It was just after dawn in the small country town of Biloela when husband and wife Nadesalingam and Priya heard a knock at their door. Nades was getting ready to go to his job at the local meatworks and Priya was heating up a bottle of milk in the kitchen for their baby daughter, Dharuniga, 11-months, while their oldest daughter Kopiga, three, slept.
Minutes later, the Australian-born children were ripped from their beds by Border Force officials who had already detained their mother and father. The couple, who have called Biloela home for the last four years after fleeing torture and suffering in Sri Lanka, were given 10 minutes to pack and driven to Gladstone airport where they were flown to an immigration detention centre in Melbourne. The neighbours of the Tamil family heard Priya screaming in despair.
That was 87 days ago. The family has spent the last three months in a small room within a four-bedroom house in a complex of 10 other (empty) houses under the constant watch of guards. It’s a stark contrast from the loving town of Biloela in regional Queensland where they are considered valued members of the community. Marie Austin, 48, saw her friend Priya two days before she was taken. “I see Priya and the girls every Saturday morning at the supermarket and we always stop and say hello, talk and have a hug. That day, I was walking back to the car with my trolley and Priya hugged me hello, handed me the baby and started pushing my trolley for me. She just can’t do enough for people. I think they’re just so grateful for the opportunity to live in Biloela,” says Marie, who has known the family for three years.
Angela Fredericks, 30, used to see Priya every afternoon as she was taking the girls for a walk past the local school. “Every time I saw the family, I was greeted with the warmest smiles and a big hearty hug. Priya was so appreciative of the friendships [she had] within the community,” says Angela, who started a petition to bring the family back to Biloela, which now has over 100,000 signatures.
Former Biloela resident Margot Plant, 59, burst into tears when she found out the family had been taken to Melbourne. “I was devastated. I felt sick in the stomach and was so afraid for them. It was quite traumatic,” she says, choking back tears when she talks about the little girls who consider her their “Australian grandmother.”
Margot has visited the family twice since their detention. “The first time I saw them, they seemed to be in a daze. Kopiga looked lost, you could see in her eyes that she didn’t understand what was going on,” says Margot, who last visited for Kopiga’s third birthday in May. She was allowed to bring her a book, but not any toys or memories from home.
Marie has also travelled the 1,880 kilometres to Melbourne to see her friends. “When I saw Priya, she held on to me and just sobbed. It was heartbreaking. Nades is such a strong and proud man, but I could see he was hurting too. Kopiga kept asking ‘when are we going home to Biloela’,” recalls Marie, crying at the memory.
Marie and Margot appeared on the ABC’s Q&A this week to plead for the release of their dear friends. Panelist Father Rod Bower was shocked to hear of the family’s treatment. “How did we get to this place? How did we get to a point where we’re raiding family homes at five in the morning in the most terrifying way, separating a family, dragging them off into detention?” he asked.
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs told The Guardian that the family’s asylum application had “been comprehensively assessed by the department, various tribunals and courts [and they] have consistently been found not to meet Australia’s protection obligations.”
“Foreign nationals who do not hold a valid visa and who have exhausted all outstanding avenues to remain in Australia are expected to depart voluntarily to their country of citizenship. Those unwilling to depart voluntarily will be subject to detention and removal from Australia,” the spokesperson said.
Nades and Priya came to Australia separately by boat in 2012 and 2013 seeking asylum from the turmoil of civil war in Sri Lanka, where Tamil people are repressed and child sex trafficking exists. Amnesty International has expressed serious concern about the forcible return of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka.
The thought of their friends being forced to return to danger makes Marie, Angela and Margot feel sick. “We’re not going to give up on this family,” says Marie.
“We feel like Nades and Priya have earned their right to stay in Biloela. They love the community and they felt safe bringing their Australian-born children up there. It needs to be made clear to Peter Dutton [the the Minister for Home Affairs and the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection] how much support this family has,” adds Margot.
“We want to encourage people to talk to their own local federal members and write to Peter Dutton. At the end of the day, our politicians are there to represent the people and this is our public opinion,” says Angela. “We’ve got to remember these are people’s lives.”
“We need to put compassion above politics,” adds Margot.
To sign the petition to bring Nades and Priya home please click here.