This following article was published in Pearls and Irritations on 15 June 2021.
For the second time in their lives the two adults of the Murugappan family have been forced to be resilient and brave in the face of confrontation by a government intent on causing them harm.
In the first instance they fled a Sinhalese regime wrecking genocide upon a hated Tamil minority who had dared to fight for their freedom from oppression. The instruments of genocide were torture, rape, murder and confiscation of homes and the means of livelihood – land, shops, fishing boats, for those not killed, leading to suicide and mental illness.
When they had a right to expect succour after all they had been through, they received cruel punishment in Australia. Initially they found protection and kindness with the caring community of Biloela. After the trauma they had been through with the civil war and the blood letting of the Sinhalese armed forces toward the Tamil minority, they felt safe, and despite their nightmares, sufficiently secure to start a family. Nades and Priya had two much loved daughters, Kopi and Tharnicaa.
Priya had endured the multiple raping of her mother and the bashing and blinding of her father by Sinhalese members of the occupying force.
Taken from Biloela on expiry of their temporary visas by the then Home Affairs Minister, Dutton, they were held in detention in Melbourne while appeals went through the legal system and then transferred to Christmas Island when those issues remained unresolved. The stronger the protests by refugee support groups, human rights activists and the community of Biloela the more Dutton dug in.
After three years in detention the youngest daughter succumbed to the conditions and in May, 2021, came down with Pneumonia. She was given pain killing tablets by medical staff at the detention facility, ten days later she became so ill she was taken to the hospital on Christmas Island where she was diagnosed with septicaemia and rushed, by emergency flight, to the Children’s Hospital in Perth, 2,600 kilometres away.
There followed calls for the family to be allowed to go back to Biloela. Decent Australians are horrified at the treatment of this family. The former Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Gerard Brennan has accused the government of deliberate cruelty. He said, “Cruelty is being inflicted upon her (Tharnicaa) to punish her parents who came by boat without a visa and thus to discourage others from breaching one of our immigration policies.” Think on it. This is the considered opinion of one of the most respected Judges to have sat on the High Court.
The Premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, has said the issue is “Internationally embarrassing”. He strongly urged Morrison to allow the family to settle in Biloela.
Karen Andrews, the new home Affairs Minister initially called for the family to be resettled in either the US or New Zealand, as did the Minister for foreign Affairs, but they withdrew that suggestion. Andrews then said she was ‘not going to open the gates to people smugglers’. Where does that come from? Sounds like vintage Dutton.
In any case Andrews should know that her department is involved in operations, through the Australian Embassy in Colombo, to prevent boats with Tamil refugees coming to Australia. It covers activities on a number of fronts. Several years ago, Australia donated patrol boats and more recently drones. Payments have been given to Sinhalese involved in the people smuggling trade including navy and police officers and at one time the brother of the President. Sri Lanka is a chronically corrupt country and increasingly authoritarian. Democracy is a sham. The police and military control the north, where the majority of Tamils live. It is a reign of fear. Land has been stolen and given to the military, together with businesses. It is difficult for Tamils to make a living. Women and girls live in fear.
Dutton is no doubt aware of the arrangements that exist to control people smuggling. Before the last election, which the LNP expected to lose, several refugee boats left from Sri Lanka. Their arrival had the possibility of embarrassing the incoming Labor government. It was never satisfactorily explained how these boats managed to get so close to Australia with all the preventative arrangements that were in place.
In 2019 Dutton said it was safe for Tamils to return to the north of Sri Lanka. There has been no indication that the Australian Government has revised or rejected the advice that this statement was based on. The Australian High Commission is in a difficult position. The Australian government does not want to know the condition of Tamils in the north because that would mean acknowledging that many are eligible to be considered as refugees. In a politicised public service sending advice contrary to what the Government wants to hear is a prescription for losing preferment and promotion. The same is happening at the moment with respect to China.
Advice that the Australian Government has been operating under, namely that the north of Sri Lanka is safe for Tamils was recently overturned in a decision of a British Court. It found that State sponsored torture existed and that all Tamils in the north faced the risk of abuse and torture. (Upper Tribunal decision of 27.5.21, Appeal Numbers: PA/09978/2016 and PA/13288/2018). In light of this decision the Tamil Community in Australia has asked that DFAT amend its advice to reflect that the prospect of torture for Tamils in the north is high.
On the 2 June, 2021, a young Tamil man, Chandran Vithusan, aged 22 was arrested by Sri Lankan Police from the Intelligence Division outside of his home in East Iruthayapuram, Batticaloa, taken into custody and beaten to death. Nades and Priya are from Batticaloa. Given their background of seeking asylum in Australia it is likely that Nades and Priya would be taken into detention were they returned. What would happen to their children?
I worked on the Refugee Review Tribunal from 1995 until 2000. I handled cases from Sri Lanka. In my judgement Nades and Priya should have been found to be refugees. Not to do so was poor decision making of which there has been much.
By way of further example in June, in the North-East, Sinhalese Police arrested Tamils for ‘violating travel ban’ guidelines. This demonstrates that the movement of Tamils is regulated and controlled by the occupying authorities. At the same time police targeted a number of individuals, including the Mayor of Jaffna, for promoting LTTE ideology. It is a standard ploy for the police to claim LTTE activities in order to harass and intimidate whilst seeking bribes, funds and favours.
The occupying Sinhalese forces in the north hate the Tamils. At Mullivaikkal at the end of the war in 2009, 150,000 Tamils were murdered by the Sri Lankan military, this and other documented acts amounted to genocide and were found to be such at a session of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal held in Bremen in December 2013 at which I was present. Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group recognise the killings as a war crime. The hatred which led to these atrocities is still there.
Barathan Vidhyapathy, a Tamil film maker and Member of Tamil Refugee Council based in Melbourne says, “Today, Sri Lanka’s Tamil population lives under one of the heaviest military occupations in the world, and is subject to attacks, racism, and insecurity. It’s little wonder that Tamils would flee the island, seeking asylum in Australia.”
The Murugappan family cannot be sent back to Sri Lanka, they have suffered enough, they must be allowed to go back to their friends in Biloela.
Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator. He was a Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal and he served at the Australian High Commission in Colombo.