About 11pm on election night in the central Queensland town of Biloela, Angela Fredericks phoned her absent friend.
“Priya, you are coming home,” she said.
Few people had more at stake in the federal election than Tamil asylum seekers Nades and Priya Murugappan, and their daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa.
It is four years since the family were taken from their home in Biloela and placed in immigration detention; and the people of the small country town have been campaigning for their return since.
The Coalition had been steadfast that it would not allow them permanent residency because they arrived in Australia by boat. Their deportation was delayed by a last-minute injunction in 2019. They are now in community detention in Perth, but are not allowed to leave the state.
Labor had promised to grant the family a visa and allow them to return to Biloela. For the Murugappan family, the election would produce an all-or-nothing result.
Fredericks, a psychologist in Biloela who has helped run the campaign to get the family home, and other community members spent the day handing out how-to-vote cards in the town, in the Queensland seat of Flynn.
“People were voting Labor for the very first time, it filled us with tremendous hope,” Fredericks said.
“It was a very tense wait, a very tense evening. There was a huge group of us all together. It was just so nice to be anxious together. We knew how much was riding on that election yesterday and in the end, we could go to bed last night knowing that they were safe.”
Fredericks rang Priya in Perth when the result was confirmed. Nades, who had been working, arrived home during Scott Morrison’s concession speech.
The very special moment Nades arrives home from work to community detention in Perth & greets his wife Priya.
(Sound on). pic.twitter.com/dps2eZ3k0W
— Rebekah Holt (@rebekahhlt) May 21, 2022
“To get to that last night was so incredibly special,” Fredericks said. “We’ve never seen their smiles so big, we’ve never seen their faces look so relaxed – the toll of 20-plus years of trauma falling away as they actually finally processing that they are safe.”
The family has legal action afoot but their situation can be resolved simply at the discretion of the new immigration minister. Fredericks said they were confident and had been given assurances by Labor that allowing them home would be “one of the first” priorities for the incoming government.
The situation is complicated by the election defeat of Labor’s immigration spokesperson, Kristina Keneally. It is unclear who will take the portfolio and a cabinet is unlikely to be announced until the incoming prime minister, Anthony Albanese, returns from the Quad meeting in Japan.
Fredericks said she hoped the family could return in time for the Biloela Flourish multicultural festival next month.
“We’re honestly just getting through today first,” she said.
“I guess our first step is just getting those plane tickets. We just want their feet back here in Bilo.”