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

Another example of how the personal trumps the official narratives by highlighting inhumanity (as was the case with Alan Kurdi or the Kamloops residential school deaths):

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 living in a country that heavily discourages illegal migration, so the government sent them to a faraway 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 in a hospital after a lengthy illness. Supporters of the family say she was given only painkillers for nearly two weeks at the remote government detention facility while her fever rose, and she now suffers from pneumonia, which led to her blood infection.

Tharnicaa and her family, often called the “Biloela family” among Australians, are the most high-profile asylum seekers in Australia. In a country that is inured to criticism from international human rights organizations over its “draconian” immigration policy, the detentions of Tharnicaa and her older sister have drawn outrage.

Tharnicaa’s illness has renewed calls for the family to be released from detention and prompted candlelight vigils and protests across Australia. Over half a million people have signed a petition demanding the family be returned to Biloela, a town of about 5,800 that is 260 miles northwest of Brisbane. Politicians from both sides have called for the family to be released from detention while maintaining support for the hard-line immigration policies that put them there. Karen Andrews, the home affairs minister, has been so inundated with calls about the case that her voicemail specifies that anyone wanting 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 in the Christmas Island detention center, which is 1,000 miles north of the Australian mainland. The two sisters, who both were born in Australia, are the only two children currently being held 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 ineligible as the children of “unlawful maritime arrivals.”

The case is unusual in that the small rural town of Biloela, which has been leading the fight to get the family back, is a politically conservative place. But when the family was whisked away by immigration officials in 2018 after their claims for asylum were rejected and their temporary visas expired, locals weren’t thinking about politics. This case “wasn’t about politics or asylum seekers, it was about our friends,” said Simone Cameron, a Biloela local and 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, supporters of the family said, Ms. Nadesalingam and Mr. Murugappan started raising concerns with International Health and Medical Services, the private company that provides health care for the Christmas Island detention center, after Tharnicaa developed a fever on May 24. Requests for antibiotics were ignored, and the family was only given over-the-counter painkillers and a fact sheet about common flu symptoms, even as her fever increased and she started vomiting.

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

“It was the pure negligence of them not actually giving Tharnicaa antibiotics that led to her developing pneumonia,” a family friend, Angela Fredericks, said in a phone interview on Thursday. She added that the family had to “beg and fight” for Tharnicaa to be evacuated to the mainland.

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

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: