Australia

‘Consequences of blinking’: Cash warns about taking softer line on Biloela family

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A Tamil asylum-seeker family that was living in the Queensland town of Biloela has had no discussions about a potential relocation to New Zealand or the United States as a cabinet minister warned of the “consequences of blinking” on border security.

The Murugappan family has been detained on Christmas Island since August 2019 as the federal government attempts to deport them from Australia. That deportation is being fought in the courts.

Tharnicaa and her sister Kopika in hospital on Christmas Island on June 6.

Priya and Nadesalingam Murugappan met after fleeing Sri Lanka’s civil war by boat to Australia in 2012 and 2013. Their daughters — Kopika, five, and Tharnicaa, three — were born in Australia after the couple established themselves in Biloela.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne told radio station 2GB on Tuesday that the government was looking at the option of sending the family to New Zealand or the US. But the family’s lawyer said the comments in the media were the first she had heard of any proposal to resettle them overseas.

Lawyer Carina Ford said there had been no approach to her from ministers or departments about the possibility, in writing or over the phone.

“I’m not so certain if it’s real or if it’s got mixed up in interpretation,” she said.

“We’re open to considering alternative options to detention, there’s no doubt about that. They do not want to be removed to Sri Lanka.”

But she said sending the family anywhere overseas would go against community sentiment.

“The Australian community is not saying it’s OK to send this family to New Zealand or the US, they’re actually saying they should stay here,” she said.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has received a formal submission from the family’s legal team in recent days and must consider the legal arguments before he decides whether to refuse their application or use his ministerial discretion to allow them to stay in Australia.

On Monday, three-year-old Tharnicaa was evacuated from Christmas Island to Perth for urgent medical treatment after two weeks of illness. She was diagnosed with pneumonia and remains stable, Ms Ford said on Wednesday.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash said the parents “had the children in Australia knowing the rules” and the government’s “very, very tough stance” on asylum seekers who arrived by boat.

“You do not think the people smugglers do not watch Australia each and every day? They do,” she said at a business breakfast event in Perth on Wednesday.

“We are exploring alternatives, but I believe, personally, it is the right stance because of the consequences of blinking.”

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews would not comment directly on the case, but her spokesman said New Zealand and the US were resettlement options for the “broader cohort” of asylum seekers.

Australia struck a deal with the US in 2016 to resettle up to 1250 refugees who were in offshore detention. There is also a standing offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 refugees, although Australia is yet to accept this.

Ms Ford said the family’s situation was “not similar to the cases that are being considered for US and New Zealand resettlement”.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said he had heard first-hand from the Biloela community that they wanted the family to come home to the town.

“This family are valued members of that local community. These two girls are not a threat to Australia’s national sovereignty,” he said.

Zach is a reporter at Brisbane Times. Got a story? Email me at zach.hope@brisbanetimes.com.au

Hamish Hastie is WAtoday's political reporter.

Katina Curtis is a political reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra.

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