Sri Lankan Family Wins a Long Battle to Stay in Australia

MELBOURNE, Australia — Four years ago, immigration officers arrived at dawn to rip a Sri Lankan family away from the life they had built in the tiny Australian town of Biloela.

The authorities had rejected claims for asylum filed by the mother, Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam, and father, Nadesalingam Murugappan, who had fled Sri Lanka. Their visas had expired, and the couple, along with their two Australia-born daughters, Kopika, 2, and 9-month-old Tharnicaa, were taken into immigration detention.

As the conservative government attempted several times to deport them to Sri Lanka, their supporters campaigned for their release, turning the family into symbols of what human rights groups have called a draconian approach to asylum seekers and refugees in Australia.

On Friday, the center-left government that came to power two months ago put the fight to rest by allowing the family to stay in Australia permanently. Human rights groups expressed hope that the move signaled the beginning of a more tolerant approach to people seeking asylum.

Supporters of the family during a vigil in Brisbane, Australia, in March 2021. Unlike the United States, Australia does not automatically grant citizenship to children born in the country.Credit…Darren England/EPA, via Shutterstock

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles said in a statement that the decision to grant permanent residency “follows careful consideration of the Nadesalingam family’s complex and specific circumstances.” He added that the government would continue to intercept any asylum seeker boats that traveled to Australia and return them to their point of origin.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had signaled in June, as the government was preparing to make its decision, that the family had reason for hope.

“We’re a generous nation,” he said at the time. “We are a better nation than one that takes two little girls who were born here in Australia out of their home in the middle of the night and shuffles them off to Melbourne and then sends them to Christmas Island and keeps them in detention for four years at a cost of double figures of millions of dollars to taxpayers.”

Unlike the United States, Australia does not automatically grant citizenship to children born in the country, and the two girls are ineligible as the children of “unlawful maritime arrivals.”

The parents, who did not meet until they had traveled to Australia, are members of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and had fled violence in their homeland, where a civil war raged for decades before ending in 2009.

They left Sri Lanka a few years later and wound up in Biloela, before they were detained and sent to a detention center in Melbourne for a year and then transferred to the remote Christmas Island, 1,000 miles north of the Australian mainland, where they stayed for three years.

The family’s two girls, Kopika, now 7, and Tharnicaa, now 5, were the only children being held in immigration detention in Australia. They went to school on the island escorted by security guards.

Calls for the family to be released gained momentum last year when Tharnicaa was evacuated to a hospital in the Australian city of Perth while battling a blood infection. Supporters of the family said that she was only given painkillers for nearly two weeks while her fever rose, despite pleas from her parents.

In the prelude to the federal election in May this year, the family’s future became an issue in the campaign. The incumbent conservative Liberal Party vowed not to let the family stay permanently, stressing that its asylum claim had been assessed several times and denied.

The Labor Party largely mirrored the Liberal Party’s hard-line immigration stance, vowing to continue the policy that no asylum seekers arriving by boat would ever resettle in Australia. But it did promise that it would allow the family to return to Biloela if elected.

The party made good on that promise just days after its victory in May by granting the family temporary visas. Now, it has given them permanent residency, resolving their status for good.

“At last we feel peace,” Ms. Nadesalingam said in a statement. “Now I know my daughters will get to grow up safely in Australia. Now my husband and I can live without fear.”

Karen Andrews, who speaks for the Liberal Party on home affairs, said in a statement that the decision “undermines the policy that if you come here illegally you will never settle in Australia.”

Graham Thom, refugee coordinator for Amnesty International Australia, said he hoped that there were signs of an incremental shift to a more humane approach to people seeking asylum.

Australia’s refugee policy is unlikely to change significantly under Labor, which is mindful of being attacked by the conservative opposition as being weak on borders, Mr. Thom said. But even without a change in overall policy, Australia’s immigration minister has broad discretion — what some have called “God powers” — to decide the fates of individuals seeking asylum.

Advocates for refugee rights are “hoping that this signals a more common sense, a more humane approach to some of these individual cases where people have been here a long time and have links with the community,” Mr. Thom said.

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