The immigration minister, Alex Hawke, says the government’s decision to allow the Murugappan family to live in community detention in Perth will not provide a pathway to permanent resettlement in Australia.
Lawyers for the family welcomed the government’s announcement on Tuesday that they will be removed from Christmas Island, but insisted it must be a “first step” to returning them to the Queensland town of Biloela.
On Tuesday the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said the family would be released from detention on Christmas Island and allowed to reunite on the Australian mainland while they pursued ongoing legal action.
But Hawke said the family would not return to their local community in Biloela, where the family lived for four years. Instead they would reside in community detention in Perth, “close to schools and support services”, while the youngest child received medical attention in a Perth hospital. There are no federal community detention facilities outside of major cities.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday afternoon, Hawke said that while he had “broad” ministerial powers that could apply further exemptions, the government’s policy on boat arrivals – which the government calls IMAs – illegal maritime arrivals – had not changed.
“Anyone that has arrived by boat will not permanently resettle in Australia,” Hawke said.
“People can be granted temporary protection, people can be granted permanent protection if they arrive before a certain date, but if people are not found to be owed protection obligations, the expectation is that when it is safe to do so that they return home and that remains our position.
“If the people smugglers see a weakening in the border protection stance of Australia, they will restart the trade. And these are a family of IMAs in the parents who in 2012 and 2013 came to Australia by boat. The government’s position has been clear that no one will permanently resettle in Australia who is an IMA.”
Hawke said that he would make a further decision “in due course” about whether to allow a “bar lift” for the youngest child, Tharnicaa, which could affect the family’s visa status.
The bar prevents children born on shore from applying for temporary protection, or a safe haven enterprise visa.
Hawke said that this meant there were still options for the family to pursue.
The family’s lawyer, Carina Ford, said that the government should not “make an example of these children”.
“Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, but it still is in the minister’s hands, and this government’s hands, to consider maybe a fairer approach,” Ford said.
She said the family was pleased to be leaving detention on Christmas Island and was “looking forward to some freedom”.
“The family though are relieved. In fact, Nades mentioned just before when I talked to him, ‘Just get me out of here, I just want to get out of Christmas Island’,” Ford said.
Angela Fredericks, a family friend and the organiser of the Home to Bilo campaign welcomed the announcement, but said their reunion was “the first step in getting them home to Bilo”.
“We hope and assume this is only a temporary step. Community detention is no guarantee of safety and peace for this family.”
Fredericks said Nades was “keen to get back to work” in Biloela to support his young family, which he could not do while the family was in community detention, while the family was also keen to enrol the eldest child at Biloela state school.
“And we promised little Tharni a big birthday party when she got home. Australia knows this family’s home is in Biloela.”
The Australian Medical Association on Tuesday called for the family’s detention to end, saying it had concerns about the mental health of the children during a crucial stage of their development.
“The Australian government has discretionary power to permanently settle the family,” the AMA president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said.
“It has dragged on for three years and the Australian-born children have lost their early childhood years to immigration detention. This provides enough justification for a compassionate approach despite the fact the parents have not been able to prove their refugee status.”
The federal Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said he had visited Biloela in 2019 after becoming leader and wanted the family returned to the community.
“I saw how much this community loves Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharnicaa – and how badly they want them to return,” Albanese said on Twitter. “It was clear to me that this family should be allowed to go #HomeToBilo. Let’s just get it done.”
In Question Time, Albanese asked the acting prime minister Michael McCormack why the government “won’t … let this family go home to Bilo?”
“These matters in relation to immigration are never easy … they are difficult, they are complicated.” McCormack said.
He said Hawke’s decision to use section 197 AB of the migration act to make a resident’s determination “balanced the government’s ongoing commitment to strong border protection processes”, while also helping the family.
Tharnicaa, the family’s youngest daughter, is being treated in a Perth hospital after suffering sepsis and pneumonia while in detention on Christmas Island. The then three-year-old waited the best part of two weeks, with her physical condition deteriorating, before she was moved to Perth for treatment. When she reached the hospital, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and a blood infection.
The preschooler’s plight reignited a community campaign to allow the family to remain in Australia. It also triggered nervousness in government ranks, with a number of Coalition MPs calling for the family to be removed from Christmas Island.
The Nationals MPs Ken O’Dowd and the former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, along with the moderate Liberal MPs Trent Zimmerman, Jason Falinski and Katie Allen, argued that there should be a ministerial exemption for the family.
The Tamil family were detained on Christmas Island in August 2019 after they lost a bid to gain refugee status that would have stopped their deportation.
In May 2019 the high court refused them the ability to appeal against a federal court decision that they be deported back to Sri Lanka. This has left the family to argue its case that Tharnicaa was denied procedural fairness by the decision.
Hawke said his decision to release the family into community detention was not an exercise of powers under sections 46A and 48B of the Migration Act. He said the family had supplied additional health information so that assessment would take time.
The minister said as required by orders of the court, he would “consider at a future date whether to lift the statutory bar presently preventing members of the family from reapplying for temporary protection, for which they have been previously rejected”.
While a number of government MPs campaigned publicly for the family to be released into the community, some other MPs and ministers said they were concerned that could set a precedent that would undermine Australia’s harsh deterrence regime.
Scott Morrison, who is now in the UK, told reporters at the weekend that the government would not offer permanent settlement in Australia to someone who had arrived by boat.
Morrison said the options being considered for the family would be consistent with health advice, humanitarian need “and the government’s policy”.