Sydney, Australia

When the newly elected Australian Government made the much-anticipated announcement that they’d granted permission to the Murugappan (Nadesalingam) family to return home to Biloela, the sense of communal relief was palpable. A tiny regional community could exhale, an exhausted family could hope, and an unlikely group of advocates could stop fighting - at least for a moment. 

My first draft of this story stayed in that place of relief from beginning to end. All I wanted to do was celebrate this win. As one of hundreds of thousands of Australians - who’d signed and promoted petitions and marched on the street in protest alongside human rights lawyers and asylum seeker advocates - I’ve felt a part of this story, albeit a very small part. And I just wanted to feel good, hopeful, relieved.

Australia Melbourne national day of action June 2021

A rally held in Melbourne as part of a national day of action to stand in support for the Murugappan (Bilo) family and to demand their return to Biloela in June, 2021. PICTURE: Matt Hrkac (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

But there is more to this moment than relief.          

There is deep anger, abiding grief and an ever pressing need to continue to work for justice. We must keep our sleeves rolled up and our hearts open - because this story is not over. 

"This family’s case has led Australians to ask a lot of questions, most of which are still awaiting an answer even in the face of this recent good news announcement."

In the last four years, Biloela and its residents - their grief and their grit - have become iconic. The fight for this young family has highlighted the plight of people seeking asylum across Australia. It’s shone a shocking light onto the cruelty of our existing refugee policies and has revealed the arbitrary discretionary and so called ‘god-like’ powers of the Immigration Minister. 

This family’s case has led Australians to ask a lot of questions, most of which are still awaiting an answer even in the face of this recent good news announcement. 

Unnecessarily cruel 
Chief among questions has been around the brutality and seemingly unnecessary force employed to enact immigration policy in Australia. Border Force agents removed the Murugappan family from their home in an unanticipated dawn raid in March, 2018. The family was taken to detention in Melbourne, then Christmas Island for two years until their youngest daughter was so sick she needed to be medevac’d to Perth. Since then, the family have been stuck in Perth, in a persistently cruel limbo after all but four-year-old Tharnicaa were granted bridging visas. 

Watching this all unfold has been heartbreaking and infuriating. 

As a Christian, I confess the heartbreak has been layered. It’s heartbreaking to watch a government of a wealthy country pride itself on turning desperate and needy people away. And it’s particularly agonising when the leaders of that government are highly vocal about their Christian faith and its influence on their politics. 

I understand the situation is complex - we’ve just past the grim milestone of one billion displaced people worldwide - and the need is unthinkable. And so I appreciate the role of policy makers is incredibly difficult. But detaining children who were born here and pulling a hardworking contributing family out of their community in a dawn raid is inexcusable, immoral and unBiblical. 

Still a long way to go
The #hometobilo team have surely grown exasperated and exhausted at times, but their persistent advocacy is a lesson for us all. They’ve pursued justice relentlessly and have not grown weary of doing good, as Paul implores us in Galatians 6:9.

If we’re to be students of history, there’s much to learn from this dark chapter. 

The first lesson is that persistent hope is never a waste of energy. A small group of advocates, devoted to their friends, drew the attention of the nation to the plight of this marginalised family, and the unjust system that was harming them. They drew and they held our attention for four years.

And while Nades, Priya, Kopika and Tharnicaa can now dare to hope for their future, the fight isn’t over, and our attention will need to remain fixed a little longer. 

This family’s battle will continue as bridging visas offer a very small degree of certainty and only for a limited time. The pathway to residency won’t be easy. Our system is making ‘an exception’ for them at this moment that could be short lived. Both sides of politics established and upheld this system. And sending this family home to Bilo (temporarily) is a welcome but long way from the systemic, structural change that’s needed if Australia is going to lead with compassion and play our role in caring for our displaced neighbours around the world. 

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I was a stranger and you welcomed me
The second lesson the Murugappan case teaches is that God is on the side of the oppressed. When we join them, we join Him. When we care for them, we care for Jesus, as Matthew’s Gospel spells out in chapter 25:31-36.

So, in the coming days or weeks, as we witness this family reunited with their community, I allow myself the sense of relief. But I cannot forget the many other refugees and people seeking asylum who are currently waiting in limbo - both in detention, and in the community - for a path to permanent safety in Australia.

After all, this story and struggle could well have been mine, or yours. A mysterious grace has paved a path of safety for me - from the day I was, for some reason, born in this country and into my family. Thankful for this grace, we continue to pay attention. We will not turn away despite the size of the challenge, remembering that our God always hears the desire of the afflicted, He encourages them, and listens to their cry - Psalm 10:17 - and He is inviting us to join Him. 

meredith wright2

Meredith Wright is a writer and team lead in communication at Baptist World Aid Australia in Sydney, Australia.