The only four people currently detained on Christmas Island — an external territory of Australia, which sits more than 3,000km off the mainland’s west coast and is closer to Indonesia — are a couple and their two young daughters.
They are the “Biloela family” — the Tamil family who spent years in the regional Queensland town of Biloela, before being detained in Melbourne ahead of an attempt last week to deport them to Sri Lanka.
Their plight has inspired a long campaign by Biloela locals to bring them back to the town, drew thousands to rallies throughout Australia over the weekend, and caused conflict in the highest echelons of Australian politics.
Nadesalingam (known as Nades) and Priya came to Australia separately by boat in 2012 and 2013. They met and married, and had their daughters Kopika, 4, and Tharunicaa, 2. They settled in Biloela, population 6,000, where Nades worked in an abattoir and volunteered at St Vincent de Paul.
But in a dawn raid in March 2018, when their youngest daughter was seven months old, Australian Border Force and Serco officials took them from their home and flew them to Melbourne, where they spent the next year-and-a-half in a detention centre.
Their protection claims had been rejected, and their further appeals were unsuccessful. Most recently, the High Court dismissed an application to hear the case in May 2019.
The #HomeToBilo campaign, led by Biloela residents, called on home affairs minister Peter Dutton and immigration minister David Coleman to use their vast discretionary powers to let the family stay. They argued that Nades had connections with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and would face persecution if returned.
Australia’s Coalition government, in power since 2013, has claimed “stopping the boats” — preventing people smugglers arranging for asylum seekers to travel by boat to Australia — as one of its proudest achievements.
In 2013, it introduced “Operation Sovereign Borders”, which involved zero tolerance of boat arrivals, including turning back boats trying to enter Australian waters, and mandatory detention offshore for asylum seekers whose boats made it to Australia.
Finally, last Thursday, the government made its move. The family was taken to Melbourne’s airport and forced onto a non-commercial flight bound for Sri Lanka.
Confronting footage showed the two girls crying as their mother was dragged down the plane’s aisle.
But a judge issued a dramatic midair ruling before they left Australian airspace, and the plane landed in Darwin, in Australia’s north.
On Friday morning, a federal court judge ruled that the family could not be removed from Australia before Wednesday, after hearing an argument that Tharunicaa’s refugee claim had not been assessed.
Overnight on Friday, the family was flown to Christmas Island — a 135 square kilometre island with a population of 1,500 people.
The government had closed the Christmas Island detention centre in October 2018, only to suddenly reopen it in March at a cost of $185 million. It threatened to send asylum seekers transferred to Australia for medical treatment from offshore detention on two other islands — Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea; and Nauru — to Christmas Island.
For the past six months, it has been operating in “hot contingency” mode, with more than 150 security staff and health workers guarding nobody.
The family is not even being held in the detention centre, but in a camp on the other side of the island.
On Sunday, thousands came to rallies throughout Australia to protest the deportation and ask the government to let them stay.
More than 230,000 people have signed a petition asking for the family to be returned to Biloela.
According to the Guardian, immigration minister David Coleman would like to intervene in the family’s favour, but home affairs minister Peter Dutton won’t have it.
“I would like the family to accept that they are not refugees, they’re not owed protection by our country,” Dutton told Nine’s Today program on Friday.
“They were told that they would never settle permanently in Australia, just like many others who arrived by boat,” Dutton wrote in an op-ed published in Queensland’s Courier Mail on Sunday. "They never accepted that decision."
Critics say that Dutton’s use of his immense discretion is inconsistent, after he personally intervened to prevent the deportation of two au pairs by granting them visas.
On Monday, the government appeared to drop a front-page story to The Australian about an apparent “surge” in people smugglers’ boats trying to reach Australia from Sri Lanka. “On-water matters” such as boat arrivals have previously been secret.
Prime minister Scott Morrison — the former immigration minister whose office contains a gifted boat trophy with the inscription “I stopped these” — weighed in on Monday, saying he could not “in good conscience” allow the family to stay. He said there were more than 10,000 people sitting in Indonesia who would “get on a boat tomorrow” if they thought the government was changing its position on asylum seekers.
This latest episode in Australia’s immigration politics comes as the government tries to repeal the “medevac” law, which was passed against its wishes and gives doctors a greater role in decisions about bringing detainees held offshore to Australia for medical treatment.
Barring any change of heart from the government, there is one barrier now to the Biloela family’s removal: a Federal Court hearing on Wednesday.
The injunction preventing their deportation expires on Wednesday at 4pm.