Biloela Tamil family exceptionalism

OPINION | Tim Lo Surdo | Sept 2019

They’re ‘good’ people. They work hard. They contributed to the community. They lived in regional Australia. Their children are ‘Australian born’.

In this country, the humanity of refugees, immigrants and people of colour is conditional. It’s something we have to win, fight for, prove we deserve.

The Biloela Tamil family is a perfect example. Nades volunteered at St Vincent de Paul. He helped neighbours with home renovations. Priya was active in community groups and regularly made curries for local hospital staff.

And the support for this family, particularly from those who wholeheartedly support Australia’s detention regime, has been based on this. Barnaby Joyce said the family were “good citizens” calling this “a special case”. Alan Jones called them “good, hard-working people”.

Can you imagine the response if Nades and Priya weren’t ‘exceptional’? They would have likely already been deported, and it would have happened quietly.

In fact, we don’t need to imagine it because it’s happened dozens of times in the past. The Biloela Tamil family’s situation is not an aberration, it’s business as usual. Callous cruelty, families torn apart, international law violations – this is the modus operandi of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. It’s rooted in racism and Australia’s 231 year history of colonisation.

So if the situation is not new, why has the response of the public and key political figures to the Biloela case been so different?

I think the answer lies in how our system doesn’t see people of colour and First Nations people as human to begin with. Our differences – skin colour, language, cultural practices, religion – are viewed as inferior by a society that evaluates everything with a white gaze.

And so if we’re seen as deficient from the beginning – a burden, costly imposition, national security threat – it becomes acceptable to deny us rights that are inviolable for everyone else.

It becomes acceptable to imprison children in offshore island prisons, send people seeking asylum back to danger, demolish 800 year old Djab Wurrung sacred birthing trees for a highway, vote for a political party that wants to ban a religion, or steal Aboriginal children from their families.

To be seen as worthy of rights that are the automatic birthright of others, people of colour need to be ‘exceptional’ – the ‘model minority’ that works hard, assimilates, never has an opinion, and is always understanding with boundless reserves of patience. Our day-to-day is defined by constant assessment and evaluation against this double standard that no one else is held to. Our lives are a never-ending job interview.

For many people of colour, excellence is not optional, it’s simply a survival strategy.

That is what the Biloela Tamil family did. They were ‘exemplary’ citizens who worked hard, spent time volunteering, actively contributed to the community, and lived in a regional town. Mediocrity would have been a death sentence for Priya and Nades. Because mediocrity is a privilege only ever afforded to white people.

And the brutal, perverse irony is that even though Priya and Nades followed the unspoken rules – did everything that was asked of them and more – it still wasn’t enough. Our government has held them for nearly a year and a half in detention, they’ve spent months in isolation, their children have suffered painful health issues, they’ve been imprisoned on Christmas Island, and now they’re staring down the barrel of deportation back to danger.

Our humanity should be intrinsic, something we have by virtue of being human. It should not be something we have to fight for, prove we deserve or debate. We need to turn up for every refugee, regardless of whether they meet the arbitrary ‘good citizen’ goalposts our political elite set. Because all people are deserving of safety, dignity and a meaningful life for themselves and their family.