“Bring them home to Bilo”

Justine Toh on how the Murugappan family has found a home in our hearts and is reminding us of our shared humanity.

The chorus of calls is only getting louder: Australians want Priya and Nades Murugappan to be allowed to return to Biloela, the central Queensland town where they made their home and had their daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa while their asylum claims were processed.

The Tamil family are currently in community detention in Perth, after Tharnicaa’s release from hospital. The four-year-old, who has spent every birthday in immigration detention, was medically evacuated from Christmas Island where the family has been held since August 2019. Her illness, and the intense politicking surrounding it, has thrust the family’s plight into the global spotlight.

Even if their claims for asylum have been knocked back, the Murugappan family enjoys considerable community support. Biloela wants them back. Humanitarian groups have campaigned on their behalf. Religious leaders have spoken up.

The family has also found surprising allies in Alan Jones, Jacqui Lambie, Barnaby Joyce, and several other Coalition MPs. Then there have been protests, letters, candlelight vigils, and half a million signatures (and counting) on a Change.org petition calling for them to stay.

In the eyes of the courts, the family are “unlawful maritime arrivals”, but Biloela disagrees – or no longer cares. Nades worked in the local abattoir and lent a hand at the Vinnies on the weekend. Priya got involved in church groups and volunteered at the hospital.

The family has done something profound: they’ve put a human face on often-faceless others who are at the mercy of our deliberately harsh immigration detention system – one that enjoys widespread bipartisan support.

No nation can be blasé about its borders but, nonetheless, the Murugappans have made a home in plenty of our hearts. In reminding us of our shared humanity, we’re not just able to see them. They’re also helping us to see ourselves anew.