Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
ABC News
ABC News

Biloela's Tamil family inspires art exhibition as town's residents take views to the ballot box

Sydney-based artist Thy Mai's painting of the Nadesalingam family is at the Banana Shire Art Gallery. (ABC Capricornia: Tobi Loftus)

The plight of a Tamil asylum seeker family fighting to return home to Biloela in central Queensland has been thrust back into the spotlight during the election campaign.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese on Thursday used an appearance on Q&A to reiterate Labor's call for the family's return to the town, while Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce earlier in the campaign said he was in negotiations with other parts of his government lobbying to get the family home.

But what is the mood on the ground in Biloela, and is the family's plight expected to sway votes in its regional seat of Flynn, where the town is located?

Long journey for family

It has been just over four years since the Nadesalingam family, also known as the Murugappan family, was removed from their home in Biloela by immigration officials.

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. Their second daughter Tharnicaa was born in 2017.

Ms Nadesalingam made these dresses for Tharnicaa and Kopika while in detention on Christmas Island.  (ABC Capricornia: Tobi Loftus)

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

They were taken to immigration detention in Melbourne.

In August 2019, a late-night injunction stopped the family from being deported from Australia.

They were taken instead to Christmas Island. They are now in community detention in Perth.

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

They 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".

Angela Fredericks says the Home to Bilo community is driven by love. (ABC Capricornia: Tobi Loftus)

Grassroots group from Biloela

Soon after the family was taken from their home in 2018, the Home to Bilo campaign was formed by community members.

The vocal grassroots group has held campaigns and rallies in the four years since the family's plight began.

"We need action. We need to know that our friends are going to be kept safe," family friend and Biloela local Angela Fredericks said.

"That's what keeps me going even when there are haters because there is so much love, and love will triumph."

Bronwyn Dendle says the family's plight can be taken off the table if the government allows the family to stay.  (ABC Capricornia: Tobi Loftus)

Fellow campaigner Bronwyn Dendle said the family's plight was a political issue.

"I have a lot of politically conservative friends who have come along and supported rallies we've had locally … but it's hard because it's one of many issues in politics," she said.

Art exhibit launches amid election campaign

Coinciding with the federal election, The Home to Bilo campaign, alongside the Banana Shire Regional Art Gallery, has launched an art exhibition showcasing the family's story.

The council's art advisor, Robert Connell, said Tharnicaa and Kopika had some of their paintings on display at the exhibition launched on Friday night.

Dresses mum Priya made for the girls while in detention on Christmas Island were also showcased.

"We've been very lucky to get hold of work from Angus McDonald, whose been an Archibald finalist, as well as some Indigenous artists' work," Mr Connell said.

"We're currently looking at 14 artists altogether, with 14 to 16 pieces of works.

"To create this together, to show such a story for the nation to see and witness and learn more about what has happened, it is amazing."

Robert Connell says it is amazing to be able to share the family's story through art.  (ABC Capricornia: Tobi Loftus)

Ms Fredericks said the exhibition was originally meant to open in March for the fourth anniversary, but it had now lined up with the election.

"However, due to gallery timelines, and all those behind scenes things, this was the first available opportunity," she said.

She said people could make what they want of "the universal timing".

The artwork will be on display until June 17.

Variety of views about family's future

The ABC has spoken with several people on the ground in Biloela who said they were not supportive of the Home to Bilo campaign, as they felt due process had been conducted and the family should not be given special treatment.

But all who did not want to be identified said they would welcome the family home with open arms if the government decided they should be allowed to stay.

Mr Ferrier says 70 per cent of the town's residents support the Home to Bilo campaign. (ABC Capricornia: Tobi Loftus)

Banana Shire Mayor Nev Ferrier said the community had a diverse range of views on the issue, though he himself had been supportive of the campaign for several years.

He said he believed from speaking with people in his role as mayor, about 70 per cent of people were supportive of the family, while roughly 30 per cent believed due process had been conducted.

"You get people on both sides … you can understand both sides of the story," Mr Ferrier said.

"The wonderful women that are doing [the Home to Bilo campaign] are doing it for that 70 per cent or so."

Labor and LNP candidates' stand on family

The LNP's candidate for Flynn, Colin Boyce, who served as the state member for Callide, based out of Biloela, said he felt for the family.

"But as the matter is still subject to a number of other ongoing legal matters, it would be inappropriate for me to comment any further," he said.

Mr Boyce last month told the Sydney Morning Herald he was prepared to take his advice from the court system about the family's plight, and he was not able to influence that.

Labor's candidate for Flynn, Matt Burnett, said the family "should be able to go home to Biloela, the community in regional Queensland that loves them and wants them to stay".

"The Morrison Joyce government has wasted [millions] trying to deport the family," he said.

A Federal government spokesperson said the family's protection claims had been considered by the Department of Home Affairs, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the Federal Circuit Court, the Federal Court, the Full Federal Court and the High Court of Australia.

"None have found them to be refugees," the spokesperson said. 

"The family has a number of other ongoing legal matters. It is therefore inappropriate to comment further."

Will independents win big this election?
Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.