Small Town Rallies After Asylum Seeker Family Carried off in Dawn Raid

Tamil asylum seekers Nadesalingam and Priya and their Australian-born daughters, nine-month-old Dharuniga and two-year-old Kopig, who were taken into immigration detention after a dawn raid on 5 March

The close-knit community of Biloela in central Queensland has been shocked by an early morning Australian Border Force raid on a Sri Lankan asylum seeker family – including two Australian-born children – over a visa expired by a single day.

Husband and wife Nadesalingam and Priya and their Australia-born daughters, nine-month-old Dharuniga and two-year-old Kopiga, were forcibly taken, without warning, into immigration detention in Melbourne, more than 1,500km from their home.

The family has been told they face imminent deportation.

Australian Border Force officials, accompanied by police and Serco guards arrived at the family’s home at 5am on Monday 5 March. The family said they were given 10 minutes to pack and driven to Gladstone airport where they were flown to Melbourne.

They remain in immigration detention in Melbourne. They said when they were taken into detention they were told to sign documents assenting to their “voluntary removal” and told if they did not sign them, they would be denied access to a phone, and forcibly deported separately.

On Tuesday afternoon they signed the papers but have said their signatures were not voluntary, but made under unfair duress.

The Guardian put all these allegations to the Department of Home Affairs in a detailed list of questions. A spokesperson said the family’s asylum application had “been comprehensively assessed by the department, various tribunals and courts”.

“They have consistently been found not to meet Australia’s protection obligations.

“Foreign nationals who do not hold a valid visa and who have exhausted all outstanding avenues to remain in Australia are expected to depart voluntarily to their country of citizenship,” the spokesperson said. “Those unwilling to depart voluntarily will be subject to detention and removal from Australia.

“All detention and removal operations are carried out in a way that ensures the safety and security of detainees. Appropriate consideration is given to the needs of any children involved.”

The family had been living in Biloela for four years. Nadesalingam and Priya married in 2014, having arrived separately in Australia by boat seeking asylum in 2012 and 2013, in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s brutal 26-year civil war.

Nadesalingam had links to the former separatist army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Former cadre face continued persecution in Sri Lanka, international observers such at the UN and Amnesty say.

Nadesalingam’s application for protection has been rejected by Australia, and his appeal options extinguished. Legal avenues remain open for Priya to appeal against her protection application rejection.

In their years in Australia, Nadesalingam and Priya had built a life and a family. Nadesalingam worked at the Biloela meatworks.

Priya’s bridging visa expired on 4 March but she was in regular communication with a case worker from the Department of Home Affairs before that date to have it renewed. She said she had been told she would be receiving a new visa by mail from the department.

Residents of Biloela took to social media to express their support for the family, and their shock at their sudden removal. The community has started a change.org appeal asking that they be allowed to stay.

“Omg, these are just a lovely family, have them in my prayers for a speedy and safe return to our community here in Biloela,” Michelle Horrocks wrote.

Rex Gruspe lived next door to the family, and said they were good neighbours.“We happened to see each other when I [was] going to work and Priya taking the children for a walk, Nadesh is always happy to help when he saw me doing DIY in the house.”

Mike Tye was a former neighbour of the family. “They were shy, but friendly and generous people who would share what little they had,” he wrote online. “I also worked with Nadesh at the plant, he is one of many hard-working refugees striving to provide for their family. These are the sort of people who deserve to become citizens.”

Katrina Mears wrote on Facebook: “Omg, they are such a beautiful family and integrated so well into Biloela. This is a shame and a travesty.”

Another friend in Biloela, who did not want to be named publicly, told the Tamil Refugee Council the family had a lot of support in the community.

“Everyone is shocked and outraged about the way they just came and swooped in and took the whole family. People are just appalled that this is happening in Australia, that people can be treated this way.

“Everyone who had anything to do with this family wrote letters to the minister for immigration before Christmas asking for the family to be granted permanent protection. We can’t understand why this would happen.”

Priya told the Tamil Refugee Council by phone from detention that Australian Border Force officials knocked on the door of the family’s home at 5am.

“They said we were being taken to Melbourne detention centre. I grabbed a bag of clothes but we didn’t have time to pack anything else. We were given 10 minutes.”

Priya said she and Nadesalingam were driven in separate vans to Gladstone airport. The children travelled with Priya but were not allowed to sit with her, despite their distress and her pleas, she said.

“I asked the guards, ‘If it were your children would you treat them this way, or is it only because we are refugees?’ I was humiliated. I was made to feel worthless. I will never forget that experience.”

Priya said her children were distressed and disoriented by their continued detention.

“They don’t understand what is happening. My daughter is asking to go to her friend’s house in Biloela.”

It is unclear if and when the family might be deported from Australia. They have not yet been issued with a notice of intention to remove, usually the final formal step before a removal.

Another Tamil asylum seeker, Shantaruban, whose claim for protection was denied in Australia, was deported back to Sri Lanka last month. He has reported consistent harassment by security officials since being returned.

United Nations bodies and Amnesty International have expressed serious concern about the forcible return of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, especially those with suspected or known links to the LTTE.

Amnesty International’s latest annual report, published on 22 February said in Sri Lanka “reports of torture and other ill-treatment in detention continued”.

The Sri Lankan government has consistently denied mistreatment is occurring.

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