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Biloela family to be reunited in Perth but will remain in community detention

The immigration minister, Alex Hawke, has confirmed the Murugappan family will be released from detention on Christmas Island and allowed to reunite on the Australian mainland while they pursue ongoing legal action.

Hawke confirmed in a statement on Tuesday morning the family would not return to their local community in Biloela, the Queensland town where the family lived for four years, but instead reside in community detention in Perth, “close to schools and support services” while the youngest child receives medical attention in a Perth hospital.

The immigration minister stressed his decision to remove the family from Christmas Island did not create a pathway to a visa, and he said Australia’s border protection policies had not changed.

“Anyone who arrives in Australia illegally by boat will not be resettled permanently,” Hawke said. “Anyone who is found not to be owed protection will be expected to leave Australia”.

The family’s youngest daughter, Tharnicaa, is currently being treated in a Perth hospital after suffering sepsis and pneumonia while in detention on Christmas Island. The four-year-old waited the best part of two weeks, with her physical condition deteriorating, before she was moved to Perth for treatment. When she reached the hospital, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and a blood infection.

Biloela Tamil family’s plight back in the spotlight: how the story unfolded – video
Biloela Tamil family’s plight back in the spotlight: how the story unfolded – video

The preschooler’s plight reignited a community campaign to allow the family to remain in Australia. It also triggered nervousness in government ranks, with a number of Coalition MPs calling for the family to be removed from Christmas Island.

The Nationals MPs Ken O’Dowd and former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, along with moderate Liberal MPs Trent Zimmerman, Jason Falinski and Katie Allen, argued there should be a ministerial exemption for the family.

The Tamil family, Priya and Nades Murugappan and their Australian-born daughters, Kopika and Tharnicaa, were detained on Christmas Island in August 2019 after they lost a bid to gain refugee status that would have stopped their deportation. The parents arrived in Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013.

In May 2019, the high court refused them the ability to appeal against a federal court decision that they be deported back to Sri Lanka. This has left the family to argue its case that Tharnicaa was denied procedural fairness by the decision.

Hawke said his decision to release the family into community detention was not an exercise of powers under sections 46A and 48B of the Migration Act. He said the family had supplied additional health information so that assessment would take time.

The immigration minister said as required by orders of the court, he would “consider at a future date whether to lift the statutory bar presently preventing members of the family from reapplying for temporary protection, for which they have been previously rejected”.

While a number of government MPs campaigned publicly for the family to be released into the community, some other MPs and ministers said they were concerned that could set a precedent that would undermine Australia’s harsh deterrence regime.

Scott Morrison, who is currently in the United Kingdom, told reporters over the weekend the government would not offer permanent settlement in Australia to someone who had arrived by boat.

Morrison said the options being considered for the family would be consistent with health advice, humanitarian need “and the government’s policy”.

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said on Tuesday morning the family needed to be returned to Biloela, a community that “loves Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharnicaa”.

Albanese said it was clear to him after a visit to the Queensland community in 2019 that the town wanted the family to return and resume their life in Australia. “Let’s just get it done,” the Labor leader said.

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