The Australian government is facing increasing pressure to release a refugee family who have been in detention on Christmas Island since 2019, after their three-year old child was medically evacuated.
Tharnicaa Murugappan was airlifted to a children’s hospital in Perth from the detention centre on Monday. She has reportedly been diagnosed with a blood infection and pneumonia.
Tharnicaa, who was eight months old when she was put in detention, had been sick for 10 days before she was airlifted. The Australian government has come under criticism for allegedly delaying medical care.
Rejecting allegations of inaction, the Department of Home Affairs said that she had received treatment on Christmas Island "consistent with medical advice".
The incident has brought renewed attention to the case of the family, who have been held in the remote immigration detention centre since August 2019, and calls for their release are mounting.
Tharnicaa’s parents, Priya and Nades Murugappan, are Sri Lankan nationals who arrived in Australia separately in people-smuggling boats in 2012 and 2013. They married in Australia in 2014. Tharnicaa and her sister Kopika were born in Australia.
The family lived in the rural town of Biloela until Australian authorities placed them in immigration detention in Melbourne in March 2018, according to the Associated Press. They were moved to Christmas Island in 2019 after a court prevented their deportation.
The Australian Human Rights Commission said in a Facebook post that the island is more than 2,500 km from Perth, and has very limited acute healthcare facilities. The commission called for “an urgent and compassionate resolution, and for this family to be housed safely in the community.”
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young tweeted:
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has also criticised the government, saying it is “shocked by this further trauma for the Murugappan family and is renewing its call for their release from detention on Christmas Island.”
AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid said the association is “very concerned about the harms being caused to these two young children by being in detention for so long and at such a crucial time in their development.” He said continued detention is most likely causing the two girls avoidable developmental harm.
Tharnicaa has a history of medical problems and it has been worsened by the "prison-like" conditions, advocates say, according to BBC News. Limited access to sunlight led to a vitamin D deficiency, which caused infections and other problems, the report said.
From the hospital, Tharnicaa’s mother made an emotional appeal in a video and sought help to get the child out of detention and home to Biloela.
The Australian government has now said that it was considering an arrangement where the family could be resettled in the US or in New Zealand. But ABC said it has learnt that there has been no discussions between Australia and two countries about the resettlement.
Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet: “These girls were born in Australia in a Queensland town that wants them back. It's unnecessarily cruel to send them to another country.”
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