Immigration Minister Alex Hawke says he is still “considering” requests to step in and grant visas to the Murugappan family using his ministerial powers, but says they’re not allowed to return to Biloela right now.
The family’s supporters have cautiously welcomed the news of their removal from Christmas Island’s detention centre, but warned “community detention is no guarantee of safety and peace for this family”.
The Tamil family is expected to be reunited in Perth later on Tuesday, with father Nades Murugappan and daughter Kopika boarding a charter flight from Christmas Island to Western Australia.
But the family’s relief is only partial, with Mr Hawke granting them a reprieve from their island detainment but ruling they will remain in community detention in WA instead.
BREAKING: A plane with Nades and Kopika onboard has left Christmas Island bound for Perth.
After nine long days, this family is finally being reunited.
— HometoBilo (@HometoBilo) June 15, 2021
While it gives six-year-old Kopika and her four-year-old sister Tharnicaa access to schools and grants their parents social services such as Centrelink, community detention conditions mean the family can’t do paid work, or return to the Queensland town of Biloela where they previously lived.
“I have determined they will live in Perth, based on advice we have received from the health agencies in WA about the treatment ongoing there,” Mr Hawke said in Canberra on Tuesday afternoon.
“That is the right decision, a compassionate decision for the family so that they can be together while the remaining matters are resolved.”
“It does not allow them currently to go to Biloela.”
Earlier, Mr Hawke had made a long-awaited announcement to confirm the family would go into community detention in Western Australia.
He specifically noted the change “does not create a pathway to a visa”, and said the arrangement would be temporary, while the family’s legal challenges – a High Court appeal and an Administrative Appeals Tribunal case – play out.
Statement on the Sri Lankan family in held detention. pic.twitter.com/2pH7USZJQV
— Alex Hawke MP (@AlexHawkeMP) June 14, 2021
He also noted the Morrison government’s policies on boat arrivals “are not changing”.
It comes after weeks of mounting pressure on the federal government, after Tharnicaa was medically evacuated to Perth after suffering serious medical issues, including a blood infection.
She is with her mother Priya in a Perth hospital, while her father and sister remained on Christmas Island.
As minister, Mr Hawke has broad powers under Section 195A of the Migration Act to grant visas if he “thinks that it is in the public interest to do so”.
Fellow Liberal MP Katie Allen, a trained paediatrician, has urged him to use those powers for the family.
But Mr Hawke said that was still under consideration.
“I have a 195A submission in front of me and I can’t comment, I have to consider the merits,” he said.
But the family’s lawyer, Carina Ford, said the minister actually had the power to step in and “use his power at any time”.
“He does not need to wait until the court proceedings are finished,” she said at a press conference in Sydney.
“There needs to be a shift in how the government looks at this case … it still is in the minister’s hands, and this government’s hands, to consider maybe a fairer approach.”
Mr Hawke added there were “several outstanding pathways” for the Murugappan family to potentially obtain visas, including legal appeals against previous government decisions, and a power to lift a ‘bar’ restricting them from applying for other visa types.
“I will consider those submissions about the bar lift for the remaining child and whether that will be lifted to allow for an application for further visas and I make that application and decision in due course,” he said.
Mr Hawke’s earlier statement noted the family will be in Perth “while the youngest child receives medical treatment … and as the family pursues ongoing legal matters”.
Later he confirmed the family would stay in Perth until their legal challenges were exhausted.
“Some need to be resolved by me as the minister and this determination means they will reside in Perth until it is resolved,” he said.
“This has taken several twists and turns, litigated by lawyers, activists in some cases. It’s taken unusual turns at many occasions.”
It is also unclear how long the Murugappans will remain in community detention, and whether they will be eventually returned to Christmas Island.
Angela Fredericks, a friend of the family and organiser of the Home To Bilo campaign, urged the government to allow them to return to Queensland.
“We are pleased that the Department of Home Affairs is finally taking this family off Christmas Island, after more than three years of sub-standard care in immigration detention in Melbourne and on Christmas Island,” Ms Fredericks said on Tuesday.
“We acknowledge today’s second announcement by Minister Hawke, that the family will now be placed into community detention in Perth. We hope and assume this is only a temporary step. Community detention is no guarantee of safety and peace for this family.”
She said the family still wanted to return to Biloela, with hopes of Mr Murugappan returning to his old job and enrolling the girls in the local school.
Aron MyIvaganam from the Tamil Refugee Council said the government’s move was not one of compassion, but “an act of concession” stemming from public pressure.
“The government is basically sending this family from one detention to another detention,” he said.
“This is not freedom. We will continue our fight until this family is fully freed. Their home is in Biloela.”
Labor and the Greens have called on the federal government to allow the family to permanently stay in Australia, and return to Biloela, where they had lived before being taken into detention in 2018.
Independent Warringah MP Zali Steggall called the decision “abhorrent” and demanded the family be allowed to return to Biloela.
“We want that family to get home to Bilo, to a town which has embraced them in a very Australian, very compassionate way,” shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said.
“People have got questions about what [Mr Frydenberg] said on television this morning. He said the family will be reunited, but will they get home to Biloela?”