The shocking dawn raid infuriated locals who began a nationwide campaign against their removal to Sri Lanka, where as minority Tamils they fear persecution.
After a traumatic three years, during which the family was held offshore on Christmas Island, and Tharnicaa had to receive medical treatment for illnesses she developed in detention there, the Australian government has finally succumbed to pressure to let them stay — for now. This week, it announced they can remain in community detention in Perth while they finalize their legal challenges.
Thousands of Tamil asylum seekers in Australia are closely watching their case.
Tharnicaa, now 4, and her sister Kopika, 6, were born in Australia, but the government considers the entire family “illegal maritime arrivals” because their parents, Priya and Nades Murugappan, paid traffickers to take them to Australia by boat.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said Australia doesn’t owe protection to the family, and others like it. “Sri Lanka is safe. People are returning from all around the world to Sri Lanka … it is safe to do so and that’s the government’s policy,” he said.
But mounting evidence suggests that is not the case, according to the United Nations, rights groups and a UK tribunal that recently criticized one of the main sources of information used by Australian immigration officers to deny Sri Lankans refugee status.
Seeking safety in Australia
The couple arrived before the deadline of July 2013, when the then-Labor government announced no asylum seeker who arrived by boat would ever be settled in Australia.
The Murugappans were part of the “fast track” cohort — people who arrived by boat between August 13, 2012, and January 1, 2014 — who could live in the community while their asylum claims were processed.
The couple married in 2014 and moved to Biloela, a country town in Queensland, known to locals as Bilo, with a long history of welcoming immigrants to fill local jobs on the land and in the nearby power station.
The Murugappans quickly made friends. Nades found a job in the local abattoir and Priya made curry for staff at the local hospital.
Friends knew they had “visa issues,” but no one expected them to suddenly disappear from the remote town in March 2018.
Word spread that something had happened when Priya missed a regular physiotherapy appointment at the local hospital. “It was unusual,” said friend Bronwyn Dendle. “She was very dedicated, and committed to appointments, and she respected people’s time.”
Dendle said people in the town felt “violated” when they learned their new friends had been bundled onto a plane and taken to an immigration detention center in Melbourne more than 1,800 kilometers (about 1,118 miles) away. Locals donated cash and held Tamil feast nights to raise money for an immigration lawyer.
Angela Fredericks, a friend who has spent years advocating for the family’s freedom said: “At the end of the day Priya and Nades just want a safe future for their children, and ideally themselves.”
One night in August 2019, immigration officers told the Murugappans they were being sent back to Sri Lanka. Supporters raced to the airport to try to block the plane’s departure, but it took it off while lawyers scrambled to prevent the aircraft from leaving Australian airspace. A judge granted an emergency injunction that forced the plane to land in Darwin.
The next day, the family was sent to a largely disused detention center on Christmas Island, 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) west of the Australian mainland, while one of their final legal claims was processed.
That case rests on Tharnicaa, who wasn’t included on the family’s application for protection, because it was lodged before she was born. A judge ruled the family couldn’t be removed until her claim was processed.
On Christmas Island, the family lived in a single-story, temporary building surrounded by wire fences. Kopika went to the local school each day, escorted by guards. The Australian government spent at least 6.7 million Australian dollars ($5.2 million) to detain them on the island.
Last week, Tharnicaa, now 4 years old, was evacuated to Perth Children’s Hospital for pneumonia and a suspected blood infection she acquired while in detention.
The medical emergency put the family’s case back in Australian headlines, prompting calls — even from within the government’s own party — for the immigration minister to let them stay.
Alleged war criminals back in power
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 when the government launched a final assault on separatist fighters from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the conflict’s final stages, up to 40,000 people are thought to have been killed.
The government was accused of herding civilians into No Fire Zones, which it subsequently shelled, while the LTTE — or Tamil Tigers — were accused of forcing civilians to join their ranks, “blurring the line between civilians and combatants.”
After the war, many hoped a new government could bind the country in peace. But in 2019, Sri Lankans elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
President Rajapaksa and his brother, who he has appointed prime minister, were key in ending the Tamil uprising in the former government. Since they returned to power, minorities — including Tamils — have been increasingly harassed and surveilled, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOCHR). The brothers have reinstalled key figures from that era.
“Particularly troubling are appointments of senior military officials who were implicated in United Nations reports in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the conflict,” a recent UNOCHR report said.
A former Tamil fighter, still in Sri Lanka, told CNN the country is not safe for Tamils returning from abroad.
“The army’s intelligence, they go to these people’s house and ask them to come to the army camp. (They say) ‘since you came from abroad, you have money,'” said the former fighter, who CNN is not naming for her own safety.
“When these people (returning Tamils) are unable to pay, they harass them and investigate them and interrogate them,” she said. Some are beaten, she added.
The woman’s husband was an LTTE fighter who surrendered to the army at the end of the war. She hasn’t since him since — he is one of tens of thousands of people thought to have been imprisoned or killed.
Since the war, Sri Lanka had “transformed into a country that protects the civil rights destroyed by the LTTE terrorists,” he added.
Failed asylum claims
The Murugappans are among thousands of Tamil asylum seekers in Australia who have been told to go home.
Sri Lankans are the single largest group to have sought a review of rejected claims through the Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA), a body formed in 2015 to help clear asylum applications. Since then, the authority has reviewed more than 12,500 claims from failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers; it has rejected 93%.
“Australia, in the past, has seemed to treat claims from Tamil people with a significantly greater level of scrutiny and pessimism about the fears they have than other countries,” said Sarah Dale, director and principal solicitor of the Refugee Advice & Casework Service.
Australian immigration officers use the UNOCHR report to assess asylum claims, but rights groups say more weight is typically given to the country information report compiled by DFAT.
In May, a United Kingdom tribunal hearing an asylum claim in the UK found the DFAT report’s reliability was “difficult to gauge” because no one was named and there were no direct quotes.
“The fact that the UK has made this finding, and has gone as far as criticize the DFAT report is quite extraordinary,” said Dale. “The claims being raised in Australia are really no different than the claims being made in the UK.”
“In the case of individuals detained by the authorities, DFAT assesses the risk of mistreatment to be moderate. Where it occurs, some mistreatment may amount to torture. DFAT assesses that Sri Lankans face a low risk of torture overall,” it says.
DFAT told a senate hearing this month that a new report was being prepared for release later this year.
Rawan Arraf, executive director of the Australian Centre for International Justice and its partner organization, the International Truth and Justice Project, said they raised concerns about the report with DFAT last year. DFAT responded by saying the report represented its best judgment at the time of publication and is based on “extensive research and consultation,” according to a letter seen by CNN.
A spokesperson for the Home Affairs department said IAA assessors are “required to consider” the DFAT report but can use other resources to reach a decision. An IAA spokesperson told CNN: “The weight attributed to each document, including any country information reports, is a matter for the decision maker in each case.”
They are ‘terrified’
Tamil asylum seekers in Australia are anxious about receiving the same knock at the door that sent the Biloela family into detention.
“There are many families in that situation, who really don’t know what their future holds,” said Rebecca Lim, a former immigration officer and co-founder of the Brisbane On-Arrival Refugee and Asylum Seeker Response Group.
She said many of the Tamil women were victims of sexual violence the UN says was used as a method of torture in the final months of the war.
“We’ve got three generational families, grandmothers, children, grandchildren, female-headed households, they’re all terrified of having to be sent back,” Lim said.
“They are frightened for their own safety, for the safety of their daughters. They’re also frightened that upon return their husbands or sons or brothers will be taken in by the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) or non-state actors, and then disappear, which leaves them vulnerable without male protection,” Lim said.
Priest Pan Jordan works with Tamil men in Brisbane who have spent years fighting their case in the courts. Sometimes, when they don’t have enough money to pay a lawyer, he goes to court to represent them, though he has no legal training.
“I’m trying to say to the judge — this is what is happening in Sri Lanka today. This is what will happen if they are returned to Sri Lanka,” he said.
Because the Biloela case has received so much publicity, he said it is “unthinkable” they would be returned to Sri Lanka.
Stopping the boats
Australia’s tough immigration policy has succeeded in “stopping the boats,” but it has come at a steep personal cost to thousands of asylum seekers caught in the system.
Immigration Minister Hawke says human traffickers could resume trade “at any moment”.
“The people smugglers are there, they watch developments in Australia closely,” he said. “We have to make a tough decision to continue our border protection, but it is the right decision because the trade in human misery means the loss of life, it means more expense, and it means a loss of social cohesion.”
Dendle, from Biloela, said the community doesn’t believe the government’s prediction that offering protection would lead to deluge of asylum seekers.
“The government pitches them as very scary people that are going to cause catastrophes on a grand scale. But we see this beautiful little family integrated into a Queensland community and go, ‘Oh wait a second, that doesn’t match.'”
Hawke said he would review the family’s application to stay while they remain in community detention in Perth. That requires them to live at a designated address under curfew, with no right to travel interstate. They are given medical care but are not allowed to work. Kopika will start at a new local school.
Critics say the Australian government’s concerns about stopping the boats is compromising its humanity.
“The department just uses whatever information that suits their needs,” said Lim, the former immigration officer. “They’re not objective, DFAT reports are not objective, they can’t be objective.”
This weekend, rallies are being held around Australia calling for the family to be allowed to return “home to Bilo.”
In a video message released Friday, Priya said: “Thank you everyone, all Australia, for supporting us, my family.”
“I hope (to go) back to Bilo. One day.”