Days before the federal election, the Morrison government sent an unexpected letter to the Nadesalingam family, threatening to bar any further bridging visas. By Karen Middleton.

The last-ditch attempt to deport the Biloela family

The Nadesalingam family celebrates Tharnicaa’s fifth birthday in Biloela, Queensland.
The Nadesalingam family celebrates Tharnicaa’s fifth birthday in Biloela, Queensland.
Credit: AAP / Darren England

Just days before calling the federal election, the Morrison government sought to close any final appeal avenues for the Nadesalingam family – who have since returned to their adopted town of Biloela – in a move that could have seen them deported to Sri Lanka during the campaign.

The asylum-seeker family won a reprieve from the Department of Home Affairs on grounds that it was inappropriate to proceed so close to an election in which the opposition had a different view. The Saturday Paper understands they are set to become permanent residents within weeks.

Lawyers for Priya and Nades Murugappan and their daughters, Kopika and Tharnicaa, received a letter from then Immigration minister Alex Hawke days before the election was called, indicating he was preparing to place a bar on issuing any further bridging visas for the family.

“Just prior to the election being called, we did receive correspondence that indicated the minister was considering bringing the bar down, so no further bridging visas could be lodged,” lawyer Carina Ford told The Saturday Paper this week.

The minister’s letter was a surprise, coming months after the court victory that had paved the way for it.

The timing of the former government’s move demonstrates how close the family came to losing their bid to stay in Australia, as the Coalition sought to use the case to its political advantage.

The government had spent years and millions of dollars defending legal challenges and seeking to have the family removed, as an example to other would-be asylum seekers.

In early April, the family was given 28 days to provide any final information for the government to consider in determining whether to bar further visa extensions, or whether any other visa should be offered.

Through their lawyers, the family appealed to the Department of Home Affairs that it was inappropriate to seek to finalise the long-running case during an election campaign, given that the opposition – the potential new government – had a different policy position on what should happen to them.

As a result, the move was suspended until after the May 21 election.

Their lawyers have long argued there is a contrast between the way this family was treated and the more flexible approach taken in other cases in which bridging visas have expired. The family now has the prospect of settling in Australia permanently.  

Nades and Priya met and married in Australia after arriving separately as asylum seekers from Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Their children were born in Queensland, where they had settled on bridging visas and Nades had a job as a meatworker.

The family had been living in Biloela for three years when their bridging visas expired. They were arrested in the middle of the night and flown to a Melbourne detention centre, where they were held for more than a year before being moved offshore to Christmas Island. Tharnicaa was relocated to Perth in 2021 with her mother for urgent medical care.

Their arrest and subsequent suffering spurred a community protest movement in Biloela that spread around the country, demanding that the family be allowed to go “home to Bilo”. Two weeks after the May federal election, that’s what happened.

Immigration minister Andrew Giles has a range of discretionary ministerial powers to approve permanent residency, and must determine which pathway is best. Giles is understood to be receiving briefings on the options for achieving it. A final decision could come within two to three weeks. The Saturday Paper understands all the options under consideration would lead to permanent residency.

The family is also awaiting a decision from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on a citizenship application for the Australian-born girls.

Giles’ office declined to comment. But last week, the new minister confirmed the government intended to “allow the family to continue in Biloela with certainty”.

“That’s what the community wants and what Australians expect,” he told Guardian Australia.

When he was deputy prime minister, former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce advocated publicly for the family to be allowed to stay in Australia, against the position of the Coalition government.

The day before the election, then prime minister Scott Morrison was still declaring that the family should not stay.

“They have not been afforded the status of refugees, so they’re not refugees – that is what the courts have found,” Morrison said.

“If you grant visas to people who have illegally entered Australia, you may as well start writing the prospectus for people smugglers … The most empathetic thing when it comes to border protection, [is to] keep our borders secure.” 

The new opposition leader, Peter Dutton, speaking on Sydney’s Radio 2GB on Thursday, echoed this sentiment.

“The last thing I want to see are boats restarting and women and children drowning at sea again,” the former Home Affairs and Defence minister said. “I don’t want to go back and repeat history, but it seems that the Labor Party is intent on doing that. They went to the election pretending that they had an adoption of the Coalition policy – the policy that Scott Morrison had built, that I presided over – the fact is that they haven’t got Operation Sovereign Borders.”

Dutton said removing temporary protection visas would also prompt a new boat trade. “They’ve taken that away,” he said. “The people smugglers know that and so – as Philip Ruddock used to say – the sugar is back on the table.”

When the family was returned to Biloela from Perth on June 11, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese criticised the previous government’s handling of the case, declaring: “We’re a better country than that.”

“Those processes will take place,” Albanese said of the family’s future status, beyond their reinstated temporary visas. “The only way that it could happen is for the way that it has – the visa being issued and then that application will go through. But I see no impediment to that occurring.”

The decision about the family’s future comes as the government wrestles with twin problems around asylum seekers in the wake of the May 21 election. It needs to resolve how to achieve its declared policy of abolishing the temporary protection visa regime, which covers about 30,000 people who came to Australia by boat, while also maintaining its other declared policy that nobody who comes to Australia by boat will be allowed to stay.

But the new government also needs to ensure it does not make any decision that provides encouragement to would-be asylum seekers desperate to flee Sri Lanka, which is facing an economic crisis – or allow any decision it makes, including on the fate of the Nadesalingam family, to be portrayed that way.

The Australian government is seeking to enlist greater support from the Sri Lankan authorities to stop boats carrying would-be asylum seekers, who are being told – incorrectly – that the change of government in Australia means a better chance at settlement.

This week, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil travelled to Sri Lanka for meetings with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on how to help Sri Lanka prevent the people-smuggling trade restarting.

The government will not say how many boats have been intercepted by either the Sri Lankan Navy or the Australian Border Force since the federal election, on the basis that smugglers will twist any information and use it to persuade would-be travellers that their chances of a new life have improved.

Facing allegations of widespread corruption, Sri Lanka is on the verge of economic collapse, with the Australian government offering $50 million in immediate aid and also understood to be considering further measures to assist the purchase of fuel, which is close to running out.

Australia is also providing about 4000 GPS tracking devices to be attached to legitimate fishing vessels to help the Sri Lankan navy distinguish them from other multi-day trawlers involved in smuggling endeavours.

The GPS devices were funded under the Morrison government but not required before now, because there had been no boats in the past year. They will begin being supplied next month.

On Monday, Minister O’Neil issued a joint statement with the Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs minister, Professor G. L. Peiris, after talks in Colombo in which she emphasised the new Labor government was maintaining its predecessor’s tough border stance.

“Minister O’Neil noted that there was no change to Australia’s border protection policies or Operation Sovereign Borders,” the statement says. “The two Ministers recommitted their resolve to continue working together to thwart people smugglers and to prevent the loss of life and risk to livelihoods of innocent people.”

The government’s concern about a restarted people-smuggling trade between Sri Lanka and Australia is partly political, given the crisis that engulfed Labor when it was last in office after it eased border protection arrangements.

Before the election, the Coalition government suggested the same would happen again if Labor won. On election day, it publicised details of boat interceptions by both Border Force and the Sri Lankan navy to emphasise its political message.

This was in stark contrast to its usual declaration that such incidents are “on-water matters” and cannot be discussed in public.

On taking office, the new government ordered a report from the Department of Home Affairs secretary, Michael Pezzullo, on how and why the department and Australian Border Force had facilitated the government’s request to publicise the ABF interception, in apparent breach of pre-election caretaker conventions.

O’Neil is understood to have received Pezzullo’s report, but the government is yet to make its findings public.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "The last-ditch attempt to deport the Biloela family".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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