Executive editor Michelle Pini reports on the circumstances of the Tamil family now held in detention on Christmas Island, awaiting deportation.
IN A TERRIFYING exercise of heavy-handed bullying, the Department of Immigration, led by Minister for Immigration David Coleman and guided by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, has made an example of a much-loved Biloela family.
The family of four, whose faces are now well known by Australians thanks to the efforts of their tight-knit rural community, were being deported back to Sri Lanka — to the very circumstances from which they had fled for their lives.
Priya cried and begged to be allowed to hold her toddler, who was screaming hysterically for her mother as armed police prised her away, but was repeatedly denied permission to be with her children. It is difficult to imagine what circumstances could possibly justify a distraught two-year-old to be ripped from her mother's arms during the already traumatic experience of being deported — at least in any humane democracy.
Angela Fredericks, a professional mental health social worker and advocate for the Tamil asylum seeker family, told IA:
"In that moment, Priya told me, she just wanted to give up."
According to Ms Fredericks, Priya – who has been diagnosed with PTSD relating to her horrific experience in Sri Lanka, which included the murder of her previous fiancee – resisted as AFP officers took her children away. But instead of offering her support, or allowing the children to sit with their mother during the flight, Priya was forcibly removed from them. During the ordeal, officers violently twisted her wrist and, according to Ms Fredericks, Priya is now battered, bruised and scratched all over.
Ms Fredericks told IA that Priya may never recover from this additional trauma:
I understand Priya has since been offered counselling but she has declined. It is a common response for people who have suffered horrific trauma, which I have often seen — the damage is such that all trust is lost. On the phone with Priya, all I could do is go through breathing techniques to try and alleviate her stress levels.
Both children also witnessed the manhandling of their mother and two-year-old Tharunicaa cried hysterically the entire time they were separated. Four-year-old Kopika is so distressed she now becomes hysterical whenever either parent is out of her sight.
Prior to the attempted deportation, Priya had been living a normal, productive life in rural Queensland with her husband and two Australian-born children. She and her husband Nades worked and raised their family like any ordinary Australian couple. Except, of course, for one small but immeasurably important difference. Priya and Nades were both born in Sri Lanka — a nation which continues to be classified as "safe" by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Since the Federal Government remains undeterred by Sri Lanka's horrendous persecution of the Tamil people, it is not recognised as a country from which political asylum may granted.
This difference means that Priya and Nades' refugee status – despite being given visas initially and living here and contributing to their community – has been tenuous at best. And now, the Federal Government has seen fit to, first, remove them without warning in the dead of night under armed police guard and place them in detention, 1,800 kilometres away in Victoria. And then, to attempt to ship them back to the country whose tyrannical treatment they fled.
On Thursday night (29 August), Priya, Nades, Kopika (aged four) and two-year-old Tharunicaa were put on a plane. The intention was that they would be deported — to their certain imprisonment in Sri Lanka and possibly even to their death. No more questions asked. No more media spotlight. Case closed.
Lawyers acting on behalf of the family, however, intervened with a last-minute court injunction and an 11th hour reprieve was staged. With their deportation now stalled, the Immigration Department has since flown the family to Christmas Island, where they are now the only “guests” at the newly reopened detention facility. There they are being held behind bars and watched over by no less than six armed guards.
Lawyer acting for the family, Carina Ford, spoke with IA ahead of today's court appearance:
There are currently two filings [on behalf of this family]: one in the Federal Circuit Court, scheduled to be heard at 2.15pm today, and one in the Federal Court on Wednesday. The reason for the two petitions is that there is a level of uncertainty over which court has jurisdiction.
It is our view that the youngest child's situation has not been fairly dealt with in accordance with Australia's international obligations, as her application did not go before the Minister.
The counter-argument put forward by ministers Dutton and Coleman, that allowing this family to stay will somehow open the floodgates for other boat arrivals does not hold water, according to Ms Ford.
Ms Ford said there are two reasons for this:
Firstly, under the law, each case is determined on its merit. You cannot treat any asylum seeker group as a cohort.
And secondly, the reality is that anyone who attempts to arrive by boat is currently turned back or, if they do manage to make it here [to Australia] they are currently subject to offshore processing. The provision under current legal procedure is the minister intervenes only in exceptional circumstances — as has happened in many instances.
This doesn't mean that the Government needs to change its current policy for all asylum seekers.
Ms Fredericks said:
"The damage being inflicted on this family is criminal.
We are completely reliant on Minister Coleman to intervene."
You can sign the petition to bring Priya and her family home to Biloela, Queensland HERE.
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.