Biloela family: asylum seekers allowed to stay in Australia after outcry

By Tiffanie Turnbull
BBC News, Sydney

  • Published
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There were emotional scenes as the family were welcomed back to Biloela in June

A family who became the public face of Australia's tough asylum-seeker policies will be allowed to stay in the country after a four-year battle.

The Nadesalingam family was detained in 2018 after their claim for protection was rejected.

Their treatment sparked outcry and a national campaign for their return to the outback Queensland town of Biloela.

They have now been granted visas due to their "complex and specific circumstances", the government says.

Priya Nadaraja says the decision has given her family "peace" at last.

"Now I know my daughters will get to grow up safely in Australia. Now my husband and I can live without fear," she said in a statement.

Priya and her husband Nades arrived in Australia on separate boat trips nearly a decade ago, and sought asylum. They said they feared persecution in Sri Lanka because of their Tamil ethnicity - successive ruling governments have long been accused of targeting Tamils, who are a minority in the largely Sinhalese country.

The couple met in outback Biloela, married and had two girls - Kopika, seven, and Tharnicaa, five.

But the government detained them in 2018 after ruling the family had no legal right to be in Australia.

Locals in Biloela fought for them to stay, kicking off a campaign that won national support and the backing of MPs from across the political spectrum.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The family's treatment sparked protests where hundreds of people called for their release

Supporters include new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese who had pledged to allow the family to return to their adopted hometown in Biloela if elected.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles on Friday said the government has kept its promise. But he stressed that immigration policies have not changed.

Australia can hold asylum seekers like the Nadesalingam family in indefinite detention while it assesses their refugee claims or takes steps to deport them.

It also has a policy of not allowing asylum seekers to arrive by boat, and maintains a system of offshore detention.

"We are not considering changing this policy," Mr Giles said. "I do not want people to die in a boat on a journey when there is zero chance of settling in Australia."

The decision gives certainty to the family, who has spent more than 1,500 days in immigration detention - much of it on Christmas Island, an Australian outpost in the Indian Ocean.

Last year, they were moved from the island to community detention in Perth after Tharnicaa needed urgent medical care.

Image source, HometoBilo/Twitter
Image caption,
The family seen in detention in 2018

The family told the BBC last year that the conditions of their prolonged detention - and separation from their support base - had caused them significant harm. Priya said the years in detention had left her with depression and little energy.

Meanwhile, Tharnicaa - who was just nine months old when the family was detained - had surgery in 2019 to remove teeth that had rotted due to poor nutrition. She also spent two weeks in hospital last year for another illness.

Australia argues its strict policies on asylum seekers prevent human trafficking and deaths at sea, but the UN has criticised its approach as inhumane.