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20 April 2021




SUBJECTS: Biloela Family; Border Security.

FRAN KELLY, HOST: Labor Senator Kristina Keneally has met with a Tamil asylum seeker family who were removed from the Queensland town of Biloela three years ago, and have been held in immigration detention ever since. The family has been held in detention on Christmas Island since August 2019 as the Government tries to return them to Sri Lanka. That's despite a community campaign to keep them here in Australia. Karen Andrews is the new Home Affairs Minister. She has been briefed on this case, and the locals and Labor are calling on her to intervene now and bring the family's detention to an end. Kristina Keneally is Labor's Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, Immigration and Citizenship. She joins us from Christmas Island this morning. Kristina Keneally, welcome back to Breakfast.


KELLY: For a couple of years now you've been calling for this family's release from detention, you've had a chance to see them in person, to speak with them directly. What did they tell you about how they're coping after well over 1000 days in detention?

KENEALLY: Well, life in detention is hard. As you can imagine. The detention centre where they live is fenced off. It's essentially a collection of demountable buildings and they're the only people who are living there. They live in essentially two rooms, the family all sleep in one bedroom on a queen bed and a single bed, and the other room has another single bed with all their clothes and belongings stacked on it. And you know, Fran, anytime they want to leave the detention centre, they need to request permission three days in advance and when they go out, for example, to church or school, they always are accompanied by guards. And the girls if you can imagine go to school every day, in a bus provided by immigration detention with the guards on board. Now Fran, you know, they are struggling in coping as you can imagine, and particularly these young girls...

KELLY: Yeah, let me ask you how? Because I guess it's hard to imagine if you haven't been in that situation. You've spoken to them directly. How are they struggling and coping as you say?

KENEALLY: Priya is clearly lonely and depressed in detention. Even as we sat in the sterile visitors’ room in the detention centre, it's clear, she's an extrovert. She loves being around people. And during our visit, she spoke often of her desire 'to go home to my community in Bilo', as she called it. She was involved there in local church groups. She volunteered at the local hospital. And she tells me she doesn't want anything from the Government except just the chance to work and raise her family. But Nades, the father, he's the quieter of the two but I sense a deep and profound sadness when he speaks. He's stuck in a situation he cannot resolve. He can't work. He can't look after his family and he can't get a way out. And Nades genuinely fears death if he is deported. And not because of what it will mean for him - clearly Priya and his two daughters are at the centre of his life. He tells me he just wants to care for his wife and children. And he doesn't want to make his daughters orphans and I think that's a desire to which any father or any parent can relate.

KELLY: What about the girls themselves? I mean, one of the girls has been in detention, I think since she was eight months old.

KENEALLY: Yes, the youngest child Tharunicaa has been in detention since she was eight months old. She's done nothing else, except living, essentially, locked up and accompanied by guards everywhere she goes. But these two little girls, they are like any other Australian school kids I've met. They have little Australian accents. They are bright and sweet and well-mannered. The oldest Kopika is five - she's serious. And when you ask a question, she ponders them thoughtfully. The youngest one, Tharunicaa, she's three, soon to be four she tells me in two months, and she's really quite cheeky. And she's got a real twinkle in her eyes. And the thing that struck me though, is that Nades and Priya tell me that the girls are intelligent and friendly. They're happy when they're out at the recreation centre, where they get to go once a week or in school. 

But back in detention, they are Priya says you know, they're dead. They have no joy. And I have to say Fran, these two parents both look at their most overwhelmed when they're talking about the effects of detention on their children. These girls are just too young to understand why they can't live in a house, why they can't go to the shop, why they can't go to their friend's houses or have friends over and, indeed Kopika said to me,  she said to me in our meeting yesterday, all she wants is to go back to Bilo, get in dad's car and go to the shops and  their friend's house to play. And you know, all I could say to her is that I hope that she can do that soon too.

KELLY: We spoke to, we got a statement from Department of Home Affairs to talk about the treatment of these four. And the statement we got back, reinforce what you said that they have access to health and welfare services on Christmas Island, including school, recreation services for the children, they go to the public school, they can go on excursions. I think you saw all of this. Given that, how different is their life in detention on Christmas Island, then it would be say, even in detention on mainland Australia, or even in some kind of centre on mainland Australia?

KENEALLY: Well Fran, I think the point here is that these are the only two children in immigration detention in Australia. There are of course, families who are in some form of community immigration detention, but they are living in the community, in a house, in something that resembles more normal circumstances. And one of the things I've learned since being here is that there are Commonwealth-owned immigration homes on Christmas Island that are empty, that the family could live in. And given the small community here, some 1500 residents, the strong support they have from the residents, I would urge the Minister to consider as a first step, allowing Nades, Priya and their two little girls to move into the community, to come out of living in detention.

KELLY: Let's talk about the Minister, there's a new Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, there's ministerial discretion here. I mean, the Government makes the point, the law has been clear. It's always been clear. Both adults arrived in Australia. The Government says they arrived illegally and there will be zero chance of people who come to Australia by illegal means being able to settle here. This is also Labor's policy, isn't it?

KENEALLY: Look, I think it's important to remember that this family came here seeking asylum, which is something people are able to do....

KELLY: The Government says that's illegal, but it's not actually illegal to come and seek asylum?

KENEALLY: It is not illegal to seek asylum. And what we have here is ongoing legal processes where there's been recently a Federal Court determination that the youngest daughter hasn't had procedural fairness and having her case heard and those legal processes are ongoing. Fran, it's also important to remember that there are some 32,000 people in Australia, who are in a similar situation to the family - they're either on a temporary protection visa, or they're on a bridging visa and they are under constant review of their situation. And so it does beg the question, why are we as a country, why is our Government in our name and with some $50 million, by the way, of taxpayer money, going to such extraordinary efforts to seek to deport and to keep in detention, this family of four. I would hope that it's not just out of a sense of using them cruelly as an example to others. And I think you'll just...

KELLY: Can I just interrupt you there, are you saying the Government, this 32,000. I mean, we reported quite recently, the Government has allowed some out of some detention centres in Melbourne and Brisbane, I think I were, to live in the community, are you saying that could happen to these people too?

KENEALLY: Well Fran, I've met many asylum seekers who are hear on temporary protection visas, or bridging visas and they are under constant review. They have to apply to get their cases re-evaluated every few years. They are unable to make plans about the future, you know, what their life will be like. And I've met people, by the way, who are running small businesses, who are employing Australians, who are still under this constant review, constant threat of losing their ability to live here. So, this family is not an unusual family in that context. What is particularly important to note about this family is that there is a regional community in Queensland, in Biloela, that loves them and wants them home. I mean, this is a family that when they lived in Biloela - Nades worked two jobs. He volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul. Priya was active in local church groups, she volunteered in the local community, they were doing what you know, migrants have done now for generations in Australia, which is come here, build a life, get involved in the community, build up a community and all they are asking is for the chance to raise their children in safety. And I think it's important to understand that they have a genuine fear of what will happen to them if they are deported to Sri Lanka. Nades was forced to join the Tamil Tigers, a militarist separatist group, and is quite convinced he'll be arrested and killed if he is returned to Sri Lanka.

KELLY: Yes. And they've restated that view to the courts has been a fairly exhaustive legal process. They've been up to the High Court. They've had multiple cases running through lower courts and appeals and at no stage yet where they found to be owed protection by Australia. So, they're only, of course at the moment, I think, is ministerial intervention. The Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, as I said, says she's had a high-level briefing, she's asked for more advice, so she can look at the facts. What would you be urging the Minister to do? What do you think a briefing with her on your return from this visit?

KENEALLY: In fact, I'd written to her upon her appointment, congratulating her and suggesting that the two of us meet and I understand that our offices are looking to make that happen. And I welcome the fact that she's getting a written, detailed briefing. I would urge her to consider, you know, in her home state of Queensland, going to Biloela, meet Angela Fredericks, one of the people supporting the family or possibly even come to Christmas Island and meet some of the residents here who support and know the family. She might even want to meet the family herself as she's going to have to make a decision at some point that profoundly affects their lives. I would also encourage the Minister to consider that the Government has now spent $50 million of taxpayer money attempting to deport and keeping in detention, this family of four including their two little Australian born daughters. And I think on a cost to the taxpayer alone, there might be a reason for her to exercise her discretion and Fran I do make this point for your listeners so they can understand: Ministers for Immigration and Home Affairs make thousands of ministerial discretion decisions every year in cases like these and that is they have extraordinary power under the Migration Act and they do exercise that quite frequently.

KELLY: Just finally, though, the Government says it will do nothing to undermine the security the borders, Labor supports that in fact, you know, it was Kevin Rudd in 2013, who said that no one who comes by boat will ever be settled in Australia. That remains Labor's policy today, isn't it?

KENEALLY: Absolutely. And let me be clear, I've met locals here on Christmas Island who live on the frontline of border control. These are the people who were the first to respond to the cries of help when the SIEV-221 tore apart just metres from their homes in December (2010, they still remember the cries of some 50 people drowning, literally right in front of their homes. They support and understand why we need to maintain border control and it is things like regional processing, boat turn-backs where it's safe to do so and regional resettlement, along with patrols and other actions that are absolutely necessary to stop people smuggling. 

KENEALLY: But these same residents, these same residents on Christmas Island are strong supporters of returning to family to Biloela. They see the terrible toll it's taking on the family. They can't see the point of detaining these two Australian-born children and their parents for years. So, I would just ask people listening, I would ask the Minister particularly to consider that right now our borders are closed. Australia's refugee intake is exceptionally low. There are Coalition figures like Barnaby Joyce and Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott and Michael McCormack, who support returning this family to Biloela and there is a regional community in Queensland, that wants them and is willing to welcome them back home.

KELLY: Kristina Keneally. Thanks very much for joining us.

KENEALLY: Thank you.