For the past couple of years, 3-year-old Tharnicaa, her 6-year-old sister, Kopika, and their parents, Priya and Nades Murugappan, have been the only residents held in Australian immigration detention on Christmas Island, a remote outpost in the Indian Ocean, while lawyers fight the deportation proceedings.
Priya and Nades, both Tamils, fled Sri Lanka amid the conflict and its aftermath, and settled in the rural Australian town of Biloela in 2014 while awaiting a ruling on their asylum claims, which were ultimately rejected. Both their daughters were born in Australia, but the country does not bestow birthright citizenship.
“This family was given permission to settle in our community while their claims were assessed. They integrated, they settled,” said Angela Fredericks, who has campaigned to have the family return to Biloela. “We don’t want to lose them.”
Policing Australia’s vast ocean borders has long been a hot-button political issue here, akin to debate over migrant crossings of the southern U.S. frontier.
Advocates worry that the conservative government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to make an example of the family to deter other would-be migrants.
The case, laced with dramatic turns, has captured public attention.
Hundreds attended vigils this week in Sydney and Perth after Tharnicaa became seriously ill on Christmas Island and was flown to Perth for emergency care. Within 24 hours, a petition calling for the family to be granted freedom picked up 100,000 signatures, and now stands at more than 500,000.
Priya said she had pleaded with authorities on the island about her daughter’s worsening condition for 10 days. They offered over-the-counter painkillers, she told supporters. At Perth Children’s Hospital, Tharnicaa was diagnosed with a blood infection and pneumonia.
Immigration officers are stationed in the corridor outside her room. After a few days in the hospital, she improved, although she still wasn’t eating. On a video call with supporters, she played with a plush version of a cockatoo — a native Australian parrot.
The little girl suffers from developmental delays attributed to her time in custody. She had four front teeth removed in 2019 after her poor diet and lack of vitamin D in detention led to severe decay, supporters say.
The government has repeatedly declined to use its power to grant the family visas.
Officials say the harsh stance is needed to deter would-be asylum seekers from trying to reach Australia — a perilous journey across vast open ocean.
Advocates question whether that approach is still necessary. After years of using naval vessels to turn back boats, Australia has stemmed asylum-seeker arrivals.
“Since those laws were established, the people smugglers stopped. They need to have faith in their policies,” Fredericks said. “Australians have this fear about boat arrivals. Of course we don’t want deaths at sea, but we’re punishing people who’ve survived that trip.”
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews on Thursday ruled out resettling the family in the United States or New Zealand, as has occurred with some other refugees detained by Australia in offshore camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Those third-country arrangements were open only to refugees, Andrews said, and the family members were not legally considered to be refugees.
But a day earlier, Foreign Minister Marise Payne had said that Australia was looking at resettlement options for the family and that “the United States and New Zealand are both in the frame.”
On Friday, Gerard Brennan, a former chief justice of Australia’s High Court, weighed in, saying Tharnicaa’s suffering “is not an unintended consequence of a general policy; it is cruelty inflicted on a child deliberately as a warning to others not to come to Australia by boat without a visa.”
“Tharnicaa has committed no offence; she presents no danger,” Brennan wrote in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald. “Basic and important Australian values are at stake. They must not be discarded by a show of heartlessness towards Australian children.”
Advocates of the family say it doesn’t have to be this way.
Priya and Nades, who met and married in Australia, had established lives in Biloela, a town of 6,000 people in Queensland’s mining belt. Nades worked as a cleaner at the local abattoir and volunteered for a charity. Priya, who didn’t speak much English, cooked curries for staff at the town’s hospital.
They had been granted a temporary bridging visa while the government assessed their asylum claims, and were encouraged to move to the area under a program that directs migrants and refugees to rural areas with labor shortages.
Before dawn one morning in 2018, when Tharnicaa was less than a year old, immigration authorities entered the family’s home without warning. They were given 10 minutes to pack their belongings, before they were flown more than 1,000 miles to Melbourne under deportation proceedings.
In 2019, they were ushered onto a chartered plane bound for Sri Lanka via Darwin, only to be stopped midway by a last-minute court injunction.
The government has since spent millions of dollars detaining them on Christmas Island, and fighting in the courts for their deportation.
Tharnicaa isn’t allowed visitors in the hospital, besides her mother, who traveled with her to Perth. She has been overwhelmed by care packages and birthday gifts from as far away as the United States.
This weekend, Biloela residents plan to gather in a park to mark Tharnicaa’s birthday with a cake and balloons. Next year, they hope, she will be home to celebrate with them.