Groundswell for the Biloela family to stay

Craig Foster, alongside Labor's Kristina Keneally and the Greens Jenny Leong, at the Sydney rally for Priya, Nades and their daughters on September 1. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

I joined the September 1 vigil in Cairns for the Biloela family of Priya, Nades and their two Australian-born children. 

The Tamil-descent family had been welcomed into the regional town of Biloela, where they lived and worked for four years, until authorities locked them up in immigration detention in Melbourne last year and now on Christmas Island as they try to deport them back to Sri Lanka.

Cairns for Refugees had organised a stall at the city’s festival market for that day. An open letter calling for the family’s return to the Queensland country town was ready to go. 

But the afternoon before, a member called and said she was so upset by what she has seen that we had to act now.

After a few phone calls and emails, 30 of us were ready to gather for a vigil the next day.

We were not alone.

In capital cities and country towns, communities came together in a show of support for the family. 

Before the vigils and after, immigration minister David Coleman and Prime Minister Scott Morrison were flooded with calls.

As he looked around the rally in Sydney, football commentator Craig Foster said: “This is something you should be proud of,” adding “I believe strongly in people power”.

Foster has emerged as a champion of refugee rights after his strong campaign to secure the release of Bahraini refugee and footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi from a Thai prison.

The groundswell of support for the family has grown to a point where even Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, radio shock jock Alan Jones and Labor leader Anthony Albanese are speaking out in support of the family.

But we should remember that the voices that made all this happen are the Biloela activists and family friends.

Rural Australians for Refugees has been rebuilding quickly. It now has more than 80 affiliated groups in so-called “conservative” regional and rural Australia.

Some, however, are warning against this groundswell of support for the family. 

Immigration lawyer Simon Jeans, who has worked with 10 former immigration ministers, believes “activism” is harming the family’s case. Jeans said this is because it puts Coleman, who has the discretion to overturn the deportation, in a difficult situation as any ruling would not look like it stemmed from his graciousness.

The pressure being mounted on the government not to deport the family is the only method we have to make our opposition known. And it seems to be working.

Coleman's overlord, home affairs minister Peter Dutton, is the archetype of a Queensland cop, trained in the afterglow of the era of former premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His dark talk of “threats” is an effort to silence and distract us from the reality that Tamils are still being persecuted in Sri Lanka.

Morrison has told us that he, not refugee activists, knows what is in the “national interest”. “It’s not about the public mood,” he snapped, inadvertently putting his finger on what Foster said was a growing reality: Australians are increasingly distrustful of the government’s policies towards refugees and asylum seekers.

If the Biloela community had not stood up 18 months ago when the family was first sent into detention, we would not even know about Priya, Nades and their children. They would have already been deported to Sri Lanka.

Determined, grassroots campaigns do make a difference for vulnerable people battling the powers that be. Jeans is wrong: this is not the moment to be silent, this is not the time to stop. We need to persist in building the movement to force Morrison and Dutton to let them stay.

Our struggling country towns need the Priyas, the Nades and their children. While this family is in Australia there is still hope for them. Join the next round of protests on Wednesday September 4, the day of their Federal Court hearing in Melbourne.

[Jonathan Strauss is the secretary of Rural Australians for Refugees.]

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