In a country that has come under criticism for its migrant policies, a case involving a 3-year prisoner who was hospitalized has sparked outrage.
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – A 3-year-old girl was born in Australia in a small town called Biloela, not far from the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne. But his parents were asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and were living in a country that highly discourages illegal migration, so the government, deciding their fate, sent them to a distant island.
This week the girl, Thornika Murugappan, returned to mainland Australia, but not as her family expected – she was medically flown to Perth, where she is battling a blood transfusion in hospital after a prolonged illness. Supporters of the family say she was only given painkillers for about two weeks while her fever soared, and she is now suffering from pneumonia, which caused an infection in her blood.
Thornika and her family, often referred to among Australians as the “Billoella family”, are some of the most high-profile asylum seekers in Australia. In a country that is facing criticism from international human rights organizations.Harsh“The immigration policy, the detention of Thornika and her older sister has sparked outrage.
Thornika’s illness sparked renewed calls for the family to be released from detention and prompted candlelighting and protests across Australia. More than half a million people have signed a petition calling for the family to be returned to Billowella, a town of about 5,800 that is 260 miles northwest of Brisbane. Politicians on both sides have called for the family to be released from detention, while maintaining support for strict immigration policies that keep them there. The Minister of Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, is so inundated with calls about the matter that her voicemail specifies that anyone who wants to talk to her about it must do so in writing.
The Murugappan family – mother Kokilapathampriya Nadesalingam, father Nadesalingam Murugappan, Tharnika and their 5-year-old sister, Kopika – are the only people held at the Christmas Island detention center, 1,000 miles north of the Australian mainland. The two sisters, who were both born in Australia, are the only two children currently held in immigration custody 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 children of “illegal sea arrivals”.
The case is unusual in that the small rural town of Biloela, which is leading the fight to get the family back, is a politically conservative place. But when the family was turned away by immigration officials in 2018 after their claims of asylum were rejected and their temporary visas expired, locals weren’t thinking about politics. This case was “not 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 placed on Christmas Island since 2019, as they fight government efforts to send them to Sri Lanka.
Late last month, supporters of the family said Nadesalingam and Murugappan, along with International Health and Medical Services, a private company providing health care for the Christmas Island detention center, after Tharnica developed fever on 24 May. began to express concern. Requests for antibiotics were ignored, and the family was given only over-the-counter pain relievers and a fact sheet about common flu symptoms, even though her fever rose and she began vomiting.
According to supporters, Thornika was hospitalized on Christmas Island on June 6. The next day, she, along with her mother, was taken to a hospital in the mainland city of Perth. She is recovering, but doctors are still trying to find out the cause of the infection.
“It was actually his pure carelessness of not giving Thornica antibiotics that caused him pneumonia,” Angela Fredericks, a family friend, said in a phone interview Thursday. She said the family had to “beg and fight” to take Thornika to the mainland.
in previous statements, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews defended Thornika’s treatment, saying she was taken to Perth as soon as it was recommended. International Health and Medical Services did not respond to requests for comment.
Tharnika’s parents are from Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and fled violence in their homeland, where decades of civil war raged before ending in 2009. Mr. Murugappan arrived in Australia via a boat in 2012 and Ms. Nadesalingam in 2013, and both received provisionally. Visa that lets them live in Biloela, where they met, married and had two girls.
His claims of asylum have been rejected on the grounds that Mr. Murugappan has been able to visit Sri Lanka thrice and that the war in Sri Lanka has ended, meaning the risks he faces are reduced. After Ms Nadesalingam’s temporary visa expired in 2018, the family was sent to an immigration detention center in Melbourne, then in 2019 to Christmas Island, where they are the only detainees in a facility built to house 400 people. The government has tried to deport him twice.
The government has repeatedly said that allowing the family to stay would encourage other asylum seekers and smugglers to try to reach the country by boat – an often fatal journey.
But that doesn’t mean we put off having two kids just to make an issue out of it,” said Carina Ford, the family’s immigration attorney.
“They pose no threat to our sovereignty,” the leader of Australia’s opposition Labor Party, Anthony Albanese, told a news conference on Thursday. “Taking care of these young girls born here and their parents has not diminished our sovereignty.”
Supporters continue to call on the government to use ministerial discretion to allow the family back into the community. Family friend Ms Cameron said: “They had a lovely peaceful life in Biloela and they may do so again tomorrow if the powers decide to do so.”
Thornika will turn 4 on Saturday, possibly in hospital. This will be his fourth birthday in custody.