How two Queensland-born girls became unlikely symbols of Australia's immigration policy

It’s been a long three years since the Murugappan family were taken from their home in central Queensland and placed in immigration detention. Here’s how we got here.

Kopika, six, and Tharnicaa, three, on Christmas Island where they have been detained since August 2019.

Kopika, six, and Tharnicaa, three, on Christmas Island where they have been detained since August 2019. Source: Supplied

It’s a familiar scene. A four-year-old’s birthday party in a regional town’s community park. Children play games in the grass while a polka dot "Happy Birthday" banner and candy-coloured balloons sway in the winter breeze. 

But at this particular party, held on Sunday afternoon in the small Queensland town of Biloela, the birthday girl Tharnicaa Murugappan was 4,392 kilometres away in a room at the Perth Children’s Hospital.

The young Tamil asylum seeker has spent the week battling a blood infection caused by untreated pneumonia. On Monday, almost a week earlier, she was medically evacuated with her mother from a detention centre on Christmas Island after 10 days of fever, vomiting and diarrhea.

It was the first birthday Tharnicaa has spent outside of an immigration detention facility. 

“We are a regular country town, full of regular people, mums and dads, sons and daughters, we’re miners, we’re farmers, we’re nurses, we’re teachers, we’re not the big activists that the city people think we are,” family friend Bronwyn Dendle told the birthday party in Lions Park.

“We are just a country town that wants to stand up for one of its own, we are a little rural town in central Queensland that wants to bring Nades, Priya, Kopika, and Tharnicaa home to Biloela to live with us .”

What began as a community effort to bring their friends home has since grown into a national story, leaving many people asking how two Australian-born girls, who have lived most of their lives behind lock and key, have become the faces of the country’s immigration policy. 

Over some three years, as the government was pressured to address the family's plight, subsequent Home Affairs and Immigration ministers have stuck fast to the view that the family aren't eligible to resettle in Australia. 

Tharnicaa and her older sister Kopika in hospital on Christmas Island before her medical evacuation.
Source: Supplied

But after photos of Tharnicaa crying in a hospital bed comforted by her older sister reignited community calls for their release, a softening of government rhetoric has started to emerge. 

“What’s being talked about internationally now, started in little Biloela, in this park at our first rally three years ago,” Ms Dendle continued.

“Now our voices have been heard around the world.”

5 March, 2018

Australian Border Force officials arrive in the early hours of the morning at the Murrugappan’s family home in Biloela.

The family are taken into custody and transported to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre, where they would live for the next almost year and a half. 

Parents Nades and Priya have overstayed their bridging visa, which they were granted after arriving separately in Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013. They claim they will face persecution if returned to Sri Lanka, due to Nades’ links to the banned Tigers of Tamil Eelam organisation. 

Word of their detention quickly spread through the small rural town, where the couple had settled about four years earlier while their claim for asylum was assessed. Nades worked at the local meat factory.

The first community vigil held Biloela's Lions Park on 14 March, 2018.
Source: Jacinta Jackson/Facebook

It was there they gave birth to their two young daughters. When they were taken into immigration detention, Tharnicaa was only eight months old and her older sister Kopika was about to turn three. 

About a week after their detention, more than 50 Biloela residents came together at Lions Park for the first protest calling for the family to be returned home. The event would kickstart a three-year, international movement in support of the family. 

21 December, 2018

The Federal Court rejects an eleventh-hour appeal to allow the family to remain in Australia, after they were issued deportation notices earlier that year. 

The judge ruled that they could not be deported to Sri Lanka for at least another six weeks “having regard for the time of year”.

Supporters of the Biloela Tamil family gather outside the Federal Court in Melbourne.
Source: AAP

The Department of Home Affairs continues to state the family’s case has been comprehensively assessed over many years and they do not meet the standard for protection.

Disappointed by the judgement, supporters say the family will continue to explore further legal avenues, including the possibility of appealing to the High Court. 

26 July, 2019

The impacts of detention on little Tharnicaa become front page news after she was forced to have four rotting teeth surgically removed.

Months earlier, the family shared a photo of Tharnicaa’s blackened teeth as her mother claimed she was unable to eat solid food due to the pain. 

Advocates argued a lack of access to fresh food and sunlight in the detention centre had led to a vitamin D deficiency.

The mother of two-year-old Tamil child Tharnicaa says her repeated requests for dental treatment for her child were dismissed.
Source: Supplied

Just over two weeks earlier, the then two-year-old was taken to hospital and diagnosed with a mild head injury after a whiteboard in the centre’s common room fell on her. 

Tharnicaa’s right to apply for protection has become the family’s last chance at freedom, after the three other members of the family exhausted their legal avenues. 

28 August, 2019

Under the cover of darkness, the family are taken from the immigration detention centre and boarded on to a plane at Melbourne airport.

Videos taken from onboard the plane show the children screaming and crying and Kopika singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to the camera. 

Shortly after taking off for Sri Lanka, a last minute court injunction centred on Tharnicaa’s case forced the plane to land in Darwin. The family were moved to a hotel, while they awaited further developments. 

The family’s lawyer, Carina Ford, told journalists that while the majority of the family have had their claims assessed, Tharnicaa had not. 

31 August, 2019

The family are flown to a detention centre on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory located closer to Indonesia than the West Australian coast.

They are the only immigration detainees in the recently reopened facility and supporters warn the move has made it difficult to communicate with the family.

A number of immigration detainees have since been transferred to a different facility on Christmas Island after a backlog in deportations due to COVID-19 travel bans meant onshore centres were overcrowded.

"I don't really understand the motive of the Christmas Island move, given that there are many other functioning detention centres in Australia on the mainland," Ms Ford said at the time.

Over the following months, details would emerge about the family’s living situation on the island, including that they are forced to sleep in the same bed.

17 April, 2020

The Federal Court rules that Tharnicaa was not given procedural fairness when the government considered lifting the bar preventing her from applying for a visa.

After almost two months of deliberation, Justice Mark Moshinsky handed down the verdict via teleconference.

Biloela family on Christmas Island on January 2020

In his ruling, he dismissed the family’s argument that a valid application had been made for Tharnicaa the previous year, but upheld a second ground that stated she had not been afforded procedural fairness when her case was considered by the Immigration Minister months earlier.

“It’s far better than losing on both grounds,” Ms Ford told SBS News at the time, while family friend Angela Fredericks called it a “win”.

"The key thing that I want to continue to highlight is yes, while there are such severe complexities with the procedure and the legal process, this can actually be sorted out really quite simply if the minister would actually use his powers and listen to the people," she said.

The government was forced to pay more than $206,000 in costs and the decision meant the family would not be deported while the legal process continued.

Almost a year later, in February 2021, the full bench of the federal court would uphold Justice Moshinsky’s earlier ruling and both parties will apply for the matter to be heard in the High Court.

19 July, 2020
There are fresh concerns for the family’s well being after Priya is medically evacuated to the mainland with “severe abdominal pain”.

Ms Ford subsequently raised concerns over the medical facilities on the island, which she said were not equipped for an emergency.

The Murugappan family marking Nades' birthday on Christmas Island in December 2019.
Source: Supplied

Nades is “distraught about the fact that he is on Christmas Island and she is now in Perth, this is the first time the family has been separated, they have lived literally together since March 2018, since they were first detained,” she said.

"You can imagine how distressing it is for him and unsettling for their household.”

16 December, 2020
The Department of Home Affairs reveals it has cost the government $3.9 million to hold the Murugappan family on Christmas Island from their arrival in August, 2019, to October 2020.

Meanwhile, as Christmas approaches, a flood of cards and gifts are sent to the family.

“We are just overwhelmed with the amount of people who have been contacting us, asking for the address, asking what they can send [to the family],” Ms Fredericks told SBS News.

“Someone actually made them some … handmade dolls, so really thoughtful gifts. For little Kopika, who is desperately missing going to the shop, it satisfies some of that desire to see pretty things.”

In just over three months time, supporters would mark the family’s three year anniversary in detention with vigils across the country.

7 June, 2021
After almost two weeks of symptoms, Tharnicaa is medically evacuated to Perth Children’s Hospital with her mother.

She is later diagnosed with a blood infection, caused by untreated pneumonia. Her father and sister are forced to remain in detention on Christmas Island, meaning they are separated on Tharnicaa’s fourth birthday.

A growing number of Coalition MPs come forward to urge Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to use his discretion to allow the family to remain in Australia.

Celebrities unite for Biloela girl Tharnicaa's birthday

On Tuesday, Mr Hawke announces that the family will be reunited on the mainland and allowed to live in the Perth community while Tharnicaa receives treatment and their legal fight continues.

"Today’s decision releases the family from held detention and facilitates ongoing treatment, while they pursue ongoing litigation before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, Federal Court and High Court," he said in a statement.

"Importantly, today’s decision does not create a pathway to a visa."

Mr Hawke said he would consider at a later date whether to use his discretion to lift the bar preventing the family from reapplying for temporary protection.

Ms Fredericks welcomed the minister's decision, but said it didn't go far enough.

"Australia knows this family’s home is in Biloela," she said.

Published 15 June 2021 at 10:52am, updated 15 June 2021 at 11:58am
By Maani Truu