Publicity and Exploitation: Fortress Australia and the Family from Biloela

Australian officials and paper mad types are running out of ideas as to how to be cruel towards refugees.  We need to give them some credit: for years they have tried to do what most autocratic and murderous regimes do in a heartbeat: ignore international law, treat it with disdain and use those feeble excuses in the service of sovereignty.

As with any system of harm and torture, the justifiers cite a hard form of kindness to prolong the depravity of their conduct.  The drivel of humanitarian falseness abounds: We need to prevent people from drowning.  We hate seeing children perish.  So, lock them up.  We do not want to see parents separated from their children.  So, separate them.  No Australian politician can ever be in a position to criticise any other country on this point, largely because they inspired the rash of demagogic policies that typify a shift away from the principles of the UN Refugee Convention.  (The Danish parliament recently approved legislation that will enable the bribing of third countries to prevent refugees and asylum seekers seeking settlement in Denmark.)

The ways Australian governments of either conservative or Labor persuasion have pecked away and subserved international refugee guarantees are impressively thuggish.  Legally excising the mainland to make sure that boat arrivals could never be settled as refugees under the Migration Act was particularly devilish.  Then came the system of Pacific island concentration camps to ensure that applications for asylum could be kept in cold storage while deals with third countries could be brokered.

But something of late has changed.  The jaded oppressors are fearing that the cruelty-is-good mantra is running its course.  At the very least, it might permit exceptions.  It centres on the fate of a Sri Lankan family, deported to Christmas Island after settling in the small Central Queensland town of Biloela.  Nadesalingam Murugappan and Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam married in Australia after separately arriving from Sri Lanka by boat in 2012 and 2013 separately.  They had two Australian-born children, Tharnicaa and Kopika.  In Biloela, they made friends, cultivated relationships.

Then, Fortress Australia intervened.  Arguments by Nadesalingam and Priya that they would be put in harm’s way should they be returned to Sri Lanka as ethnic Tamils were rejected.  In 2018, the family was removed from Biloela and detained in Melbourne.  An attempt to deport them by the Department of Home Affairs to Sri Lanka was frustrated by a Federal Court injunction.  The court processes were duly triggered; the family was then moved to Christmas Island in August 2019.

The legal issues have become needlessly, and brutally entangling.  Current interest centres on the finding by Federal Court Justice Mark Moshinsky that Tharnicaa was not awarded “procedural fairness” when she requested permission to apply for a protection visa in September 2018.  The decision was upheld in February by the Full Court of the Federal Court, though the judges were keen to point out that the Immigration Minister had no obligation to allow Tharnicaa to make that application for protection in the first place.

The poor conditions on Christmas Island were telling.  Both children became vitamin D deficient.  Bouts of infection followed.  Tharnicaa, the youngest, had surgery to remove her decayed teeth.  At the start of this month, she contracted pneumonia and a blood infection.  Medical staff on Christmas Island proved indifferent: she looked “active and fine”.  A contrarian and increasingly desperate Nadesalingam urged the prescription of antibiotics.  With her condition eventually deemed critical, Tharnicaa was evacuated with her mother to Perth Children’s Hospital, Western Australia.

The most obvious point was, at least initially, avoided: return the family to the mainland.  Various government ministers, including Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, raised the possibility that the family might be resettled in New Zealand or the United States.  These options were then scotched by Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews.  The arrangements with both countries were only in respect to refugees.  “This family does not have refugee status.”

But certain politicians sensed a change of mood and wanted a new music sheet.  The accountant types worried about the cost: AU$6.7 million over three years had been spent keeping a family on a remote island.  The poor optic types feared the publicity, and the potential damage to votes, caused by a suffering family.  Papers such as the West Australian ran headlines such as, “It only took 1198 days.”  The chief executive of the Child and Adolescent Health Service claimed that the improvement of Tharnicaa’s physical and psychological wellbeing was dependent on family reunification.

Previously closeted government backbenchers came out.  There was modest Trent Zimmerman, startling ABC News audiences barely able to get their coffee down on Sunday morning before realising the content of his suggestion.  “This week or in the next couple of weeks, [Immigration Minister Alex Hawke] will be considering an application to use his powers to give an exemption to the normal requirements.”  There was Ken O’Dowd, whose federal seat takes in Biloela, lobbying Hawke to let the family settle in Australia.  He thought that “everyone’s just about had enough” and wanted “to move on.”  He claimed to have “always been supportive of the family”, realising “from the word go that it was always going to be an issue.”

Having discovered her inner morality, Liberal backbencher Katie Allen wanted this to be resolved with swift urgency. “This has gone on for too long,” she tweeted. “We urgently need a timely resolution to a situation that is endangering the health and well-being of innocent children.”  Typically, Allen’s morality encased itself with bureaucratic sensibility.  She did not want to give the impression that she embraced opening the gates for any biblical flood of suffering. “We must look at alternatives such as Section 195A of the Migration Act to solve the legal impasse and give this family a chance.”

Priceless was the tittering contribution from Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, fair weather reactionary prone to soft moderations of tone and a radar for votes. “Tharnicaa and Kopika were born in Australia,” he observed with shattering obviousness.  “Maybe if their names were Jane and Sally we’d think twice about sending them back to another country which they’re not from.”  Throwing in the inevitable qualification, Joyce also wanted all to know that no “encouragement” was intended for “people smugglers to start their vile trade again”.  We, he assured critics, were “a very humanitarian government.”

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack was visibly alarmed by this wobbliness on Fortress Australia’s ideals.  In platitudes, he spoke of not wanting “to see the boats return”.  He chided Zimmerman for not being “in parliament when some of those ships were lost at sea, some of those leaky boats were dashed up against rocks and all lives lost.  I was.  I remember the heartache, I remember the loss.”  Poor, suffering McCormack.

The reliably spineless Labor Party, ever willing to criticise and simultaneously agree with the border protection regime, was also there.  They had found a voice from the wilderness of irrelevance, despite most party members knowing they would have done precisely the same thing to such a family.  Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese moralised.  “I visited Biloela,” he tweeted in February.  “This community isn’t interested in politics.  They just want their friends back.”

On the morning of June 15, the Immigration Minister released a statement on his decision.  The family would be able to “reside in the Perth community.”  Hawke’s decision balanced “the government’s ongoing commitment to strong border protection policies with appropriate compassion in circumstances in children in held detention.”  During the course of their community detention placement, the family would have access to schools and support services, with Tharnicaa able to receive medical treatment from the Perth Children’s Hospital as the legal disputes continued. But nothing here signalled a change to government policy.  “Importantly, today’s decision does not create a pathway to a visa.”

Most obscene in this affair is that the decision makers, having fashioned a policy that has harmed, killed and ensured the mental ruination of boat arrivals, should now suddenly make this family an example of compassion.  Former Liberal MP Julia Banks, disgusted by her party’s own policies, was in little doubt that this was an electioneering ploy.  It was precisely electoral politics that created one of the world’s most hostile, antithetical refugee regimes.  Electoral politics will now carve out an exception for this traumatised family.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.