At the time of writing almost 60,000 people had signed a change.org petition asking immigration minister Peter Dutton to allow a young family of Tamil asylum seekers, snatched from their home at 5am and detained by the Australian Border Force, to stay in Australia.
The family, Priya, her husband Nadesalingam and their daughters, 9-month-old Dharuniga and 2-year-old Kopiga, were woken on March 5 at their home in Biloela, central Queensland, by police, Border Force officers and Serco guards.
They were given just 10 minutes to gather their belongings before being put into separate vans and driven to Gladstone Airport.
Priya said: “I was humiliated. I was made to feel worthless. I will never forget that experience.”
They were flown to Melbourne where they endured a traumatic week in detention at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, more than 1500 kilometres from their home.
Then on March 13, Priya and husband Nadesalingam were handcuffed, put in a van and taken to an airport. Their baby daughters were separated from them and travelled in another van.
They were flown to Perth, where they were put on an aircraft with several other Tamils who were to be deported to Sri Lanka. Last minute legal intervention resulted in Border Force officers removing the family from the plane and returning them to detention.
Priya and her family fled Sri Lanka in 2000 and Priya came to Australia five years ago. She has not been to Sri Lanka for 18 years and has no family there. Nadesalingam faces persecution for his former association with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers), which was militarily defeated by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009.
Nadesalingam and Priya met in Australia and married in 2014. The family has lived in Biloela for four years, where Nadesalingam worked at the meatworks. The children have never been to Sri Lanka and do not hold Sri Lankan citizenship.
Priya said while in detention they were told to sign documents agreeing to “voluntary removal”. They begged not to be deported, but were told that, if they did not sign, they would be denied access to a phone and forcibly deported separately. The next day they relented and signed the papers but said it was under duress.
Tamil Refugee Council spokesperson Aran Mylvaganam said Priya and Nadesalingam were misled over their visa status and were expecting to have their bridging visa renewed. Priya had been communicating with Home Affairs officials and had been told she would receive a new visa in the mail.
“That's why although they knew their visa was to expire on March 4, they waited, which is the case with many asylum seekers. When their visa expires, the immigration [case managers] renews it after the expiry date and they thought that that was the case in their situation as well,” he said.
Simon Bruck, a senior solicitor with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, said many people aren’t able to present their arguments for why they are claiming asylum, and don’t have the English skills to properly navigate the system.
“People are going through this process unrepresented, without the expert legal advice they require to get through a complex process,” he said. “It’s an unfair process.”
The UN has reported that Tamils, particularly those with links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers), face systematic persecution and torture. Amnesty International has also reported the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka continued to document widespread incidents of violence against detainees.
Mylvaganam said: “Successive Sri Lankan governments have lied about their human rights records and they continued abusing the rights of Tamils. Sri Lanka is in a state of fear for Tamils and other minority groups on the island — it's not a safe place."
Angela Fredericks, who started the petition to return the "beautiful, gentle family" to Biloela, said: “The community of Biloela is shocked and dismayed that Border Force rounded the family up and tried to send them to Sri Lanka — despite the pleas of so many to reconsider deportation.
“The way the family was treated is an absolute disgrace. I am deeply distressed by the manner in which these four beautiful souls are being treated. Handcuffed like criminals. Separating babies and infants from parents. Has Australia learnt nothing from our history? I urge the government to take a long look and think about what it is doing.”
The campaign to grant the family protection and allow them to return to their home in Biloela continues. You can sign the petition here.