Supporters of a Tamil family on Christmas Island have accused the federal government of cruelty, declaring they are “completely gobsmacked” a planned visit by a Labor senator has been derailed.
The case of Priya and Nades Murugappan and their children Kopika and Tharnicaa has attracted national attention ever since the family was removed from their Biloela home in central Queensland and taken to immigration detention three years ago.
They have been held on Christmas Island since 2019, when an injunction stopped them from being deported to Sri Lanka.
The family had told the ABC they were looking forward to meeting opposition home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally in person next week.
Senator Keneally, who said Labor would allow the family to return to Biloela if the party won the next election, was planning on taking a birthday present from Priya’s friends and a gift for the children.
She said her permission to visit the detention centre was confirmed by the Australian Border Force at 4.50pm on Wednesday.
But 22 minutes later, she said she received an email saying newly appointed Defence Minister and former home affairs minister Peter Dutton had decided the “special purpose” government plane she was going to travel on was not available for use.
“It’s just unbelievable, shocking that this has been cancelled,” Angela Fredericks, a friend of the Biloela family, said.
“Four wonderful people, our friends, are just being treated as political pawns in a game.
“Their life is very hard in detention and they always appreciate the opportunity to show what their reality is.”
Trip was ‘conditionally approved’
Senator Keneally was due to visit Christmas Island and later the Cocos Islands with other MPs and staff as part of a bipartisan parliamentary committee trip.
With the aircraft unavailable, the entire visit and some scheduled community consultation sessions on the islands with local residents have been scrapped.
“Is this just pure vindictiveness, Peter Dutton?” Senator Keneally asked.
“What a coincidence, honestly. They [Australian Border Force] actually wished me well and said they hoped I had a good visit and within an hour Peter Dutton decides to cancel … the entire committee’s trip.”
The ABC has been told the trip was conditionally approved by former defence minister Linda Reynolds’ office months ago, subject to the availability of a special purpose plane.
But a government spokesperson said they were all either in use or undergoing maintenance.
The Governor-General, Prime Minister and Trade Minister are among those understood to be using the planes at the moment.
“It is fundamentally wrong to suggest this was done to stop Kristina Keneally’s visit,” the spokesperson said.
“She has been approved to visit the [detention] centre and could fly commercially.”
Virgin flies to Christmas Island only twice a week from Perth and the journey would take the Labor senator much longer.
‘This isn’t a political issue, it’s a human issue’
The Biloela family have urged new Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews to look at their case with “fresh eyes”.
They have been involved in a lengthy legal battle with the federal government over the right of their youngest daughter to apply for a protection visa.
“Both adults arrived in Australia illegally by boat,” a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said in March.
“After arriving separately in Australia, they met and married and had two children. At no time has any member of the family been found to engage Australia’s protection obligations.
“The government’s preference in every case is for foreign nationals who do not hold a valid visa and who have exhausted all outstanding avenues to remain in Australia to depart voluntarily. Those unwilling … will be subject to detention and removal.”
On Thursday morning, the opposition again urged the federal government to use its discretion and release the family from detention.
“Surely we aren’t waiting until after the next election,” Senator Keneally said.
“These two little girls have been in detention for most of their lives now. This isn’t a political issue, it’s a human issue.”