Australia urged to free family after girl, 3, falls ill in detention

Australia protests

The medical plight of a three-year old girl who has spent almost all her life in Australian immigration detention facilities has galvanised opposition to the country’s off shore 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 in 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 to deport her and her family.

Known as the “Biloela family” – named after the regional Queensland town that welcomed them and campaigned for their release – they have been held 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 them and their two daughters, Tharnicaa and her sister, Kopika, five. During this period, the girls have lived in detention and guards have taken them to school.

The residents of Biloela say they want the family to return, and have called on immigration ministers to release them from detention.

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 unwell for 10 days without adequate medical care. Her father and sister were not allowed to travel with her.

The latest development has reignited opposition to the family’s detention. A friend told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation her “blood was boiling” when she heard how the family had 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.

Before their detention, Priya and Nades had lived in Biloela for three years, with Nades working in an abattoir and for a local charity. The girls were born in Australia.

In 2018, the parents’ claims for refugee status were rejected and the Australian Border Force placed them and the girls in detention.

In 2019, the family was on board a plane due to deport them to Sri Lanka when a last-minute legal victory found that 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 their next legal move.

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

The detention centre closed in 2018 but it was re opened the following year , and for the past 18 months it has housed only Tharnicaa and her family. The government has spent more than A$6m (£3.3m) since January to keep them in detention, or on trying to deport them.

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”.

Labor ’s shadow immigration minister, Kristina Keneally , said : “It’s time to bring this sorry saga to an end. Bring them home to Biloela. ”

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