The Morrison government has granted three members of the Murugappan family bridging visas amid mounting pressure for them to be released from community detention.
The immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said he had used his powers under the Migration Act to grant members of the family three-month bridging visas which provide work and study rights.
They are expected to remain in Perth while the youngest member of the family, Tharnicaa, receives medical care.
Then-three-year-old Tharnicaa was flown to Perth about two weeks ago with a blood infection caused by untreated pneumonia. Her mother, Priya, said she spent close to 10 days trying to get the required medical care on Christmas Island.
Hawke said on Wednesday he granted the bridging visas under section 195A of the Migration Act which allows the minister to intervene if it is in the public interest. He said the move was at the request of the family.
“This decision allows three members of the family to reside in the Perth community on bridging visas while the youngest child’s medical care, and the family’s legal matters, are ongoing,” Hawke said in a statement. “The fourth family member’s visa status is unchanged.”
Hawke said the family would “continue to have access to healthcare, support services, housing and schooling in the Perth community”.
Further details are being sought from Hawke’s office.
The three visas will last until late September and cover parents Priya and Nades as well as six-year-old Kopika. A visa has not been granted to Tharnicaa, who currently has a case before the courts. Tharnicaa not being granted a visa means the family will be unable to leave Perth.
The family’s lawyers are seeking more information on Tharnicaa’s visa status.
Family friend Angela Fredericks said it was a “huge step forward” in getting the family home to Biloela.
“While we welcome Priya, Nades and Kopika being granted bridging visas, we wonder what precisely is the minister’s objective in denying little Tharni one,” she said in a statement. “This family must stay together, and they need to be back in Biloela as soon as humanly possible.”
The government has not explained its reasons for leaving Tharnicaa’s status as community detention. A fact sheet published by the refugee council notes people in community detention are provided with housing, but that is not the case for those on bridging visas.
Labor’s shadow home affairs minister, Kristina Keneally, said she understood the reasoning behind not granting the visa was to give Tharnicaa access to ongoing medical care in Perth.
“The government’s contention is she needs to stay in community detention … to get the medical treatment she needs,” Keneally told ABC radio. “But we understand the family is hopeful this medical treatment can be provided in Queensland.”
Keneally hoped that allowing the family out of strict detention meant the government was a step closer to letting them return to Biloela. “Many Australians will welcome this and see this as the compassionate and appropriate response to this family, particularly the people of Biloela,” she said.
The move comes amid mounting public pressure and calls from within the Coalition to provide an exemption for the family which wants to return to the Queensland town of Biloela. The new Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, has recently expressed support for the family.
On Tuesday, Labor asked Joyce in question time whether he would use his position as deputy prime minister to allow the family to go home to Biloela. The leader of the house, Peter Dutton, successfully pushed for the question to be ruled out of order on the grounds the issue was not within Joyce’s ministerial responsibilities.
Priya and Nades Murugappan and their two Australian-born daughters, Kopika and Tharnicaa, had been held on Christmas Island since August 2019, after a court prevented them being deported to Sri Lanka.
Priya and Nades arrived in Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013, and all members of the family except Tharnicaa have exhausted their legal attempts to be granted refugee status.
The family was living and working in the community in Biloela until March 2018 when their visas expired.
Last week they moved into community detention in Perth after Hawke said the family would be allowed to reunite on the Australian mainland while the court process played out.
On Wednesday morning, the high court held that Australia’s immigration laws require unlawful non-citizens be held in immigration detention until they are removed from Australia or given a visa.
A majority of four high court justices – chief justice Susan Kiefel and justices Stephen Gageler, Patrick Keane and Simon Steward – overturned a decision of the federal court releasing a Syrian refugee because the government was neither processing a visa nor acting to remove him.
Detention – even for an indefinite period of time – is permitted by the Australian constitution because it could be necessary for the non-punitive purpose of segregation pending investigation and determination of any visa application or removal, the majority held.
Justices Michelle Gordon and Jacqueline Gleeson dissented, stating that “prolonged detention at the unconstrained discretion of the executive is not only harmful but unlawful and must be able to be remedied, without delay”. In a separate judgment, justice James Edelman agreed indefinite detention was unlawful.