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My Dying Rural Town Would Have Been Desperate For The Tamil Family

Regional Australia needs families like Priya, Nadesalingam and their kids. So why are we spending hundreds of thousands to deport them?

I grew up in a tiny town in NSW. When I started Kindergarten at the local primary school in 1987, there were perhaps 100 kids enrolled. Composite classes were the norm; we had four teachers, including a teacher-librarian. I remember school as a vibrant environment where parents pitched in to launch a canteen, coach sporting teams and run regular busy bees during the holidays. Teachers played in the local tennis comp and came over for barbecues on the weekend. The whole town seemed to revolve around the school.

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READ MORE: Isolated And Watched: Tamil Family Speaks Out From Christmas Island

Twenty years later, student numbers had dropped significantly. To keep enrolments above 52 -- the magic number to avoid having teacher numbers cut to two -- the local community launched an initiative that saw local landholders rent out secondary residences on their properties for $1 a month. Dreamt up by local Christine Weston, who won the NSW Woman of the Year award in 2009 and now sits on the Board of Regional Development Australia, the idea was to attract young families to the town who would enrol their kids at the local school.

Locals rented out farmhouses on their properties for $1 a month in a bid to draw families to dwindling rural communities. (Image: Getty)

It worked -- and was soon adopted in other towns around the state. Trundle, a town in NSW’s west, had its $1 Farmhouse scheme depicted on 2012 ABC series Country Town Rescue. A website matching families with $1 rent farmhouses in regional areas is still in operation.

This story shows how communities have been forced to embrace novel ideas to help keep their communities alive. Schools are community hubs, as are sporting clubs and community groups and charities like the CWA. Regional

Australia knows that without them, communities die, and social isolation takes hold.

A 2017 fact sheet published by the National Rural Health Alliance outlines some of the stressors that are specific to rural life: “a greater prevalence of some chronic conditions and disability, and generally poorer health” as well as higher rates of smoking, risky drinking and illicit drug use. “There are fewer employment opportunities leading to lower incomes and less financial security. There is greater exposure and vulnerability to natural disasters, while rates of overcrowding, housing stress, and homelessness are higher.”

While rates of mental health are about the same in the city and the country, outcomes for people with mental illness in regional areas are much worse than larger population centres. Tragically, the rate of suicide in rural and regional areas is about 40 percent higher than major cities. The suicide rate in remote areas is almost twice that of major cities.

Many members of my family still live in small towns and communities in NSW and QLD. The exodus of young people to larger centres continues, exacerbated by the drought. (Image: Getty)

The social cohesion that can reduce the likelihood of suicide and harm relating to mental illness relies in part on healthy communities where people care about each other, are engaged with local issues and feel a sense of belonging.

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Many members of my family still live in small towns and communities in NSW and QLD. The exodus of young people to larger centres continues, exacerbated by the drought. It’s a journey I made years ago, as did my sister and many of our cousins. It’s a constant battle to keep these communities healthy and growing. Even in towns that appear to be thriving, it can be extremely difficult for local employers to fill vacancies.

It’s no wonder that the residents of Biloela are fighting to keep the Tamil family -- currently in detention on Christmas Island -- in Australia.

Priya and Nadesalingam fled Sri Lanka separately by boat in 2012 and 2013 respectively. They met in Australia, married in 2014, and settled in Biloela, a small town located 120 kilometres west of Gladstone in central Queensland. They had two daughters, Kopika, now four, and Tharunicaa, now two, and started a new life in regional Queensland.

Nades volunteered at the local Vinnies for a time and worked at the meatworks in Biloela. Priya looked after their young children and cooked curries for the doctors at the local hospital.

Regional Australia needs families like Priya, Nades and their daughters. (Image: AAP)

Priya, Nades and their children became valuable members of the Biloela community. And yet, in March 2018, the family found themselves the subject of a predawn raid. Dozens of Border Force officials forced the family out of their house and onto a plane that took them to Melbourne, where they spent the next 18 months in detention. The Biloela community was left in shock.

“Our neighbours have been taken and we want them back,” wrote Biloela local Chandra Roulston in the SMH.

The plight of the family is well-documented. The children’s health deteriorated as their supporters fought for their release. Now they await their fate after a dramatic week of late-night flights and last-minute court injunctions, the only residents of the recently reopened Christmas Island detention centre.

READ MORE: Deportation Of Tamil Family Delayed Until Next Wednesday

READ MORE: Biloela Tamil Family Moved To Christmas Island In Dead Of Night

With most legal avenues exhausted, their case lies on the status of their youngest daughter, whose refugee status has never been considered in court.

Australia’s deplorable refugee policy aside; for me, the family’s refugee status isn’t even important. It’s shocking that there are no avenues for the Biloela community to sponsor Priya and Nades. They contribute to the community. The local school needs their kids. It should be straightforward.

Regional Australia is struggling. Politicians are always banging on about increasing investment in rural areas and coming up with schemes to encourage migrants to the country. Here we have just that -- a hard-working young family who’d made the brave leap to start a new life in rural Australia.

They should be held up as examples of how migration can help regional Australia. Instead, the government is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in its efforts to send the family back to a country from which they fled in defiance of the community that wants them back.

It just doesn’t add up.