Don’t cross the fence. Crossing the fence means AFP jurisdiction, and that means prison.
That warning runs through my head as I trudge through a muddy field near a private Melbourne Airport runway to a late-night demonstration. Protesters are arriving to prevent Sri Lankan Tamil couple Priya and Nades, and their two Australian-born girls from being deported to Sri Lanka.
After three years living in the Queensland town of Biloela, the family have suffered AFP-Border Force morning raids, more than a year in on-shore detention, and various health issues. The youngest child, Tharnicaa, had rotting teeth borne from sun-deficiency. A week ago their final appeal was blocked.
Now, a collection of Melbourne-based refugees, friends, and advocates have made the dash after the “Home To Bilo” group — set up by the family’s adoring neighbours in Queensland — sent out the following: “BILOELA FAMILY DEPORTATION ATTEMPT UNDERWAY. Please go to Melbourne Airport now and check Facebook for updates. Do not reply.”
This part of the airport we’re on is used by private charter company Skytraders. While typically engaged with flying scientists to and from Antarctica, the company also signed a $63 million deal with Home Affairs early last year to ferry people seeking seeking asylum interstate and, apparently, out of Australia to countries they sought asylum from.
Now, all that stands between the tired, wet, angry protesters and one reportedly distraught family on a plane from being deported against their will, is about three to four AFP officers, that aforementioned barbed-wire fence, and a collection of security on the tarmac.
There’s also a small, human-sized hole in the fence, although when it got there, well, who’s to say?
The 50 or so protesters have brought their own signs — both professional and very, very hand-made — and cut-outs of #HomeToBilo’s unofficial mascot, a cockatoo. The group is mid-chant of “free, free, the refugees”, as I arrive. As the night rolls on, chants are interrupted only by intermittent updates, thank-yous, and calls for Skytraders’ CEP Norman Mackay to have a heart.
Their calls are supported by hundreds around the country who tweet, post on Facebook and make appeals to Immigration Minister David Coleman, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and opposition spokesperson Kristina Keneally.
— Nic Holas (@nicheholas) August 29, 2019
Of course, none of this matters when the plane — which has a tiny Australian flag printed on the tip — starts just rolling onto the tarmac. The Bileola family is detained on-board. The crowd rallies as close as they can before one man makes a break for the fence hole. The man’s caught and pushed back, quickly, but the crowd continues to swarm and he takes another shot, getting further through this time before being yanked back by police and “de-arrested” by comrades.
It’s at this point — when the family is on board but not yet departed — that I get a phone call from Rebekah Holt, who, long-time Crikey readers would know, has been instrumental in reporting on the family’s multiple abuses at MITA. Advocates and lawyers have spent the night frantically making calls to prevent what seems like the inevitable.
She tells me that lawyers are trying to deliver an injunction, and if the plane hasn’t departed they can do it physically. She asks if I can deliver the message to the group.
The cheery-ish news is cut short roughly five minutes later when, just before 11pm, the plane moves out onto some faraway runway.
Lawyers, we suppose, may have missed their shot. There are more tears and more speeches attempting to bring some positivity to the group.
Minutes later there’s more news. A final reprieve. The family’s lawyers have secured an injunction from a judge via phone. The family must stay in Australia until midday today, Friday August 30. The plane must stop in Darwin. A court will hear their case in the morning. Much like the Muslim ban in the US, human rights lawyers become real-time airport heroes.
As I leave, I see security fixing the hole in the fence.
Update: On Friday morning a Federal Court judge agreed to give the Biloela family’s lawyers an injunction until Wednesday next week. They will argue younger child Tharunicaa still has the means to receive protection.