Tamil family likely to remain on Christmas Island for months after mother returned from Perth hospital

Priya Murugappan has been reunited with her family in detention on Christmas Island after nine days in a Perth hospital.

Priya Murugappan and her daughters at the Christmas Island hospital prior to her medical evacuation to Perth.

Priya Murugappan and her daughters at the Christmas Island hospital prior to her medical evacuation to Perth. Source: Supplied

A lawyer acting on behalf of a Tamil family detained on Christmas Island says it’s unlikely they will be moved to the mainland before next year, after the mother-of-two was returned to the immigration detention centre following nine days in a Perth hospital.

Priya Murugappan arrived back on the island, where the family are the only people currently living in the immigration detention centre, late on Wednesday after she was discharged from hospital where she had been treated for abdominal pain after weeks of worsening symptoms.

Advocates say she was given no notice of her impending transfer and her phone was taken off her when she was removed from Fiona Stanley Hospital on Wednesday afternoon.

An earlier photo of the detained Tamil family from Biloela.
Source: Supplied

Lawyers and supporters of the family feared she would be deported to Sri Lanka, where she fled in 2013. The family of four have been detained on Christmas Island since last August while a series of court orders have prevented their deportation. 

“Our frustration is with the way yesterday was handled, with no communication prior to transferring … It just seems ludicrous that we only found out at 4.30 rather than earlier what was actually going on,” lawyer Carina Ford, who was informed of the discharge at 4.30pm, said.

“That caused Priya a lot of stress and unnecessary anxiety she just didn’t need, for someone who has just been discharged from hospital.”

They're concerned that the stress resulting from her extended detention has contributed to her illness, Ms Ford said, which still has not been formally diagnosed. But despite the ongoing health issues, and the lack of specialist medical services on the island, there is currently no avenue for the family to be transferred to the Australian mainland.

“There is an inability for us to do much more without a change in the government’s viewpoint on continuing to have them on Christmas Island,” she said.

A friend of the family and spokesperson for the Back to Biloela campaign Angela Fredericks said Ms Murugappan was “incredibly happy” to be reunited with her family, after being separated from her Australian-born daughters, Kopika, five, and Tharunicaa, three.

Ms Fredericks, who spoke to Ms Murugappan after her transfer on Tuesday, said she expressed frustration and confusion about why the guards confiscated her phone during the transfer.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Tamil Refugee Council, who spoke to Ms Murugappan briefly during the transfer, told SBS News he could hear her telling the guards she needed to speak to her lawyer before the phone call ended. 

“We’re incredibly happy that she’s back with her family, that’s all we want for them to stay together,” Ms Fredericks said. “Our issue is the way it was done and also we do have ongoing concerns around the appropriateness of Christmas Island as a location that can adequately support health care.” 

The family’s bid to stay in Australia is currently in the hands of the courts and hinges on whether the youngest daughter has a right to apply for protection. 

In April this year, the Federal Court ruled that Tharunicaa was not given procedural fairness when the government considered lifting a bar preventing her applying for a visa and ordered the government to pay costs. The decision is now being appealed by the government.

A date has not yet been set for the appeal hearings, which Ms Ford says may not take place until early next year.

The three other family members have already exhausted their legal avenues to remain in Australia. 

Residents from the rural Queensland town of Biloela, where the family had lived prior to the expiration of their bridging visa in 2018, have long campaigned to have them returned to the small town.

The Department of Home Affairs said they do not comment on individual cases, but Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has repeatedly said the family would not be permitted to stay in Australia.

Most recently, Mr Dutton told 2GB radio last week that the family’s situation was “of their own making” and accused them of attempting to “rort” the system.

"These people have been found all the way to the High Court not to have a claim for protection," he said. "They are not refugees and they have used every trick in the book to make sure they can stay."

Published 30 July 2020 at 12:55pm
By Maani Truu