By Anne Hyland
The town of Biloela, and (insert) the Murugappan family: “They didn’t have to take them away. They could’ve left them here while they worked through the process. It was so aggressive. How did the government think it would go down?”Credit:Paul Harris
In the street where Bronwyn Dendle lives, there’s a sign – it’s more of a mini billboard – which sits outside a neighbour’s house. It’s made of heavy reddish-brown wood, and on it is chiselled one word: Hicksville. The Macquarie Dictionary defines “hick” as provincial or unsophisticated. Biloela, which lies six-and-a-half hours’ drive north-west of Brisbane, is provincial and unsophisticated, and here you will find some hicks, some rednecks, the sign Hicksville, plans for a seven-metre-high sulphur-crested cockatoo, and a group of women who have executed one of the country’s most audacious media campaigns in recent history.
Pronounced Bil-oh-wheel-ah, the town is home to a close-knit community of 5758 people, which makes it smaller than most Sydney or Melbourne suburbs. It is not a place you’ll find yourself by accident and that’s because it’s a place that must be found. Biloela itself is well-kept and plain; not unattractive, just plain. It’s also Christian and conservative, bookended on the drive in and out by signs that list the town’s 10 places of worship, and which say: “The Churches of Biloela welcome you”. Among them are St Joseph’s Catholic church, St Gabriel’s Anglican church and the Church of the Nazarene.
At the last federal election, Biloela helped vote in the Coalition, although one in five people, including Bronwyn Dendle’s dad, supported One Nation. Lately, Dendle says her dad’s hardline view on immigration has softened. That’s largely because of a Sri Lankan family who used to live here, the Murugappans, and the stand his daughter and others in town have taken to bring them back. “Dad’s a Pauline Hanson voter, and for three years, he’s been like, ‘They shouldn’t be in my country!’ ” says Dendle, a 46-year-old social worker and mother of five, who has brown shoulder-length hair. “But just over the last little bit, he’s been quite supportive, which has been an interesting shift.”
In Biloela, most people work at the coal mine, the power station or the abattoir. On nearby farms, cattle are bred, and sorghum, wheat, chickpeas and mung beans are grown. Families here earn about $100,000 a year, but there’s not a lot to spend your money on in Bilo, as the locals call it. The town takes its name from the Gangulu mob’s word for the sulphur-crested cockatoo. However, don’t even bother trying to find any real ones here; you’d have more luck doing a Where’s Wally puzzle. Instead, you’ll find cockatoos painted on the town’s electricity poles and signs such as the one that sits outside the half-empty Biloela Shoppingworld.
Along Bilo’s main street there’s a Woolworths, a BWS, a Mitre 10, a store simply named Pet Stuff, another called Farm Stuff, a butcher, bakery, a primary and high school, a Chinese restaurant, and the Bowlo, which only serves meals on a Friday night. If you veer off the main drag onto side streets there are more businesses servicing and selling farm machinery and mining equipment, a few pubs and cafes, and a Thai restaurant so popular it’s full every night. “People living here are not chasing a glamorous lifestyle,” says Marie Austin. A 51-year-old former Anglicare worker and grandmother, she’s lived in and around Bilo for nearly 30 years with her husband Jeff, who works at the power station. “There’s not a lot here, there’s no hustle and bustle, there’s no beach and no cinema. We’re a long way from any major centre but we’re happy to be here.”
As Austin says, not much happens in this usually quiet and unassertive town. But that changed the day the federal government’s Border Force agents arrived and, in a heavy-handed, covert-like operation, removed the Murugappans.
What Bilo did next surprised the whole country.
Biloela locals have rallied around the Murugappan family. They include (at front, left to right) Marie and Jeff Austin, Rita Twomey, Banana Shire Mayor Nev Ferrier, and (at back) Laraine Webster, Jayne Centurion, and Sarah and Eloise Broadley.Credit:Paul Harris
Nades Murugappan and his wife Priya are from Sri Lanka, although nobody who lives on that tear-drop-shaped island identifies as Sri Lankan. There are only Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, and Priya and Nades are Tamils. For three decades, Sri Lankan government forces, which represented the majority Sinhalese population, fought against the separatist Tamil Tigers guerrillas. The civil war tore communities apart; more than 100,000 would die and another million, mostly from the Tamil minority, were displaced internally and around the globe.
The war ended in 2009 when the Sri Lankan army finally defeated the Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in a brutal battle. By then Priya was living in India, having fled Sri Lanka in 2001, after the death of her partner. “Priya’s fiancé and four men from their village were burnt in the town centre in front of everyone,” says 33-year-old social worker Angela Fredericks, a Bilo resident and close friend of the family. “The family ended up having to escape. I know Priya’s dad was injured. There were sexual assaults that happened.”
Nades, who had been forcibly conscripted by the Tigers, would escape and live in the Middle East between 2004 and 2010. The Tigers have a long record of violent coercion, including recruiting children. Unable to get a visa that would allow him to stay in the region permanently, Nades returned to Sri Lanka a number of times but found it unsafe.
He and Priya were among the many who decided to pay people smugglers to come to Australia illegally by boat. They arrived here separately, not knowing each other; Nades in 2012 and Priya in 2013. As their applications for asylum were assessed, they were allowed to live in Sydney, where they were taken in by the local Tamil community. “It was quite unheard of in the community to not be married at their age,” says Fredericks.
The Tamils quickly played matchmaker with Nades and Priya, who were both then 38. In September 2014, the couple married in a Hindu ceremony that would last several days. Priya wore an orange sari with a garland of flowers, and later a more detailed sari of silver and blue, with matching jewellery; Nades wore a traditional white dhoti, laced with a gold trim. Both were smiling as if they’d won the lottery. They would marry again in a civil ceremony at the Biloela courthouse two months later.
The couple had moved to Bilo while Nades was looking for employment, and not long after arriving he took a job at Teys Australia’s abattoir, where employees haul carcasses, butcher, bone and pack meat. It’s physically demanding and most locals won’t do the work, especially when there are better wages and easier jobs to be had at the surrounding coal mines. At last count there were 22 different nationalities working at Teys, one of the town’s biggest employers with 540 staff, many of whom earn about $50,000 a year.
Priya and Nades at their wedding in 2014. The couple met in Australia.
In addition to working at Teys, Nades volunteered at Vinnies, while Priya built a circle of friends attending a craft group at the Baptist church. The couple quickly fitted in, and decided to try immediately for children, given Priya’s age. “She always thought she was going to be too old to have children by the time she met Nades,” says Bronwyn Dendle. “When she was pregnant with Kopika, she was so excited and felt so blessed. It was pretty special for them.” Their daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa were born in 2015 and 2017 respectively, and Priya took them to playgroup at St Gabriel’s Anglican church.
In Bilo, Nades and Priya were on bridging visas, waiting to hear if their claims to stay in Australia would be successful. Neither Kopika nor Tharnicaa was entitled to Australian citizenship, which isn’t granted to children born to asylum seekers who arrive by boat, who are considered “illegal maritime arrivals”. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop the then home affairs minister Peter Dutton from labelling the children “anchor babies”.
Nades’ application for asylum had been rejected by the government on September 6, 2012. However, his appeals through the courts, which would uphold the decision, wouldn’t conclude until 2015. Meanwhile, his visa rolled over as they waited to hear about Priya’s case. Her asylum bid was rejected on May 9, 2017, then it too would be appealed in the courts.
On March 4, 2018, Priya’s bridging visa, which she had applied to renew, expired. It seems the first the couple knew of this was with the surprise arrival of Border Force officers the following day at dawn. The agents pulled up outside a low-set, butter-coloured weatherboard house on Rainbow Street, which the Murugappans rented.
The family was given enough time to pack a few things. Priya grabbed some clothes, a few toys, her wedding saris, jewellery and their wedding album. Priya and Kopika were crying and Nades was tense, as the family was split between two vehicles and driven out of Bilo before most of the town woke up.
They were taken to Gladstone, a little over an hour away, where they would board a plane for Melbourne. Priya and Nades say they were separated again on the flight, including from their screaming children. Kopika was by now almost three, Tharnicaa nine months. In Melbourne the family was put into the Broadmeadows immigration detention centre.
The day the Murugappans were taken the temperature in Bilo hit 32 degrees, even though it was the beginning of autumn. The family left behind their friends, a job and most of their belongings. Their beds were still warm from where they’d slept. A few hours after Border Force came to Rainbow Street, other families began arriving outside Nades and Priya’s house, which sat opposite St Joseph’s primary school. It was Monday and parents were dropping their kids off to the school, where Nades and Priya had hoped to educate their girls. The Catholic church next door was where Priya could often be seen lighting candles and praying.
In small towns, it’s often said that everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s true. When Nades didn’t turn up for work that day, and Priya missed a physio appointment, calls were made and questions asked.
By lunchtime, word had spread across Bilo that something odd had gone down at the Murugappans’ home. When the town learnt of Border Force’s covert-like operation, there was disbelief, then outrage. “It was shocking and dramatic and to think it happened in our town!” says Marie Austin.
Border Force’s operation was something you might see in America but not in Australia, not in Queensland, and definitely not in Bilo. “The poor buggers were just pinched out of town,” says Mayor Nev Ferrier, a broad-shouldered man with a weathered face and friendly, lopsided smile. He believes someone in Canberra was “a bit overzealous” and that it will cost the federal government at next year’s election. Rae Martin, a local aged-care worker, has already made up her mind: “I won’t be voting for them.”
Bilo sits in the federal seat of Flynn, an electorate so vast that Tasmania would almost fit into it twice. Flynn is up for grabs next year because its sitting member, the Coalition’s Ken O’Dowd, a Liberal, is retiring. It took until June this year for O’Dowd and several of his fellow backbenchers, Trent Zimmerman, Katie Allen and Jason Falinski, to speak out publicly in support of the Murugappans. Barnaby Joyce, also sniffing the shift in public sentiment, launched another attack on his own government, declaring the family would have been treated differently had their girls been called “Jane and Sally”. By then, the family had spent more than three years in detention, first in Melbourne and later on Christmas Island, while legal battles were fought to allow them to stay. The backbenchers’ support came as the public backlash over the government’s handling of the case reached boiling point when Tharnicaa became very ill.
Rosemary Munroe, who moved to Bilo in her twenties and has lived there 50 years, dismisses O’Dowd as “rather a non-event”. An elegant woman with silver-tinged hair, Munroe is a former real estate agent who’s disgusted at how the government handled the family’s case. “They were quietly and calmly living their life here, then they were picked up like major criminals,” she says, shaking her head. “They didn’t have to take them away. They could’ve left them here while they worked through the process. It was so aggressive. How did the government think it would go down?”
Ninety-year-old Shirley Matheson used to live next door to the Murugappans. “They were good, pleasant neighbours. The little girl used to wave to me and I would say hello to the mother. They were living next to me for some time, then they shifted from here up to Rainbow Street into a nice little house.” Matheson remembers Priya’s cooking. “Oh the curries! Some of the smells that came from there were lovely.”
It’s a shame, she says, what happened. “They just burst into the house one morning, those people,” she says, referring to Border Force, pulling her navy cardigan a little tighter over her pink and blue floral shirt.
Brownyn Dendle, the social worker and Murugappans’ friend, had been writing regularly to then immigration minister Peter Dutton, asking him to grant special dispensation for the family to stay. The Migration Act gives the minister power to intervene and grant a visa for any reason they choose. Dendle outlined how the family had become part of the community. The day they were taken, she broke down in her office at Biloela Hospital. “There was a part of me that went: ‘Why is the whole town not rioting?’ Then it was a kind of hopelessness, you know, a feeling of what’s the point of anything? It was terrible. I asked myself: How do we just let this go?”
Bronwyn Dendle: “We never thought that three years down the track, we’d still be doing interviews with CNN or The Washington Post.”Credit:Paul Harris
Bilo didn’t let it go. Like Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle, the town decided to fight. As for the government, well, it could get stuffed. Bronwyn Dendle, Marie Austin and Angela Fredericks would help form a core group of 15 women who would anchor the town’s fight. They knew of each other and were friendly, but not close. They started a petition and a media campaign to lobby the government to return the Murugappans to Bilo. Very quickly that campaign became bigger than any of them, or the town, could imagine. It would be clever, sophisticated and relentless, grabbing national and international attention, even though none of the women had media training or public relations experience. All they had was a passion to get their friends back, and anger at how the government had acted.
Marie Austin, who has a soft, rosy complexion, was one of the first to step into the media spotlight. She and another friend from Bilo visited the Murugappans in detention in Melbourne in May 2018. Then she stepped outside her comfort zone, and appeared in the audience of the ABC’s Q+A current affairs program, which was broadcasting from the city. “I’ve never really stopped to think about what it’s like for asylum seekers, never,” says Austin. “Then getting to know this family – it does open your eyes to the bigger picture of what goes on.”
Austin admits she felt out of her depth walking into the ABC studio. “I didn’t even know what Q+A was,” she says, a little embarrassed, sitting at her kitchen table. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this isn’t the sort of show I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a serious show.’ ” She soon realised the show hadn’t started and it was just the person the ABC employs to warm the audience up. “However scary that was for me to do that, and put myself out there, I had to do it. We had to speak up for our friends who needed us.”
Marie Austin on ABC TV’s Q+A: “However scary that was for me… we had to speak up.”Credit:ABC
The media campaign started with a petition, which initially got 98,745 signatures, then interviews grew with the launch of a Facebook page and Twitter account. Some in the group had never heard of a hashtag, but their simple message to get the family “Home to Bilo” soon became a hashtag with cut-through. “We were so naïve,” says Dendle, sitting on a loveseat swing in her backyard, clutching a cup of tea. “We just wanted to make enough noise to say, ‘This isn’t right, and someone needs to just reverse this decision and bring them home.’ It always blows my mind when I think where this whole thing is now to how it actually started. We never thought that three years down the track, we’d still be doing interviews with CNN or The Washington Post.” Those media outlets, along with the BBC and The New York Times, all considered the story big enough to report to their overseas audiences.
“We just wanted to say, ‘This isn’t right, and someone needs to reverse this decision and bring them home.’ ”
The women learnt how to crowdfund. Across seven rounds, they raised almost $500,000, which has gone towards the campaign and the family’s legal costs, allowing them to hire Melbourne immigration lawyer Carina Ford. The Bilo campaign drew the attention of Change.org, too, which started advising the group. One of the crowdfunding rounds paid for 22 billboards to appear in Coalition electorates in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, including in Peter Dutton’s Queensland seat of Dickson. They featured giant photos of the family, and messages imploring the government to let them return to the small town from which they were taken. One directly addressed PM Scott Morrison, also the father of two daughters: “Please, Prime Minister, you can bring these girls home to Biloela #hometobilo.”
“Home to Bilo” was a phrase repeated by Angela Fredericks, Bronwyn Dendle and Marie Austin whenever they gave media interviews, so much so that it soon became a political earworm just like those other three words: Stop the Boats.
In May 2018, the group presented their petition to Peter Dutton’s office in Brisbane. When he was replaced as immigration minister by David Coleman, the women took the petition to his office in Sydney. By the time they took it to Parliament House, Canberra in September 2019, it had more than 500,000 signatures. The group encouraged people to email their MPs, with more than 12,000 people doing so. Through social media, the women inspired vigils and protests across the country, from small towns to big cities.
All age groups, from grandmothers to children, turned out to hold placards saying “Home to Bilo”, often featuring pictures of Kopika and Tharnicaa, or drawings of cockatoos.
Biloela social worker Angela Fredericks.Credit:Paul Harris
In August 2019, the Bilo group heard that the Murugappans were once again about to be deported to Sri Lanka. They swung into action, putting a call-out on social media to anyone in Melbourne to go to the airport to protest. Several dozen responded. “People who didn’t know them were just getting in their cars and jumping on trains, and going out the airport. Someone was doing a live feed of the plane taking off,” recalls Dendle. A legal injunction, secured by the Murugappans’ lawyers, forced the plane to make an unscheduled landing in Darwin, where the family was removed. “The legal team just did their thing, got an injunction, and there was a touchdown in Darwin. It was unbelievable. When they make a blockbuster movie of this, that will be the really exciting part that people get behind and start cheering about in their lounge rooms.”
On August 30, the Murugappans were sent to another detention centre, this time on Christmas Island, a three-hour flight from Perth. Here they languished for almost two years away from the public eye, as the legal battle ground on and the women of Bilo kept up their campaign. “I’ve been involved in cases that have received some publicity before, but nothing like this,” says Carina Ford, who has specialised in immigration law for nearly two decades. She’s been surprised that support for the family has been across generations, as it’s usually younger people who get behind such causes. “It’s coming from right across Australia. The group behind it, and their dedication to this cause, is amazing. They are amazing.”
Bilo mayor Nev Ferrier agrees. “There are heaps of people behind ’em here. I’ve had a lot of phone calls. Everything that’s been done has been done by those women.” He says it’s put a town that most Australians had never heard of before on the map. “What it’s done for Biloela in the eyes of the rest of Australia …” He pauses. “It’s affected other people and cities.”
The story blew up again this June when it was revealed in the Senate that the cost of keeping the family in detention on Christmas Island was $6.7 million. Ferrier says that kind of money could get Bilo and the surrounding towns he’s responsible for a much-needed upgrade to their wastewater and sewage systems.
That same month, the story grew worse for the government, which started looking like Wile E. Coyote shielding himself with a little umbrella against a great falling boulder. Tharnicaa, who was about to turn four and had spent every birthday in detention, became seriously ill on Christmas Island. Untreated pneumonia had infected her bloodstream, leading to sepsis. The government flew Tharnicaa and Priya to Perth, where they were rushed to hospital. Nades and Kopika would follow a week later on a private jet chartered by the government, even though Virgin flights were available.
Calls to let the family return to Bilo grew louder across Australia, by now including members of the government backbench. People such as Bronwyn Dendle’s dad, who’d been against the family resettling, were changing their minds. It had gone on long enough. The nation had had a gutful.
Biloela locals hired billboards as part of their campaign.
In the middle of the unholy tug of war between the government and this small Queensland town has been the question of whether it is safe for the Murugappans to go back to Sri Lanka.
A 2019 report by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) found Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority faced only a “moderate risk” of societal discrimination now that the war was over, and that the risk of torture was low for all Sri Lankans. These findings have been challenged by refugee groups, non-government organisations and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The DFAT report’s authors weren’t able to verify any allegations of torture in Sri Lanka since 2016, although they acknowledged that the International Truth and Justice Project had documented 76 alleged cases of torture between 2015 and 2017 involving individuals suspected of Tamil Tiger involvement.
The federal government’s reasons for returning many Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka have been supported by the DFAT report. It sees the risk of persecution as low now that the civil war has ended, which is why making an exception for the Murugappans has been difficult. “Australia does not return individuals to situations where they face persecution or a real risk of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary deprivation of life or the application of the death penalty,” the Home Affairs department said in a statement. It wouldn’t comment on the Murugappans case but confirmed that in the past decade, 3004 Sri Lankans have been returned or removed from Australia. A request for an interview with Immigration Minister Alex Hawke was declined.
In 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report, which found evidence that both Sri Lanka’s security forces and the Tamil Tigers were responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also said that reprisals, from extrajudicial killings, abductions, unlawful arrests, sexual violence and torture to arbitrary detention, continued after the war ended. In January this year, the OHCHR released another report on Sri Lanka, which declared the government had made no effort to bring to account those responsible for war crimes, and warned that conflict could again break out. It said: “The High Commissioner is deeply concerned by the trends emerging over the past year, which represent clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations.”
If the deep divisions within Sri Lanka are ever to be healed, the OHCHR believes it could take generations, as well as a truth-telling and reconciliation commission like the one in South Africa after the end of apartheid.
Supporters protest outside the Federal Court in Melbourne in 2019.Credit:Getty
The details of Priya’s and Nades’ hometowns, the trauma they experienced in Sri Lanka, and accounts of their boat journeys, have only been disclosed in detail to the courts and to successive immigration ministers. “What Priya experienced on that boat over – no one talks about it, but it’s horrendous,” says Bronwyn Dendle.
Nades’, Priya’s and Kopika’s applications for protection have all been rejected and their appeals through the Federal Circuit Court, Federal Court, Full Federal Court and request for special leave to appeal to the High Court, have failed. In August 2019, when the government attempted to deport the family for a second time, an injunction was granted as it was successfully argued that Tharnicaa had not had her refugee status assessed. On August 12 this year, the family’s attempt to appeal to the High Court for Tharnicaa’s case was rejected. The family’s only hope of remaining in Australia now rests with Immigration Minister Hawke. He can use his powers to grant permission for the family to stay if he deems it’s in the “public interest”.
Biloela is named after the sulphur-crested cockatoo.Credit:Paul Harris
Biloela is a welcoming town. People come to work at the mine, the power station and the meatworks, often staying for only a few years. It’s a transient place where friendships form quickly. Anyone who decides to make it their home permanently is embraced. People who live here value those who work hard, says 51-year-old Jeff Austin, Marie’s husband. “Part of our culture is having a go. ‘Have a go, mate!’ And that’s the thing you want to get behind and build up.”
Austin supports strong border protection measures except when $6.7 million is spent on locking up one family, which he says was a “bad use of our taxes”. When it comes to the Murugappans, he believes they deserve a fair go. “To my mind they’re the ideal immigrants. They were here working hard and paying tax. They were fitting in with our culture. They weren’t like some who come here and bring their problems or rort the system, who you’d be happy to send back.”
Austin’s dressed in a navy work shirt, shorts and work boots, and talks in a gruff voice that has a cut-the-crap edge to it, but belies a softer side. He and Marie both volunteer at English language conversation classes for migrants at the Baptist church. “There’s no point whingeing that they don’t speak our language if you’re given the opportunity to help teach them.”
“To my mind they’re the ideal immigrants. They were here working hard and paying tax. They were fitting in.”
Bilo was built on migrants. The Queensland government created the town in 1924, giving away parcels of farming land with conditions that the land be cleared and put to use or would be taken back. It drew large groups from overseas, many of them Russians; after World War II, Italians and Greeks would move here, too. Sid Semple’s grandparents fled the Russian Revolution and ended up in Bilo. “They were given land, 500 to 600 acres. They cleared all the scrub and grew cotton for quite a few years. Then when cotton went downwards, they got into dairy and supplied cream to the butter factory,” says Semple. “They didn’t speak much English.”
The coal mine opened in Bilo in the ’40s, followed by the meatworks a decade later, then the power station, which drew in more migrants. In recent years, the migrants arriving in this town have been mostly from Asia.
Nhi Tran, or Rita Twomey, as she’s known, arrived in Bilo as a teenager not speaking a word of English, much like Sid Semple’s grandparents. She came from Vietnam’s Binh Duong province, just north of Ho Chi Minh City. Her mum had married an Australian and moved to Bilo; Nhi followed after her visa was approved, albeit thinking she was going to Brisbane.
“I was 15, an age when you want to be out with friends. But I can’t speak English. I can’t make friends,” says Nhi, now 27. “After that first year, I was saying to myself, ‘I’ve got to learn English, I’ve got to speak, otherwise I’m going to be going nowhere.’ ”
She took an assortment of jobs, from sweeping the floor of an industrial shed to one at the meatworks, then waitressing at the Thai restaurant. As her English improved, so did the work. She later ran the power station’s cafeteria before opening her own cafe and marrying a local. With a staff of six, Rita’s Blue Cafe is the town’s most popular lunch and coffee stop. “People in Bilo care about you and it’s a good place,” says Nhi, who’s petite, with a number of tattoos, and has a high ponytail. “When you live in the countryside, everyone knows you.”
Pictures of Tharnicaa in hospital went around the world.
After Tharnicaa was transferred to a Perth hospital, images went around the world of a sick little girl with big expressive eyes, her weary-faced mother by her side. On her hospital bed rested a stuffed toy cockatoo. It prompted commentators such as former LNP staffer Niki Savva, who had worked for Peter Costello (and is now a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age), to call upon Scott Morrison to show compassion, saying the country knew this one case wouldn’t restart the boats.
The Prime Minister’s and Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s position weakened in the face of public opprobrium, and the family was allowed to stay in Perth on bridging visas, except Tharnicaa, who was subject to community detention, which prevented them from leaving the city and going back to Bilo.
Allowing the family to stay there and not returning them to Christmas Island was welcomed by their lawyer Carina Ford. Still, she struggles with how the government, and in particular Morrison and Hawke, who have talked about their Christian beliefs, allow minors to be locked up for so long. Ford has a strong Catholic faith. “Why is it okay to lock up two children, who have had no choice in the matter? How does that reconcile with your faith? It clearly does with some people and that’s where I sit differently.”
The Murugappan family’s lawyer, Carina Ford.Credit:Getty Images
Ford notes the family’s confinement on Christmas Island happened when many Australians were grappling with lockdowns caused by the pandemic, perhaps underlining just what refugees go through. “It’s given people an understanding of, ‘Hang on, this is actually quite hard.’ ”
The Biloela community’s fight to get the Murugappans back, led by a group of devoted women, may have drawn global attention to their story, but did it also make it harder for the government to change tack? “I’ve seen them dig their heels in when we have no coverage on cases,” says Ford. “So it’s difficult to know.”
Bronwyn Dendle has heard the argument that their campaign might have hurt the chance of the government quietly changing its mind. She doesn’t buy it, saying she and others had been writing to the Immigration Minister for two years before Border Force took the family. “We tried quietly, and they were taken anyway. We had no option but to let the people know what happened to our friends.”
Jeff Austin believes the Coalition has painted itself into a corner. “If they send them back and something happens to them, I can’t see it being good for the government.” Marie Austin says pride shouldn’t be the reason for the government not to change its position.
“We tried quietly, and they were taken anyway. We had no option but to let the people know what happened to our friends,” says campaigner Bronwyn Dendle.
Angela Fredericks is convinced that once the public got to see and know Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharnicaa, it changed the narrative about them. They were no longer just illegal boat people but also a hardworking dad, a devoted mother, and two little girls. “Everyone can see themselves in Priya and Nades. Whether people are Liberals, Labor, Greens or One Nation, everyone values family and everyone values hard workers,” she says. “We’re an old-fashioned community in Biloela that still has those values. What we’re actually fighting for are Australia’s values, too, and it took this for the rest of the nation to remember that.”
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