In Australia, a New Look at Immigration: ‘It’s About Our Friends’

MELBOURNE, Australia – The 3 year old girl was born in Australia in a tiny town called Biloela, far from the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne. But her parents were asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and lived in a country that is highly discouraging from illegal migration, so the government sent them to a distant island while deciding their fate.

This week the girl, Tharnicaa Murugappan, returned to mainland Australia, but not for the reason her family had hoped – she was medically evacuated to Perth, where she is now battling a blood infection after a long illness in a hospital. Family supporters say she was given pain medication only for almost two weeks in the remote government detention center while her fever rose and she now has pneumonia, which led to her blood infection.

Tharnicaa and her family, often referred to as the “Biloela family” by Australians, are the best known asylum seekers in Australia. In a country criticized by international human rights organizations for its “draconian” immigration policy, the imprisonment of Tharnicaa and her older sister has sparked outrage.

Tharnicaa’s illness has renewed calls for the family to be released from custody and has sparked vigils and candlelight protests across Australia. Over half a million people have signed a petition calling for the family to be brought back to Biloela, a city of about 5,800 residents 260 miles northwest of Brisbane. Politicians on both sides have called for the family’s release from custody while supporting the tough immigration policies that have brought them there. Home Secretary Karen Andrews was so overwhelmed with calls about the case that it was stated on her mailbox that anyone wishing to speak to her about it should do so in writing.

The Murugappan family – mother Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam, father Nadesalingam Murugappan, Tharnicaa and her 6-year-old sister Kopika – are the only people held at the Christmas Island Detention Center, 1,000 miles north of mainland Australia. The two sisters, both born in Australia, are the only two children currently in immigration detention in Australia. Unlike the United States, Australia does not automatically grant citizenship to children born in the country, and the two girls are not eligible as children of “illegitimate maritime arrivals”.

The case is unusual in that the small rural town of Biloela, which leads the fight to recapture the family, is a politically conservative place. But when the family was taken away by immigration in 2018 after their asylum applications were denied and their temporary visas expired, locals didn’t think about politics. In this case it was “not about politics or asylum seekers, but about our friends,” said Simone Cameron, a local from Biloela and a friend of the family.

The family has been held on Christmas Island since 2019 as they fight government efforts to deport them to Sri Lanka.

Late last month, family supporters said Ms. Nadesalingam and Mr. Murugappan had started reporting concerns to International Health and Medical Services, the private health care provider for the Christmas Island detention center, after Tharnicaa caught a fever on May 24. Requests for antibiotics were ignored and the family was only given over-the-counter pain relievers and a leaflet on common flu symptoms, even when her fever rose and she began to vomit.

According to the supporters, Tharnicaa was hospitalized on June 6 on Christmas Island. The next day, she and her mother were evacuated to a hospital on the Perth mainland. She is recovering, but the doctors are still trying to find the cause of the infection.

“It was sheer negligence that they did not actually use Tharnicaa antibiotics that resulted in pneumonia,” a family friend, Angela Fredericks, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. She added that the family would have to “beg and fight” for Tharnicaa to be evacuated to the mainland.

In previous statements, Home Secretary Karen Andrews has defended Tharnicaa’s treatment, saying that she will be evacuated to Perth as soon as recommended. International Health and Medical Services did not respond to requests for comment.

Tharnicaa’s parents, belonging to the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka, fled the violence in their home country, where civil war raged for decades, before ending in 2009. Visas allowed them to live in Biloela, where they met, married and the two girls got.

Their asylum applications have been denied on the grounds that Mr Murugappan has been able to return to Sri Lanka three times and the war in Sri Lanka has ended, which means the risks for them have decreased. After Ms. Nadesalingam’s temporary visa expired in 2018, the family were sent to a Melbourne detention center and then flown to Christmas Island in 2019, where they are the only inmates at the facility, which was built for 400 people. The government tried twice to deport her.

The government has repeatedly said that staying with the family will encourage other asylum seekers and smugglers to reach the country by boat – an often fatal journey.

But that “doesn’t mean we lock up two children for just one point,” said Carina Ford, the family’s immigration attorney.

“They pose no threat to our sovereignty,” said Anthony Albanese, leader of the opposition Australian Labor Party, at a press conference on Thursday. “Our sovereignty is not diminished by the fact that we take care of these young girls who were born here and their mum and dad.”

Proponents continue to urge the government to reintroduce the family into the community at the Minister’s discretion. “You had a lovely peaceful life in Biloela and could do it again tomorrow if those in power decide,” said Ms. Cameron, the family friend.

Tharnicaa will be 4 years old on Saturday, most likely in the hospital. It would be her fourth birthday in custody.