The Nadesalingams is home.
The right and just decision has been made, and a family can finally restart a life interrupted in the cruelest and most punitive fashion.
But it should never have come to this.
Biloela residents rejoice to have their friends, neighbors, and schoolmates home, but it should not have taken four oppressive, damaging years. It should not have needed a desperate campaign from their Queensland hometown; it should not have required candlelight vigils and public demonstrations, online petitions, and questions in parliament.
How many thousands more asylum seekers live today in Australia – on the fragile uncertainty of a bridging visa or within the confinement of detention – who don’t have a town rallying behind them, parliamentarians advocating for them, or major public campaigns for their cause?
Under the pressure or threat of detention, how many have given up a claim for protection and been unwillingly removed, potentially to harm?
There is a structural problem in how Australia’s humanitarian program operates, a system that has forced the Nadesalingam family through a torturous, damaging four years – for no purpose at all.
Decisions are inconsistent and often flawed, the appeals system sclerotic, and the process bottlenecks around tribunal decisions, federal court appeals, and ministerial intervention.
And from the perspective of those trapped within that system, it is built around deterrence, dissuasion, and punishment.
Life on a bridging visa is subject to a prohibitive code of conduct; people fear speaking out about their situations, afraid it will be used against them.
Detention, or the threat of it, is used as a coercive measure to pressure people to abandon their claims for protection and return home.
In the case of Tamils who have fled Sri Lanka, human rights groups have argued for years that the “country information” on which Australian authorities make decisions is incomplete, outdated, and fails to comprehend the reality of life in that country.
Human rights groups and UN special rapporteurs regularly report on the ongoing oppression of the Tamil minority. The Rajapaksa family, who led Sri Lanka at the end of the country’s brutal civil war against Tamil separatists, are back in charge.
And the country is now in chaos, on the brink of near collapse, with rioting, unrest, and shortages of essentials such as food and medicine.
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This is not an argument that Australia should abandon any process to assess claims for protection. Rather, the system can be more responsive to those seeking shelter here, even if they fall outside the strict definition of the refugee convention, through other already-existing legislation such as complementary protection.
In other liberal democracies, such as New Zealand and Canada, decision-makers at the level of the bureaucracy have far greater discretionary powers to grant visas on humanitarian and compassionate grounds based on exceptional circumstances or considering factors such as links to a community.
Australia, in decades past, entrusted decision-makers with such responsibility, but these have been removed in favor of concentrating power with the minister.
Nearly 15 years ago, the then immigration minister Chris Evans told Senate estimates, “I have formed the view I have too much power”, citing the unchallengeable “God powers” that gave him sole discretion over people’s lives.
“I am uncomfortable with that, not just because of concern about playing God, but also because of the lack of transparency and accountability for those decisions and the lack in some cases of any appeal rights against those decisions.”
Since then, successive immigration ministers have only expanded their capabilities over thousands of people living in Australia. Many of these are non-compellable, unchallengeable powers, exactly those reviled by Evans and which are anathema to good democratic practice. Those powers have not receded: the opposite has happened. With a stroke of a ministerial pen, lives are upended, futures recast, and families are torn apart.
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None of the trauma of the last four years endured by the Nadesalingam family was necessary. None of it made Australia any safer or the border any more secure.
When Australian Border Force (ABF) officers raided the family’s modest home on Rainbow Street, Biloela – at dawn on 5 March 2018 – it was based on a visa that was one day expired: Priya had applied for a new one; the family was – in the jargon of the bureaucracy – “engaged” with the department, and still had their claim for protection process ongoing.
They had lives and jobs and schools and friends in their community. They were going nowhere.
There was no imperative to detain them, no need for those little Australian-born girls to go through the terror of having the life they knew ripped from underneath them.
But the pressure on the family only intensified. An attempt to deport them forcibly was halted only by a last-minute court injunction when their plane was mid-air.
The move to Christmas Island was a deliberate effort to isolate them. It ended only when inadequate medical care there forced the ABF to rush Tharnicaa to a Perth hospital with a suspected blood infection.
At every step, on every one of those 1,558 days, it was within the power of successive ministers to end the ordeal and allow the family to resume their lives.
The Nadesalingams have returned home, but their future is not yet secure. They have been granted only bridging visas – essentially a holding visa – while their right to stay in Australia is substantively reassessed. The new immigration minister, Andrew Giles, has said he is looking at a long-term solution for the family.
“I am thinking about how we can finally resolve this, so the family can rebuild their lives in Biloela with the certainty they deserve.
“I am being briefed on the options available to achieve this best and will decide as soon as possible.”
The community of Biloela is to be lauded for its commitment to a family it rightly saw as one of its own, its righteous defiance of the government, and its perseverance in the face of unlikely odds.
But how many other asylum seekers endure similar treatment away from the public spotlight?
It shouldn’t come down to the good fortune of the support the Nadesalingam family has enjoyed; it shouldn’t take community vigils and online petitions for there to be a fair, transparent, and reasonable process.