking them from Melbourne to Sri Lanka on August 30.
A last-minute court injunction forced their flight to land in Darwin before they were eventually moved to Christmas Island where, at time of publication, they await deportation.
Brisbane Dominican Father Pancras Jordan, who works closely with the Tamil Catholic community, said he was at the King George Square rally supporting the family last Sunday.
Australians rally for family
He said many Tamils and Sri Lankans joined the rally, which was uncommon.
Fr Jordan said many of the Tamils in Brisbane were refugees and usually would not take part in rallies or demonstrations because they do not want to be seen in public and photographed.
The plight of this Tamil family was a point of solidarity across the community.
Fr Jordan said rallies across the country showed the compassion of Australia.
“This family has been very much loved by the people of Biloela, and now it seems this family is loved by all Australians all over the place now,” Fr Jordan said.
He said Australia was a Christian country with mostly Christian political leaders, but the government was behaving in an unchristian way.
“I as a Christian find it extremely difficult to understand how these people can be treated with terrible injustice and without any compassion,” he said.
“It is not the Gospel way.”
Fr Jordan said the family was exhausted from constantly moving place to place, especially the two young children.
While the family’s future remained unclear, their case was described as a test of “what Christian leadership looks like” by outspoken Labor Senator Kristina Kenneally, who demanded the prime minister intervene.
“It is compassion. It is welcome. It is the story of the Good Samaritan,” Senator Kenneally said.
“And the people of Biloela have been showing that by their advocacy and their fierce determination to return this family of four home to that community.”
In Biloela, there’s deep support for Priya and Nades who settled in the central Queensland town in 2014, after separately arriving in Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013, following Sri Lanka’s civil war.
Nades worked at the meatworks, Priya was known for making her homemade curries, and their daughters were both born in Queensland.
Their new life in Biloela was shattered in 2016 after an early morning raid by Australian Border Force officials.
The family was seized from their home and placed in a Melbourne detention centre.
Biloela residents rallied to lobby for their return.
A #BringThemHometoBiloela campaign gaining strong national support failed to sway Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, who this week, urged the family to “accept they are not refugees”, and refused to use his ministerial powers to save them.
Family do not meet refugee status
Feeling wide media pressure, Mr Dutton penned a letter published in The Courier-Mail explaining his stance.
He said the mother and father arrived illegally by boat in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and were told they did not fit the United Nations definition of refugees.
“They were told that they would never settle permanently in Australia, just like many others who arrived by boat,” he wrote.
“They never accepted that decision.
“They have gone on to appeal to the Federal Magistrates Court, the Federal Court and the High Court, costing the Australian taxpayers millions of dollars.
“They have explained their circumstance to every decision maker and Judge and every one of them has rejected their claim for protection.
“That is that they are not refugees.”
Mr Dutton wrote he had not had one death at sea on his watch as minister and wanted to maintain that.
“We won’t take a moral lecture when the reality is we have a compassionate approach that is helping thousands each year, but where somebody has been told consistently all the way through to the High Court that they are not refugees, then those people have to return back to their country of origin,” he wrote.
Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said he spoke directly to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the need for Mr Dutton to intervene.
“This would not undermine Australia’s borders,” Mr Albanese said.
“It would simply be the very reason why there is ministerial discretion in the Act, to show compassion, to show that there are specific needs for this family.”
Call for ministerial discretion
Fr Jordan said a great worry in the refugee community was – if these things could happen to one family, they could happen to many more.
He said many people have already been deported to Sri Lanka.
Urging people to forget the politics and the bureaucracy, Fr Jordan urged people to just look at the humanity.
“By allowing these four human beings (to stay in Australia) we are not going to lose anything, rather we’re going to gain,” he said.
“Australians are beautiful people and we are generous people, compassionate people,” he said.
Fr Jordan said Mr Dutton had the power to allow the family to stay.
“The only thing is they need to have the heart and they need to listen to what people want,” he said.
“The community where this family lived, Biloela, what they want.”
Peter Kurti, from the Centre for Independent Studies, told Sky that discretionary action to allow the family to stay “sends a signal”.
He said people overseas would be watching the outcome and, if the family received special treatment, it would signal a weakening border.
Others have argued last year Mr Dutton used his ministerial discretion to keep two Au pairs from being deported even though their case was significantly weaker than the Tamil family’s.
Mr Morrison said they could apply to return as migrants after they returned to Sri Lanka.