Today she is speaking to marie claire from Perth. She and her husband, Nades, travelled to Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013, seeking asylum as persecuted Tamils from Sri Lanka. They met and married, then moved to Biloela, rural Queensland, where they had two daughters Kopika, now six, and Tharnicaa, four. Nades worked at the meatworks, Priya threw herself into volunteer work and the family became beloved by the local community.
But in March 2018, as their visas expired, they were ripped from their home in a dawn raid and sent to detention in Melbourne. The following year they were nearly deported to Sri Lanka, but a last-minute court injunction stalled that. Instead the family was sent to Christmas Island for further detention in deplorable conditions. This June, they were transferred to Perth when Tharnicaa’s life was in danger.
Priya, Nades and Kopika are currently on three-month bridging visas while Tharnicaa recovers in Perth (she technically remains in community detention, meaning the family cannot return to Biloela). Their temporary bridging visas are due to expire tomorrow, but late last week Immigration Minister Alex Hawke – who declined to comment for this story – announced he intended to extend their visas for another three months.
While the family remains in a state of fear and limbo, many say they are being used as an example to deter other asylum seekers, or as political bait for the next federal election. Ministers can use discretionary powers to grant exemptions and offer permanent protection at any time. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the family “didn’t come to the country in the appropriate way” and that exercising intervention powers “would send exactly the wrong message to those who are looking to sell tickets to vulnerable people to get on boats”. Former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has called Tharnicaa and Kopika “anchor babies”, despite the fact they were both born in Australia.
Here, Priya opens up about the family’s painful plight, the inhumane treatment they’ve endured, and their plea to the Australian government.
On being cruelly detained on Christmas Island
“We were the only detainees there, as they’d closed down the detention facility. It was in very, very bad condition. We were in a cabin so damaged that I put my leg through the floor and needed a wheelchair. For nearly two years, all four of us slept in one queen-sized bed. The children were deprived of basic needs and sunlight. Tharnicaa’s teeth rotted, and there was no nutritious food for the girls to build their immune systems That’s why Tharnicaa was hit with a [deadly] viral infection.”
On her daughter’s terrifying brush with death
“We were on Christmas Island and Tharnicaa, then three, had a fever. It was extremely hard to get proper medical care. If our child was sick in the night we had to call a Sydney healthline to get permission for some Panadol or Nurofen, and by the time it was approved and had arrived, hours had past. At one point her temperature rose to 40.6 degrees.
“She was sick for 10 days. We were protesting with doctors saying how serious it was – that she was throwing up and had lost all movement. On the Sunday she was finally admitted to Christmas Island Hospital, and the next day she and I were evacuated to Perth for urgent medical care, via air ambulance.
“I held my child in my arms for four hours. Her face was changing colour, her lips were getting black, and her eyes were rolling back. I kept my child alive by giving heat to her palms and her feet, and by rubbing her head. But I lost my life at that time; I died myself.
“At the hospital it was like we were under house arrest. It was distressing seeing Thaarnica so sick [with a blood infection, pneumonia and sepsis], and we were separated from Nades and Kopica. I had three Serco guards sitting outside my door. I couldn’t even take Tharnicaa for a walk in the hospital, let alone to get some fresh air. We have gone through agony and trauma and are treated like criminals for a crime we never committed.
“Tharnicaa still has pain and is underweight, but she is doing better. The other day she asked me, “Mum, am I not lucky?” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because I don’t have a visa and I don’t have a Medicare card.” She has heard my husband and I talking in her appointments, and this is worrying her.”
On their fears
“We have a little more freedom now that three of us are on bridging visas, but our minds are never at rest. There is so much uncertainty, not knowing what will happen next. Our children have undergone difficulties and trauma that other children have not endured. They were little then, but now they’re a bit older and they understand more. Whether they could deal with detention or isolation again, I don’t know… That fear is constantly in our minds – the fear of being put on a plane and being pushed back [to Sri Lanka or into detention]. I have no strength to face any more challenges.”
On the Biloela community
“Both girls ask, ‘When will we return to Biloela?’ For three-and-a-half years they have lived in isolation and in torturous environments, now they just want to go home to Biloela and to their community, our extended family. That is where they will feel safe, secure and loved.”
“Apart from Mum and Dad, the girls only know the Biloela community, and they have been on this journey with us, through the agony, trauma and torture.
“I ask myself, why have we been punished for a crime we never committed? It constantly worries me and gives me pain, and carrying that burden would be relieved by living back in our community with kind and supportive people.
“Two or three people from the Biloela family call us every night. When [our friend] Angela says to the girls ‘Goodnight, you have sweet dreams,’ Koppika says to her, ‘Can you also have sweet dreams about us living in Biloela?’”
On their plea to the Australian government
“We want them to consider the future of our daughters, and to provide them with a safe place to live. They were both born in Queensland, and we feel they should have the same rights and freedoms as other Australian children.
“We have obeyed the rules of this land, and we are not asking the government for any money or financial support. We are migrants who can give back to society. Nades works very hard and will provide for the family. We want to be part of the wider community in Australia.
“What happened to my children and family should neve happen to any others. We have been treated inhumanely, and that will never go away. But in our hearts and minds we have not done anything wrong. Nades and I [legally] sought asylum for safety, and fortunately or unfortunately that was in Australia. All we want is asylum, nothing else.”
On support from the Australian public
“When we go outside, people come and comfort us and say that they are travelling the journey with us, and that they sympathise with us. They apologise for what their government has done to our family. It really touches our hearts, all the love and compassion. We feel very humbled and thank the wider Australian community who’ve supported us by writing to the government, posting on social media, or even just having us in their thoughts. We sincerely thank every single one of you.”
To follow the family’s case and lend your support, visit hometobilo.com.