Biloela's beloved three-year-old is medically evacuated from Christmas Island with sepsis

The Australian Government’s strict asylum seeker policies have forced a family to be separated as their youngest daughter battles sepsis of unknown origin in hospital.

Three-year-old Tharnicaa Murugappan was flown to Perth for urgent treatment yesterday, accompanied by her mother Priya, after two weeks of feeling unwell in Australia’s immigration detention centre on Christmas Island. The pair left behind husband and father Nades, and Tharnicaa’s five-year-old sister, Kopika.

Speaking to Channel Nine’s Today program today, a family friend of the Murugappans, Angela Fredericks, said that Priya told her last night via phone that Tharnicaa was “very distressed”.

“We were trying to distract her, I was actually doing a puppet show over the phone,” Fredericks told Today.

“For those girls, they’ve never been separated in their life.” – Angela Fredericks

According to Fredericks, Tharnicaa fell ill on May 25, but her mother says that detention staff brushed off requests for her to be taken to hospital, giving her paracetamol and ibuprofen, instead. It was not until her temperature passed 40 degrees celsius that she was given medical attention. Finally, when a chest X-ray came back with concerning results, Tharnicaa was placed on a medical evacuation flight from Christmas Island to Perth on Monday, before an ambulance took her to Perth Children’s Hospital for urgent treatment.

Now, Tharnicaa is being given intravenous antibiotics, while medical staff try to discover the source of her infection.

Fredericks said that this is the first time that the two sisters have ever been separated.

“When I spoke to Kopika last night, she was telling me how her little sister had been taken on a plane. For those girls, they’ve never been separated in their life. I know for Kopika she is very worried,” she said.

“They’re three and a half hours away by plane from each other, so just the cruelty and knowing as well for Tharnicaa, talking to her last night, when I was talking to Priya, she was in the background going, ‘Papa, papa, where is papa?'”

The beloved family from Biloela

The Murugappan family‘s case is widely known in Australia. They are the Tamil family from Biloela, who have captured the hearts of both their local community and the wider Australian community. Both Priya and Nadesalingam (also known as Nades) left Sri Lanka during the civil war and arrived, separately, in Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013. They sought asylum and were put on temporary bridging visas while their applications to stay in Australia as refugees were assessed.

Priya and Nades were married in 2014 and they settled in Biloela, a rural town in Central Queensland.

They legalised their traditional Tamil wedding with a ceremony at the Biloela Court House in 2014. Their two daughters were born in the town, where they rented a house. Nades volunteered at the local St Vincent de Paul opportunity shop before getting a job at Teys meatworks. They began to build a new home and life for themselves, free from the dangers of their Sri Lankan homeland. Their daughters Kopika (who is now five) and Tharunicaa became part of the local community, who welcomed them.

Over three years, the family and their local community in Biloela have continued to fight for the family’s return.

Then, more than three years after they settled in Biloela, Priya’s bridging visa expired. The following morning, at 5am on March 5, 2018, Australian Border Force immigration officers and police arrived at the family’s home, told them that their visas had expired and that they were being deported. They were initially taken to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation facility in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, and were transferred to Christmas Island Detention Centre in August, 2019.

In 2019, Marie Austin, who is part of the #hometobilo campaign that began with a group of Biloela residents who came together to do whatever they could to help Nades, Priya and their girls stay in Australia, told Eternity that she longed for the family to be allowed to return to Biloela. She described members of the group were “just community members who know this family and see the injustice of their situation.”

Austin said many people in Biloela’s Christian community have joined the fight to have Priya and Nades returned home, and have done everything they can think of to raise awareness of their friends’ situation. As for herself, Marie says she heard a sermon on the the Good Samaritan at her local Baptist church and “just felt like I needed to follow through on this feeling that I could help this family in some way”.

Over three years, the family and their local community in Biloela, along with various humanitarian groups and the family’s lawyers, have continued to fight for the family’s return – an arduous legal process. The most recent decision was earlier this year, with the court upholding a previous ruling that Tharnicaa had not been afforded ‘procedural fairness’ – despite the government’s appeal. Just one small win in an ongoing battle.

And at every step, the family have drawn attention to the effect that Australia’s harsh asylum seeker policies have on the lives of real families.

Scott Morrison’s reign over the lives of people seeking asylum

The Murugappan family has faced many hurdles in their attempt to make a new home in Australia. But there is one politician who has had a hand in them all – from visa restrictions to detention, from legal battles to Medevac restrictions. That politician is the current Prime Minister and former Immigration Minister (September 2013 to December 2014), Scott Morrison.

When the Coalition Government was elected in 2013, it cemented what were essentially bipartisan efforts to deter people from seeking asylum in Australia by boat. The Coalition took a firm stance that anyone seeking asylum who arrived by boat – regardless of whether they were found to be genuine refugees who had no other means of seeking safety – would never be resettled in Australia.

Vowing to “turn back the boats” – ie. turn back or tow vessels carrying people seeking safety to their place of departure – then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison rebranded immigration as a border protection issue and began using the term “illegal arrivals” to describe people who sought asylum as per international law (to which Australia was a signatory).

Refugee advocates criticised the Coalition’s rhetoric and policies targetting people who arrived by boat, pointing out that people who seek asylum in Australia and arrive by boat have historically been found to be more likely to be assessed as genuine and granted refugee status than those who arrive by air – but to no end.

In January 2014, Morrison announced that he would no longer provide weekly briefings to the media about people arriving by boat and would instead only hold media conferences on an “as needs basis”. Journalists were first deterred by large, non-refundable fees, and then banned from visiting detention centres. Visiting officials were not allowed to take photographs or video footage.

A UNHCR study found that 88 per cent of people on Manus Island were suffering from depression.

In December 2014, Immigration Minister Morrison passed the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill with the help of a handful of crossbench senators. One of them was newly elected Ricky Muir, who told the Senate, “I am forced into a corner to decide between a bad decision or a worse decision – a position which I do not wish on my worst enemies.” Muir said he believed the only way people would be released from Australia’s immigration detention centres was if the bill passed.

Amongst other things, the legislation gave Morrison the power to push any asylum seeker boat back into the sea, to block an asylum seeker from ever making a protection claim on the ill-defined grounds of “character” or “national interest” without giving his reasons, to detain people without charge, and deport them to any country he chose. It removed access to the Refugee Review Tribunal for people who arrived on boats and classed them as “fast track applicants”, allowing those who were excluded no recourse to an in-person appeal, only a paper review.

In 2016, a UNHCR study found that 88 per cent of people on Manus Island were suffering from depression, anxiety and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. In March 2018, the UN’s Special Rapporteur specified Australia’s immigration laws as one area where “regressive measures” were having a “chilling effect” on human rights defenders. That same year, in November, a United Nations working group said Australia’s detention of a man seeking asylum, Edris Cheraghi, was arbitrary, and in contravention of international human rights laws and called for immediate changes to Australian law.

In February 2018, the Australian Parliament passed the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2018 – commonly known as the Medevac Bill. The bill was passed after a vicious political debate, during which the government expressed concerns the bill could lead to weakened borders and national security.

The bill provided an independent process for sick refugees and asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore detention centres to receive medical care in Australia, when needed because it isn’t available on Manus Island or Nauru. Previous to this, medical evacuations were allowed at the discretion of the Australian Government’s Home Affairs Minister with the only recourse to appeal a denial being a lengthy court process.

Amendments to the bill gave the minister 72 hours to assess a transfer referral which, if he or she refused, would be sent to an independent medical panel. The panel could override a minister’s refusal on health grounds, but the minister has the final veto if there are security issues surrounding the patient.

A total of 13 people seeking asylum who have arrived by boat have died in Australia’s offshore detention centres to date.

Immediately following the passing of the Medevac Bill, the Government reopened the Christmas Island detention centre (that it had closed late in 2018) “both to deal with the prospect of arrivals, as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers”.

In December 2019, despite appeals to the contrary by medical professionals, refugee advocates, and Christian and community leaders, the Medevac laws that passed earlier that year were successfully repealed by the Morrison government, with the deciding vote cast by crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie. Lambie reached a deal with the government that she said “can not disclose” due to “national security reasons”.

Heading into the 2019 election, the Coalition Government celebrated how their policies had “stopped the boats” and “stopped the deaths at sea”. The truth was that the people seeking asylum in Australia who had travelled by boat had continued to arrive, albeit at greatly reduced numbers, and that the numbers of people seeking asylum in Australia has swelled to record numbers – with greater numbers of asylum seekers now seeking asylum by plane.

A total of 13 people seeking asylum who have arrived by boat have died in Australia’s offshore detention centres to date. The inquiry into the death of Hamid Khazaei showed that he died as a direct result of the Australian Government’s refusal to follow medical orders.