When I sat outside the Port Headland immigration detention centre in 2002, I wept and wondered what the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers was doing to the soul of the people of Australia. Almost twenty years later, the answer to that question is becoming distressingly clear.
The life of a four-year-old has been testing the health of our national soul. Tharnicaa, though born here in Australia, has grown up in a detention centre. Her seven-year-old sister, Kopika, has been escorted to and from school by security guards, returning every afternoon to a captive life. The girls living with their parents, Nades and Priya, in a multi-million-dollar facility – alone.
A centre that could hold 800 people is being kept open for a family of four.
The waste of taxpayer dollars alone should cause outrage. After all many Australians have faced economic hardship in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have lost jobs or closed businesses during lockdowns.
At a time when millions of people in other parts of the world are crying out for the assistance a country like Australia is well placed to offer, we spend millions keeping a family in detention. A family who’ve committed no crime, according to Australian or International law. Its obscene. And that’s just the money.
Their story is complex but, in short, Nades and Priya are Sri Lankan Tamils. They fled persecution individually in the early 2000s. Priya fled after seeing her fiancé burned alive by Sri Lankan authorities. The couple met here and their two daughters were born in Australia.
I’ve been to the town this family call home. Biloela is a very small town in central Queensland. The family are beloved members of this tight knit community who’ve been campaigning for their release since the Australian Border Force took them from their home in 2018.
For the last three years, there has been a growing distress in the wider community around the treatment of this family. And recently, it came to a head as Tharunicaa needed to be flown to Perth for medical treatment after suffering sepsis on Christmas Island. It took ten days for her parents’ concerns to be taken seriously. Ten days.
This little girl and her sister have become hauntingly emblematic of Australia’s asylum seeker policy. As a fellow human being, I find their story agonizing to witness. As a Christian committed to following Jesus, I admit it is gut-wrenching. How have we arrived in this place where a four-year-old is perceived as a threat to our borders? Where we feel it’s reasonable to imprison a working family who is valued in their community?
When I say I am a follower of Jesus, I mean that I am a disciple of the way of love he embodied in his time on earth. A love that sought out and brought in those on the margins, those endangered from the prejudice of others. A love that drew children into a place of value and purpose. A love that perpetuated kindness, mercy and justice even when it was politically uncomfortable.
Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in general is a long way from this way of love- and has been for many years and multiple governments. I often try to cut politicians in this story some slack. I’ve tried to understand the pressure around the concept of ‘borders’. And I am conscious of the size and complexity of these issues. I tune in to the political rhetoric from time to time and can acknowledge that with more than seventy million people displaced around the world today no decisions in this crisis are straight-forward.
Despite trying to find some ‘sympathy’ for the decision makers in this, I can’t help but cry every time I hear the second verse of our national anthem: ‘For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share’ is still a true statement. We, as a nation, are not ‘at capacity’. The town of Biloela has room in its heart for the Murugappan family.
As of this week, the family are being released into community detention in Perth. The term ‘released’ is an interesting one. Though it is wonderful that Tharnicaa is being reunited with her sister and her father, this story is a long way from resolved. Temporary protection feels oxymoronic. Do we temporarily feed people, provide them with temporary love? This family are reunited and out of off-shore detention and this is good news. But their future is no more certain – the threat of deportation remains. And they are no closer going home to their friends and lives in Biloela.
When we sing about ‘boundless plains’ without thinking about children like Tharnicaa, or turn away from the latest news on this family, we are allowing the slow corrosion of our hearts. It sounds hyperbolic but we must not look away, despite feelings of empathic distress or helplessness.
The difficulty for policy makers today is that asylum seekers now have a very memorable face. The age-old strategy of stripping people of their identity, labelling ‘them’ as something to be feared by “us” is failing. This strategy that allowed all manner of unspeakable things to be permitted is failing as we look at the image of a four-year-old weeping as she farewells her sister who isn’t allowed to come to hospital with her.
In 2002, my heart broke that my country could be so cold. Now that coldness has now taken root and is sprouting some hideous fruit. It must stop. Not only for the sake of vulnerable people, but for the sake of all Australians. Our national heart and soul need us to take a different path.
At this stage in the family’s quest for asylum, the future of the whole family rests on whether or not Tharnicaa’s is eligible to apply for a protection visa. The weight of it must feel enormous. I can’t help but feel that the future of our soul also rests on the outcome of Tharnicaa’s case.