Protest works, but the Tamil family is only half-way to freedom

Protest works! That’s the lesson from the last couple of intense weeks that has finally seen the Murugappan Tamil family reunited and put in community detention in Perth.

Protest erupted around the country after four-year-old Tharnicaa was medivacced from Christmas Island detention to hospital in Perth dangerously ill with blood poisoning associated with undiagnosed pneumonia.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Perth hospital, with Doctors for Refugees calling on medical staff to repeat the stand of Queensland’s Lady Cilento hospital staff in 2016, over baby Asha from Nauru, and refuse to release Tharnicaa to detention.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) joined the outcry, with an open letter signed by nine medical organisations, calling for an urgent release of the family.

The RACP made even stronger demands, with President, Jacqueline Small, saying: “We want the Australian government to listen to what medical experts have been saying for years now, that Australia must also release all asylum-seekers from detention facilities and provide them with support they will need for this transition.”

Tharnicaa’s father, Nades, and sister, Kopika, were flown off Christmas Island, to Perth, where the family will live in community detention once Tharnicaa is well enough to leave hospital.

It’s been 16 years since Liberal Party backbenchers forced then Prime Minister John Howard to release children from detention. But once again, with protest rallies in cities around Australia (including in their old hometown of Biloela in Queensland) a number of Liberal backbenchers have been pushed to break ranks with the government.

While Liberals Katie Allen and Jason Falinski and the Nationals Ken O’Dowd timidly called for the family to be returned to the mainland, Liberal Trent Zimmerman called for the family to have a “long term future in Biloela”. Barnaby Joyce showed rare insight, explaining that if the Tamil girls “were Jane and Sally” they would have been allowed to resettle in Australia long ago.

Meanwhile Liberal Party warhorses, Amanda Vanstone, and recent Order of Australia recipient, Peta Credlin, were trotted out to repeat the lines about “stopping the boats” and to insist that the compassionate thing was to keep them on Christmas Island.

Political face

There is no doubt that the release of the family is a win for the “Home to Bilo” campaign and the refugee movement. But the Minister is keeping the family in detention in Perth—because he can—and to save some political face. It will take much more protest to force the government to allow the family to go back to Biloela, let alone for the Minister to actually grant visas to the family.

For the past 25 years, the Coalition government has invested an enormous amount of political capital in its anti-refugee policy. Since the Tampa election, playing the refugee card has been a key plank in the way it understands its electoral success.

We have seen their vindictive “cat and mouse” tactics before. The Coalition was horrified when it suffered parliamentary defeat in 2018 and the Medevac Bill became law. In December and January, growing protest at Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point and the Mantra and Park hotels in Melbourne forced the government to release around 100 refugees who had been transferred under the Medevac Act.

But two years later (and more than eight years in detention overall), more than 90 refugees are rotting in hotels and detention to show the government still holds the whip hand.

The power that got the Tamil family off Christmas Island—protest power—is the power that can break the hold of border protection politics.

The date 19 July 2021 marks the eighth anniversary of offshore detention, backed by both Labor and the Liberals. We need to recognise the enemy and the ruthlessness and political purpose behind the Coalition’s persecution of asylum seekers and refugees.

The government is not about to see the error of its ways and make an exception for the Tamil family. It knows that its anti-refugee policy is on trial. Its treatment of the Murugappans is one very public example of how it treats other asylum-seekers.

It is going to take still more determined protest to get the Murugappans “home to Bilo”. And we need to link the fight to free the Tamil family with the fight to free all those still being victimised in detention, on and offshore, and win them permanent protection.

By Ian Rintoul

Join the protests this Saturday 19 June around the country: see the Home to Bilo campaign page for details.

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