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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Tory Shepherd

Murugappan family to return to Biloela on bridging visas

The Biloela Tamil family: Priya and Nades Murugappan and their Australian-born daughters Kopika and Tharunicaa
The Biloela Tamil family: Priya and Nades Murugappan and their Australian-born daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa. Photograph: Stephanie Coombes

The Murugappan family is set to return home, to the rural Queensland town of Biloela.

The interim home affairs minister, Jim Chalmers, said on Friday afternoon that he had exercised his powers under the Migration Act to give them bridging visas, fulfilling a pre-election promise to let them go home.

“I cannot believe it,” Pryia Murugappan said.

“My prayer is that this government will make a change to the lives of every single refugee who comes here.

“All refugees are survivors. They need hope. I had the support of Nades and we had the support of the people of Bilo. But many others don’t have that support. So I want to help.”

Nades and Priya Murugappan arrived in Australia a decade ago as Tamil asylum seekers, and their daughters Kopika, 6, and Tharnicaa, 4, were born in Australia.

They have been in detention for four years, after their temporary protection visas expired.

Home to Bilo campaign spokeswoman Angela Fredericks said the family was set to leave Perth in early June, to “start rebuilding their lives”.

“Their journey home to Bilo marks the end of a long, painful chapter in their lives, and the beginning of a lifetime of healing and recovery,” she said.

“We cannot wait to welcome our friends back home to Bilo with some warm hugs, happy tears and a very big welcome home party.”

The Biloela community would “cradle” the family, and help them with accommodation and everything they need to get back on their feet, Fredericks said.

Chalmers said they would “reside lawfully in the community” while they work to resolve their immigration status.

“I have spoken to the family and wished them well for their return,” he said.

“This decision will allow them to get ‘home to Bilo’, a big-hearted and welcoming Queensland town that has embraced this beautiful family.

“This government remains committed to Operation Sovereign Borders and keeping people smugglers out of business.

“Australian border protection authorities will intercept any vessel seeking to reach Australia illegally, and safely return those on board to their point of departure or country of origin.”

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, responded to the news with one word: “Proud”. The Queensland premier, Annastasia Palaszczuk, said it was “wonderful news”.

The Morrison government had refused the family permanent residency because the parents arrived in Australia by boat.

In 2018, with 10 minutes’ warning, Australian Border Force officials took them to Melbourne immigration detention, and later they were sent to Christmas Island as a legal battle over their future raged.

The family has been in community detention in Perth since last year.

Home to Bilo, a passionate group of supporters, has been tirelessly campaigning for their return home, where they are a treasured part of the community.

Fredericks said that despite the joy and relief, the family would never be safe until they had permanent visas.

“We have then spoken with Priya and Nades and they share our overwhelming sense of joy and relief at this news, and we all welcome the decision to issue the entire family with bridging visas,” she said.

“But this family will never be safe until they have permanency in Australia.”

She said she spoke to them shortly after getting the news from Chalmers. The stress had taken its toll, she said, but they are “feeling so incredibly excited” and hopeful of permanent protection in Australia.

“They now have permission that they can actually pack their bags and they can book those flights and be on their way,” she said, adding there were legal and logistical decisions to be made.

“The girls, they need to say goodbye to their school friends … but we are confident we’ll have them home in Biloela before [Tharnicaa’s] fifth birthday, which is in mid June and we can’t wait to celebrate that birthday with her, her first birthday not in detention. And finally with a visa,” she said.

Fredericks said the town had rallied with offers of accomodation, work, and furniture.

Kon Karapanagiotidis, the founder of the Asylum Seeker Resources Centre, said a bridging visa would mean the family had work rights, and that Kopika and Tharnicaa would be able to go to school.

“But the fight to stay is far from over,” he tweeted, pointing out that it was only a bridging visa. “It’s a start.”

Bridging visas allow people to stay in Australia while they seek a permanent visa.

Karapanagiotidis said the federal government had the power to grant the family a permanent visa. “They could easily create consent orders with families’ lawyers to withdraw their legal case in return for granting of a permanent visa,” he said.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison said before the election there was “no protection owed” to the family.

This morning Albanese said it was beyond his comprehension how the situation had dragged on for so long, at such “enormous cost”.

“We are a strong enough society to say that we should not treat people badly in order to send a message to others,” he said.

“We’re better than that – Australia is a more generous and kind country than that.”

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