Two nights ago, I received a notification — from social media of all places — that a Tamil family were being put on a plane and sent back to danger. I follow a Facebook page that is dedicated to aiding their legal case to stay in Australia.
I only tuned in just in time to see the plane taking off. A crowd of protestors had gathered outside the airport: as they watched the last hopes for this family disappear into thin air (literally), people held each other and cried. So did I, sitting on my couch at home — knowing full well that, thanks to my passport and skin colour, I will never find myself in this situation.
As it happens, the case isn’t over. The plane defied a last-minute court injunction and was forced to land in Darwin. They were given a few more days to plead the legitimacy of their two Australian-born children being allowed to stay in the only country they’ve ever known.
In some ways, this family is fortunate to have a wide network of support. The community they’d been an active part of for several years rallied around them — and through an ongoing and sustained media campaign to bring them home, Priya and Nades have made the news. We know their names. We held vigils and protests across the country. 200,000 of us signed a petition imploring the Home Affairs Minister to allow them to stay. Last year, he gave himself sweeping powers which would make it possible to do so, on compassionate grounds.
Unfortunately, the leaders of our country have no compassion.
There are so many more just like this family who are never brought to our attention, whose cases drag on for years, who languish in detention centres, who are quietly deported with no public outcry and no fanfare. Our government works hard to keep it that way — tightening their grip on the spread of information and access to asylum seekers. We have moved our shame offshore so that no one can see it.
And yet despite the government’s best efforts, Priya and Nades grabbed the national attention. Both their initial arrest and attempted deportation took place in the middle of the night — as though the Australian public might fail to notice. But we did.
The family has lived with uncertainty for the past 18 months. To add to their distress, the mother was physically handled, causing injury, and separated from her young children. This morning, I woke up to the news that they have now been moved off the Australian mainland to an island prison — again under cover of darkness. The children have once again been kept apart from their parents.
Those who would bemoan that “this is not who we are!” should be reminded by Aboriginal writers that Australia has been separating children from their parents since 1788. As has been said about Trump’s immigration policy, the cruelty is the point. The Australian government practically schooled the US in modern brutality. Apparently our Prime Minister, a self-professed Christian, never studied the Bible’s criteria for entering heaven (see Matthew 25:40).
The inhumane treatment, in the face of intense public scrutiny, should shock us profoundly. To what depths is the government willing to stoop when it comes to the countless, nameless others we will never read about in the news?
As impossible as it is for us to follow every single case, we can see Priya, Nades and their children. They show us what the reality of deportation looks like. They represent the gradual erosion of democracy — a systematic destruction of our collective humanity. It should never fail to shock us. Once it does, there is no longer any hope for us.
Feeling helpless, I called the Prime Minister’s office. I’m sorry to say that before last year, I had never lobbied a politician. But a friend who is not an Australian citizen told me firmly that my right to be represented in parliament is a privilege that I should never take for granted. This is how democracy is supposed to function.
I fear for what is likely to happen to this family on Wednesday, the final day of their reprieve. Just yesterday, our Home Affairs minister proclaimed that Australia did not “owe” them our protection. Deportation turns real human beings into pawns in a political game of chess.
The government is determined to show that there is not a single crack in their system, which might let the light in. Our leaders’ greatest power is their ability to crush hope — they would have us believe that granting leniency to Priya, Nades and their daughters will inspire boatloads of refugees to make the treacherous crossing into Australian waters. They would have us be afraid of this possibility.
But the plight of a single Tamil family reminds us of how unfounded this fear truly is.