Statement - VISIT TO CHRISTMAS ISLAND

Statement - VISIT TO CHRISTMAS ISLAND Main Image

20 April 2021

SENATOR KRISTINA KENEALLY
DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE
SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS
SHADOW MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND CITIZENSHIP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY
SENATOR FOR NEW SOUTH WALES


VISIT TO CHRISTMAS ISLAND


I thank Australian Border Force, the Christmas Island Shire, and the local community groups and many residents for supporting my visit to Christmas Island.

In coming days I will have more to say about this remarkable place.

The primary purpose of my visit was to meet the Biloela family: Nades, Priya and their two Australian-born daughters, Kopika, age five, and Tharunicaa, age three.  

In 2018 the Government forcibly removed the family from their Biloela home and attempted to deport them. Court orders have stopped the deportations to date. Last year, the federal court ruled that the Government denied Tharunicaa procedural fairness in having her claim for protection heard. The legal processes are ongoing.

I had several chances to see the family, including in the immigration detention centre where they live, at the Christmas Island Recreation Centre, and at the Catholic Church on Sunday morning.

Yesterday I spent an hour with them in the immigration detention centre. I heard from them about the persecution and danger they faced in Sri Lanka, their life in Biloela, and their life in detention. I asked them about their fears and their hopes for the future.

Even as we sat in a sterile visitors room in the detention centre, it was clear to me that Priya is an extrovert and loves being around people. During our visit she spoke often of her desire to go home to “my community in Bilo”. She is lonely and depressed living in detention.  

Nades is the quieter of the two, but I sense a deep and profound sadness when he speaks. He can’t work. He can’t give his family what they need. 

Nades genuinely fears death if he is deported. Not for what it will mean for him, but for his children. Clearly, his wife and his two daughters are at the centre of his life.  

The girls are like any other Australian school kids I’ve met. They have Australian accents and they are bright and sweet and well-mannered. I thoroughly enjoyed playing and chatting with them.

Their parents both look at their most overwhelmed when talking about the effects of detention on their children.

Tharunicaa was eight months old when the family was forcibly removed and put into detention. She has known nothing but life in detention with security guards.    
Kopika said to me yesterday that she wants to “go back to Bilo, get in Dad’s car, and go to the shops and see my friends”. All I could say to her is I hope that she can do that too someday soon.   

The hardest part of my visit was hugging those two little girls and saying goodbye.

They give the best hugs.

As I held them, I thought that I really don’t know what their lives will be like. They might live safe and wonderful lives. They might live a terrible life, orphaned and in danger. And that decision sits on the minister’s desk.

The Australian Government has spent $50 million dollars detaining and trying to deport the family. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me. I know how bureaucracies and governments sometimes work: decisions keep getting taken based on precedent - or stubbornness - and a government finds itself over time trying to defend an irrational and costly position.   

The $50 million cost to taxpayers alone would be enough for new Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews to justify using her discretion to end this expensive exercise.

When it comes to border security, both major parties support offshore processing, boat turn backs where it is safe to do so, and regional resettlement. The question is not how we manage the borders going forward – Labor and the Coalition are agreed. The challenge is that there are people who have been in Australia for nearly a decade who are settled, building businesses and families, and who can’t go back due to wars, closed borders or persecution. We need a way to resolve these issues.

Ministerial discretion under the Migration Act is a good way to address cases like these. It represents no change in policy and sends no messages to people smugglers.

The Biloela family are loved by their regional Queensland community. They enjoy bi-partisan support from politicians, including Coalition figures like Barnaby Joyce, Julie Bishop, Michael McCormack and Tony Abbott. Celebrities from Alan Jones to Michael Caton support them.

Every year in Australia the Ministers for Immigration and Home Affairs make thousands of discretionary decisions under the Migration Act.  

Right now, the borders are closed, Australia’s refugee intake is exceptionally low, and there is a town in regional Queensland that is ready to welcome this family home.    

TUESDAY, 20 APRIL 2021