Minister defends family’s $6.7m detention in Leigh Sales grilling

Australia's Immigration minister Alex Hawke has defended the extraordinary amount of taxpayers' money spent to keep a Sri Lankan family in detention, despite growing pressure to let them return to their community in Queensland.

The Tamil asylum-seeker Murugappan family who have been detained on Christmas Island for the past two years were allowed to reunite on Tuesday after the youngest daughter was medically evacuated with her mother to Perth last week.

With the government facing growing calls to end the detention of the girls Tharnicaa, 4, and Kopika, 6 – who were born in Australia – and their parents, the Immigration Minister moved yesterday to allow them to be reunited in Western Australia where Tharnicaa is being treated for pneumonia and sepsis.

Father Nades and Kopika of the Biloela family boarding a plane bound for Perth on Tuesday. Source: AAP
Father Nades and Kopika of the Biloela family boarding a plane bound for Perth on Tuesday. Source: AAP

Appearing on ABC's 7.30 program on Tuesday night, Mr Hawke sought to justify the harsh and expensive treatment of the family.

"According to senate estimates, the cost of detaining the family on Christmas Island from August 2019 to January this year was $6.7 million, including $2.3 million for detention, food, cleaning and school costs, $1.2 million for travel costs and $100,000 for medical costs plus others," said host Leigh Sales.

"Who is the contractor running up that money for a family of four for food training and school?"

For less than 18 months, "that's a lot of money right? $6.7 million dollars."

In response, Mr Hawke conceded the cost of border protection is high but said it was "money well spent".

"The cost of not having a border regime is much higher in human life," he said.

When pressed on why it was so expensive for a family of four, the minister said operating facilities in remote parts of Australia is expensive.

"We don't make any bones about that ... It is money well spent in border protection."

'How is that not cruel?'

Mt Hawke, who with the stroke of a pen could exercise his ministerial power to allow the family to return to their community in the rural Queensland town of Biloela where locals have campaigned to have them back, was pressed on whether the government's position was cruel.

Australia's tough border regime largely has bipartisan support, but its controversial offshore detention program has drawn criticism from the United Nations over human rights violations.

The Tamil family at Christmas Island airport. Source: AAP
There is growing pressure on the government over its cruel treatment of the family. Source: AAP

Sales asked the immigration minister if it was cruel to specifically persecute those who arrived in the country by boat.

“The policy is sending potentially legitimate refugees home to countries where they could face persecution, torture or even death because of the method of their travel. How is that not cruel?” she asked.

Mr Hawke refuted the characterisation, saying Australia adhered to its international obligations to asylum seekers.

“Well, no, that is actually not right. So if someone is found to engage Australia's protection obligations, we have to take account of it,” he argued.

No visa for Biloela family forthcoming

The family’s case to be granted asylum in Australia and not to be deported continues go through the court system. “At each stage” they have found to not be entitled to protection, Mr Hawke said.

Protestors holding placards outside Federal Court in Melbourne in 2019. Source: Getty
Protesters holding placards outside the Federal Court in Melbourne in 2019. Source: Getty

In Tuesday's statement announcing the family would be allowed to reunite in detention in Perth, the immigration minister said there was no move towards a visa.

"Today's decision does not create a pathway to a visa," Mr Hawke said on Tuesday.

"I will consider at a future date whether to lift the statutory bar presently preventing members of the family from reapplying for temporary protection, for which they have been previously rejected."

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