Opinion

Behrouz Boochani
The Murugappan family and immigration detention

The decision to transfer one of the daughters of the Murugappan family to Perth Children’s Hospital sent shock waves across Australia and abroad. Growing public pressure forced the Australian government to release the whole family into Perth community detention.

Many may see the plight of the Murugappan family as an isolated case, but I look at it as an embodiment of the multidimensional nature of Australia’s detention system. In fact, the story of this family is a symbol of the thousands of lives shattered by this system. The refugee policy championed by the government of Australia has been structured around the principles of ruthlessness and systemic violence. The government has not deviated too often from these principles, except in a few cases where it came under immense public pressure.

One such case occurred in 2018, when the Kids Off Nauru campaign, organised by a group of human rights organisations, sensitised the public to the imprisonment of children on Nauru. The petition for this campaign received 170,000 signatures and it led to the transfer of 120 children and their families from Nauru to Australia.

The Australian government put on a philanthropic mask in response to the Kids Off Nauru campaign, just as it has done in the Murugappans’ case. During his campaign for federal elections, the former minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, claimed that he had freed children from detention. More recently, the government spoke of its “compassion” towards the Murugappan family. If the government is against holding children in detention, why did it do so for so long?

Referencing the Murugappan family case, the Australian government has repeatedly claimed that it does not want anyone to die at sea, which is why it keeps refugees in indefinite detention. This is a classic example of adopting a philanthropic gesture to conceal an inhumane and brutal policy.

A significant number of people know the true story of the Murugappan family and will not be fooled by the government’s pose. They will know that this family was living in Biloela, that their daughters were born in Australia, that they were taken from their home at night, that they have been kept in detention for more than three years, that their children have developed vitamin deficiencies because they are locked inside, that their little girls’ teeth have rotted and that they bite their hands because of their distress. For someone like me, who spent years at the heart of Australia’s detention system and witnessed hundreds of tragic stories similar to that endured by this family, the disjunct between the government’s professed humanity and the reality of its choices is agitating. I see the government’s statements this week for what they are: hypocrisy.

I admit I’m angry about a government that has the power to detain two children for three straight years. Why has imprisoning human beings become so normalised in Australia? Why should a country that has all the elements of a democracy, including a prime minister, opposition, free media and civil society, still be discussing the rights or wrongs of keeping children in detention? How can the public be so forgetful?

Those who put pressure on the government during the Kids Off Nauru campaign forgot or failed to notice that the problem lies primarily with a system established against the basic tenets of human rights. At this moment, hundreds of refugees are being kept in indefinite detention in Port Moresby, Nauru and several cities across Australia. Many parents have remained separated from their families for nearly eight years. So, yes: for me, the Murugappan family case symbolises the cruelty of Australia’s detention system.

In a recent remark, the Australian minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, claimed that “allowing the Tamil family to stay in Australia would encourage people smugglers”. Hawke is just repeating the lie shamelessly propagated by many other Australian officials: that the transfer of children and ill refugees would encourage more people to try to reach Australia by boat.

Thanks to the Kids Off Nauru campaign and later the medevac law, almost 1500 refugees were brought to Australia, but no boats came to Australian shores as a result of that decision. Yet the Australian Immigration minister is still using the terminology that the government developed to justify its mistreatment of refugees. Sadly, a large part of the society has come to accept the grounds for this justification.

The story of the Murugappan family is just one of the hundreds of tragedies unfolding in detention centres across Australia, and in the Manus and Nauru prison camps. These stories are reproduced daily in relation to interwoven concepts such as family and love. In fact, they have become part of the identity of Australia’s detention system, a system designed to utilise any possible means for forcing refugees back to their countries.

This system goes as far as depriving sick refugees of access to basic medical care. It locks up children. It encourages suffering.

It is important to remember that the cruelty and violence towards the Murugappan family has not come to an end. All the government has done is change the playing field. This family will continue to grapple with the effects of systemic torture and trauma, just like thousands of other refugees who live in uncertainty.

The extent of support and sympathy for this family is encouraging, but we must not forget that the sole director of this tragedy is the Australian government, a government elected by the people of Australia. 

Translated by Mohsen Kafi, Victoria University of Wellington.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "This is not normal".

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Behrouz Boochani is a senior adjunct research fellow with the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre, University of Canterbury, and is an associate professor at the University of NSW.