‘Bring them home’: fresh calls for release of family in Australian detention centre

By Naaman Zhou

Three-year-old and her family held in immigration facility for years as government fights to deport them

The plight of a three-year old girl who has spent nearly her entire life in Australian immigration detention facilities has galvanised opposition to the country’s offshore detention system.

Tharnicaa Murugappan was evacuated to a children’s hospital on Monday where she was diagnosed with a blood infection and pneumonia, which she contracted on a remote island detention centre.

Tharnicaa was born in Australia but for more than three years the government has held her in detention as it fights deport her and her family.

Known by many in Australia as the “Biloela family” – named after the regional Queensland town that welcomed them and campaigned for their release – they have been held in some form of detention for more than 1,000 days.

Tharnicaa’s parents, Priya and Nades, fled the Sri Lankan civil war and had been living in the Queensland town until 2018, when the Australian government contacted them.

For the past three years, the authorities have been attempting to deport Priya, Nades, Tharnicaa and her sister Kopika, who is five. During this period, the two sisters have lived in detention and guards take them to school.

The residents of Biloela say they want the family to return, and have called on immigration ministers to release them. Advocates, lawyers and other politicians have repeatedly said the minister for immigration could release the family of four “with the stroke of a pen”. None have done so.

On Monday, Tharnicaa was airlifted to Perth children’s hospital from the detention centre on Christmas Island.

Doctors in Perth diagnosed her with a blood infection from suspected untreated pneumonia. She had been sick for 10 days – her symptoms include fever, dizziness and vomiting – without adequate medical care. Her father and sister were not allowed to travel with her.

— 💚🌏 Sarah Hanson-Young (@sarahinthesen8) June 7, 2021

The latest development in the family’s saga has reignited opposition to their detention. A friend of the family, Angela Fredericks, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation her “blood was boiling” as she heard how the family pleaded to have Tharnicaa taken to hospital.

Politicians from the opposition Labor party and the Australian Greens have repeatedly called for the family to be released.

The children have had health issues since they were first housed in the detention three years ago. Tharnicaa and Kopika became vitamin D deficient months after moving there, after being allowed outside for only half an hour a day. When Tharnicaa was two, some of her teeth rotted and she needed surgery to have two removed.

Before their detention, Priya and Nades lived in Biloela for three years. Nades worked in an abattoir and volunteered at a local charity. Tharnicaa and Kopika were born in Australia.

In 2018, Priya and Nades’s claims for refugee status were rejected and the Australian Border Force placed them and their children into detention.

In 2019, the family was onboard a plane deporting them to Sri Lanka when a last-minute legal victory found that the the government had denied the two children procedural fairness in attempting to remove them.

But instead of returning them home, the government placed the family in indefinite detention as they considered the next legal move.

Christmas Island formerly housed thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, who were held there after successive Australian governments declared that nobody who arrived by boat, including refugees fleeing persecution, would be allowed to settle in Australia.

The detention centre closed in 2018 but it was reopened the following year. For the past 18 months, it has housed only Tharnicaa and her family. The government has spent more than $6m since January to keep the family in detention, or trying to deport them.

A family friend, Simone Cameron, told the Guardian medical staff had treated Tharnicaa with only paracetamol and ibuprofen, despite Priya repeatedly asking them to prescribe antibiotics. Tharnicaa remains in Perth children’s hospital.

The Department of Home Affairs has strongly denied any inaction in its care of Tharnicaa, saying she was monitored daily and this was “consistent with medical advice”.

The former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who was in office when the family were first taken from their homes, said earlier this year that the family should be “back in Queensland”.

Labor’s shadow immigration minister, Kristina Keneally, visited the family recently on Christmas Island and called again for their release. “This family should not be in detention. They should be in the community,” she said.

“It’s time to bring this sorry saga, what we as a country are doing to these two little Australian-born girls to an end. Bring them home to Biloela, a town who wants and loves them.”