The federal government is refusing to comment on where a Tamil asylum-seeker family have been relocated amid reports they were transported to Christmas Island overnight.
Friends and supporters issued a statement on Saturday morning saying they were “devastated” to hear the Bilo family – so-called after the central Queensland town they had been living in – had arrived about 2am at a detention centre on the island located northwest of Australia.
“Supporters had lost contact with the family for large periods of time on Friday. The family’s phones had been taken from them and they were only allowed to make a few calls throughout the day,” the statement read.
“There was no communication at any time with the family’s lawyers about the Department’s plans to put them in detention at Christmas Island. Supporters are fearful because Priya has not been supplied with blood pressure medication which was prescribed on Wednesday.”
The Department of Home Affairs would not comment on the “whereabouts” of the family, reported the ABC.
“As this matter is before the courts it would be inappropriate to comment,” a spokesperson for the department told the ABC.
Moving detainees without warning isn’t unusual, but “the transfer to Christmas Island is not normal”, the family’s solicitor Carina Ford said.
“It definitely makes our job harder and it’s disappointing,” she said, describing new logistical issues as “frustrating”.
She is now waiting to hear back from lawyers for federal Immigration Minister David Coleman about how the family’s legal team will be able to have access to their clients, including to get documents signed.
They had arranged lawyers in Darwin to assist with that over the weekend.
— Rachel Mealey (@rachelmealey) August 30, 2019
Priya, her husband Nadesalingam and their Australian-born children Kopika, 4, and Tharunicaa, 2, had been held at a Darwin military base.
Priya was able to make contact with family and friends when they arrived at Christmas Island.
“My children have been separated from their world,” she said.
“This is the second flight in as many days under the cover of darkness, taking this family even further away from the support of the community that loves them,” family friend Rebekah Holt said.
The @ASRC1 visited Christmas Island Detention Centre a few years ago. We found a maximum security prison, the worst in Australia & broken men. This is where Dutton just sent #hometobilo family. To break and punish them. To make their legal case harder. The cruelty is the point. pic.twitter.com/RtyzeDuZCT
— Kon Karapanagiotidis (@Kon__K) August 30, 2019
The move comes after a judge issued a last-minute injunction to halt their deportation from Melbourne to Sri Lanka on Thursday night.
The family landed in Darwin after the order was made and were taken off the plane.
On Friday, there was another glimmer of hope.
The family’s legal team say only Tharunicaa is protected under the ruling because her claims for asylum protections have never been assessed.
The rest of her family could be expelled as their legal avenues have been exhausted but Ms Ford said Australia would be condemned if it split up the family.
“I would like the family to accept that they are not refugees. That they’re not owed protection by our country. They came here by boat and we’ve been very clear that they wouldn’t stay.” @PeterDutton_MP on a Queensland family set to be deported back to Sri Lanka. #9Today pic.twitter.com/up4joPlyXO
— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) August 29, 2019
Despite mounting community pressure, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is refusing to budge.
“I would like the family to accept that they are not refugees, they’re not owed protection by our country,” he told Nine’s Today Show on Friday.
Mr Dutton said the deportation had been years in the making and should surprise no-one, least of all the couple who had been warned prior to having children that they would not be allowed to stay.
He also suggested the family was using social media to garner community support as their story trended on Twitter for much of the day.
Sri Lanka’s civil war
The couple says the government does not grasp the ongoing threats to Tamils in Sri Lanka, and particularly to people like Nadesalingam due to past links with Tamil Tigers insurgents who battled Sri Lanka’s government.
The couple does not deny coming illegally to Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013, but say they had no other way to get out alive.
Speaking through a translator from Darwin on Friday afternoon, Priya told AAP she saw her fiance and five other men from her village burned alive before she fled. Her entire family now live as refugees in India.
Nadesalingam’s body still carries the scars and pieces of shrapnel from a bomb detonated by government forces.
“It is not safe for my husband, it is not safe for me because of the government,” Priya told AAP.
“We are all over the news. They know he has been in the LTTE (Tamil Tigers).”
The tearful couple begged Mr Dutton to intervene.
“Open your heart,” cried Priya, who claims security guards injured her during Thursday night’s flight.
Tamil Refugee Council spokesperson Aran Mylvaganam called on the government to impose a moratorium on Tamil deportations, saying the risks are real.
“There’s a military occupation in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where Priya and Nades come from,” he told the ABC.
“Sri Lanka still practices torture, according to the United Nations, disappearances are still happening.”
“So they are digging in and they’ve used social media. They’ve got a lot of support online because there are children involved. They want to stay and they will continue to push their argument, their case,” he told Adelaide radio 5AA.