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Biloela family and community gather to mark fourth anniversary of immigration ordeal

The Nadesalingam family became known as "the Biloela family" as they fought to stay in Australia. (Australian Story: Robert Koenig-Luck)

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to clarify background details of the family’s legal fight.

Those were the words the two Nadesalingam children, Kopika, 6, and Tharnicaa, 4, sang to more than 500 supporters on a live stream on Saturday night, marking four years since their family was placed in immigration detention. 

It was on March 5, 2018 when the Tamil asylum-seeker family were removed from their home in the central Queensland town of Biloela in an early-morning raid by immigration officials and taken to a Melbourne detention centre.

Priya and Nadesalingam, also known as Nades, came to Australia separately by boat in 2012 and 2013, after fleeing worn-torn Sri Lanka, and are considered "irregular maritime arrivals" under the Migration Act.

They were granted Temporary Protection Visas and settled in Biloela where they married and had their first child, Kopika, in 2015.

But three years later, Priya's visa had expired and both her and her husband Nades' claims for refugee status had been rejected by the government.

The family has been fighting a long legal battle to remain in Australia for the past four years.

"My life in Bilo was very happy and peaceful," Priya told the live stream from community detention in Perth.

"My family had been settling into a safe life there and we were surrounded by a beautiful community.

"Border Force come out of nowhere and raid my house. They forcefully took my family to detention without any reason apart from being refugee."

Priya said the past four years had been "a really tough life" and the family had faced "oppression" while in detention and "not enough medical facilities".

In August 2019 they were taken to Christmas Island, after an urgent injunction stopped them from being deported to Sri Lanka mid-flight.

Since last year they've been living in community detention in Perth

The family had a legal win earlier this year when the Federal Circuit Court found the federal government's decision to prevent three members of the family from applying for further bridging visas was "procedurally unfair".

Priya, Nades and Kopika all have bridging visas, but Tharnicaa does not, which is why the family remains in Perth.

Kopika is currently in year two in Perth, while Tharnicaa has started pre-primary. Nades is working as a chef. 

Priya said it was the support from the Biloela community and people across Australia that gave her strength. 

"[It] helps me stop the tears," she said.

"We have only been refugees. We've been punished for being refugees."

The Department of Home Affairs has repeatedly said that the family's case has been comprehensively assessed over many years, and they have consistently been found not to meet Australia's protection obligations.

A "virtual hug" between the Nadesalingam family and people from around Australia who met online. (Supplied)

Biloela resident and friend of the family Angela Fredericks said the anniversary of the family getting taken into detention was a "very sad day" for the community and was "full of trauma and fear".

"However, for us, it was also the mark in history when we saw this beautiful community that is Biloela, go back to the Aussie spirit of standing up for your mates. 

"We want to use the opportunity this year to actually remind all the supporters and everyone who will be joining us just how special that actually is, and what can be achieved when we do actually work as a community and work as one."

Angela Fredericks (right) has been a huge supporter of her friend Priya Nadaraja. (Supplied: Angela Fredericks)

More than a dozen Biloela residents spoke during the live stream, sharing stories of meeting Priya and Nades when they lived in the town and how the community welcomed the family.

This included residents like Margot Plant, who said she was the girl's "Aussie grandma" and spoke about holding Tharnicaa in the days after her birth. 

Both Tharnicaa and Kopika were born in Australia. 

Election looming 

Ms Fredericks said she hoped the family would be granted all the necessary visas and allowed to return to Biloela before the federal election.

Labor's home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally has confirmed a Labor government would "bring the family home to Bilo" if elected, while the government has not made any commitment.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has previously expressed support for the family, as has former deputy prime minister Michael McCormack.

"We are not putting a lot of weight in terms of the election itself, as no-one can predict who is who is going to win that," Ms Fredericks said. 

"For us, we want to use this time before the election to make it very clear for all people running for government, no matter which party, to make sure they actually see what over half a million people are asking, to let this family come home."

Labor has said it would allow the family to return to Biloela if it forms government after the election. (Supplied: Angela Fredericks)

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said the department did not comment on individual cases. 

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