Shock after Border Force removes refugee family from community

March 10, 2018
Nadesalingam holding 9-month-old Dharuniga and Priya with 2-year-old Kopiga.

The Tamil Refugee Council released this statement on March 10.

* * *

The Tamil Refugee Council has condemned an early morning raid in which a refugee family was given just ten minutes to gather their belongings before being flown to Melbourne and detained at the Broadmeadows detention centre (Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, MITA).

Priya, her husband Nadesalingam and their daughters, 9-month-old Dharuniga and 2-year-old Kopiga, who were both born in Australia, were woken last Monday at their home in Biloela, central Queensland, by scores of police, Border Force officers and Serco guards.

A neighbour who witnessed the raid described it as something out of a Hollywood movie. Hearing her friend and neighbour crying uncontrollably, she went to give comfort. Police didn’t allow her to speak to Priya and ordered her to leave the property.

Priya’s bridging visa expired on March 4. She was working with a case officer on having it renewed. Nadesalingam and Priya married in 2014 after arriving in 2012 and 2013. The family settled in Biloela several years ago.

“At 5am they came and knocked on the door,” Priya said, speaking over the phone from MITA, through a Tamil Refugee Council translator. “They said we were being taken to Melbourne detention centre. I grabbed a bag of clothes but we didn’t have time to pack anything else. We were given ten minutes.”

Priya and Nadesalingam were put into separate vans and driven to Gladstone Airport. The children travelled with Priya but, despite their distress and their mother’s pleas, were not allowed to sit with her.

“I asked the guards: ‘If it were your children would you treat them this way, or is it only because we are refugees?’,” Priya said. “I was humiliated. I was made to feel worthless. I will never forget that experience.”

Once detained in Melbourne, Priya says Border Force officers told them that if they didn’t sign voluntary deportation documents, they would be denied access to a phone and she and her husband would be separated and deported to Sri Lanka.

“We are in house arrest here. We have to stay in our room. The children can’t go outside. There are three guards outside the room. We are living as prisoners,” Priya said. “The children are distressed and disoriented. They don’t understand what is happening. My daughter is asking to go to her friend’s house in Biloela.”

They begged not to be deported, but on Tuesday afternoon relented and signed the documents. Make no mistake, if they are removed, it will not be voluntary — they will be returned under duress to a country in which they have a well-founded fear of persecution.

Residents in Biloela have been left stunned, confused and devastated by the raid. The family was taken without warning. “They have a lot of support in the community,” a friend in the town told the Tamil Refugee Council. “They were looking to enrol Kopiga into the kindergarten. She turns three soon. Priya is a dedicated mum doing everything she could to help the kids. Nadesalingam is well-regarded at the meatworks.

“Everyone is shocked and outraged about the way they just came and swooped in and took the whole family. People are just appalled that this is happening in Australia, that people can be treated this way.

“Everyone who had anything to do with this family wrote letters to the minister for immigration before Christmas asking for the family to be granted permanent protection. We can’t understand why this would happen.”

The raid comes just weeks after another Tamil man was deported to Sri Lanka. He is being harassed and intimidated by the security forces. The Tamil Refugee Council is very concerned that Priya and her family face imminent deportation to the same fate.

Amnesty International’s latest Annual Report, published on 22 February, noted of the situation in Sri Lanka: “Reports of torture and other ill-treatment in detention continued … [T]he Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka said that it had continued to document widespread incidents of violence against detainees, including torture and other ill-treatment, which it described as ‘routine’ and practised throughout the country, mainly by police.”

The Tamil Refugee Council is calling on the Australian government to return Priya, Nadesalingam, Dharuniga and Kopiga to their home in Biloela, and to give Priya and Nadesalingam permanent protection so they can continue building their lives and raising their children in peace.

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