Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews has taken her phone off the hook as her office deals with a tsunami of public pleas to help the Tamil family from Biloela.
Ms Andrews insisted the family “should be returning home” to Sri Lanka as yet another possibility of their resettlement in a safe country was ripped away.
The Minister confirmed on Thursday confirmed the Murugappan family are not eligible to be resettled in the US or New Zealand, just days after Foreign Minister Marise Payne raised hopes of the option.
“I actually haven’t said that I’m investigating resettlement options for that family; what I did say is that I was looking at investigating resettlement options in a range of circumstances… it was a very general comment,” Ms Andrews told Sunrise.
Because Priya, Nades and young daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa have not been classed as refugees, Ms Andrews said the family “does not have access” to agreements with the US or New Zealand, dashing faint hopes of them getting off Christmas Island. It’s being reported that Liberal MPs are calling on their own government to intervene and grant the family asylum.
“This family, where they’ve had their cases determined, have been deemed to not be owed protection by Australia, which means that they don’t have refugee status,” Ms Andrews told 4BC radio on Thursday.
“That mean there is no obligation for us to provide protection to them, which means that they should be returning to their home country of Sri Lanka.”
Three-year-old Tharnicaa was evacuated from detention on Christmas Island to Perth this week, suffering septicaemia and pneumonia.
Her mother was allowed to accompany her but her father and sister remain on the island.
Supporters of the family say Tharnicaa, who will celebrate her fourth birthday this week in hospital, is responding well to treatment.
The medical evacuation sparked fresh calls to resettle the family, who claimed asylum in Australia and fear persecution if they return to Sri Lanka. They settled in the Queensland town of Biloela, but were detained in 2018 and sent to Christmas Island in 2019.
More than 470,000 people have signed a change.org petition calling on the government to bring the “beautiful family back home to Biloela”.
Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek said on 4BC radio “Karen Andrews could just make a decision to release this family”.
Sunrise host David Koch asked Ms Andrews why she was “being so mean” to the Muruguppan family.
“It’s not a case of being mean,” she said.
“Quite frankly, I am not going to have people dying trying to come to Australia by sea on my watch … I’m not going to open the gates to the people smugglers.”
Further court cases are ongoing, seeking to find the children as being owed protection, but the federal government has repeatedly refused to grant them asylum. The Nine newspapers are reporting that some Coalition members are urging ministers to give in.
“They do currently have an application before the courts and there’s other actions that are being taken by the family. That needs to take its time to proceed, and I’m not going to say or do anything to prejudice either the government’s position or the position of this family,” Ms Andrews said.
Only Tuesday, Senator Payne had suggested the government was exploring resettling the family in the US or New Zealand, under agreements for Australia to send refugees to those countries. However, in the days since, the family’s lawyers said they had no knowledge of any discussions, and the ABC reported the family’s case had not been raised with those countries.
Ms Andrews said Australia was negotiating with the two nations regarding “broad cohorts” of refugees who would not be resettled in Australia. But that it “wasn’t in relation to the specifics of this family”.
“The family does not have access to those two programs because they are for resettlement of refugees,” she said.
She later tweeted that “any discussions I have are in respect of broad cohorts of individuals, not a specific family.”
We are in discussions with New Zealand and we have a resettlement agreement for refugees with the United States. These are to deal with a large number people who will not be allowed to resettle permanently in Australia.
— Karen Andrews MP (@karenandrewsmp) June 9, 2021
Ms Plibersek called on the government to “use a bit of common sense”.
“Here’s a family that was working, paying taxes, very well supported and accepted in their town. They’ve got an enormous amount of community support in Biloela,” she said.
While Ms Andrews has sought to clarify the government’s response, she is less keen to chat to some others.
Calls to her publicly listed office number on Thursday went straight to voicemail, with a recorded message specifically asking anyone calling about the Biloela family to instead send an email.
“If you wish to raise a query in relation to the Muruguppan Sri Lankan family, please send through your concerns in writing via the ‘contact the minister’ webform on the home affairs website,” it said.
It is followed by another message stating: “Sorry, mailbox belonging to Minister Andrews has an extended absence greeting in place and will not accept new messages.”