Friday will mark three years since a Tamil family of four were taken from their home in Biloela, Queensland, at dawn. The girls are the only two children left in Australian immigration detention and still have no pathway to freedom.
Tharunicaa Murugappan is three years old and has spent three years in immigration detention.
The Australian-born daughter of Tamil asylum seekers Priya and Nades is the youngest person in Australia’s detention system - one of only two children along with her sister Kopika, five - and is at the centre of the family’s last-ditch legal bid to remain in the country.
The family were taken from their home in the small Queensland town of Biloela on 5 March 2018 and placed in Melbourne’s Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) after overstaying their visa. Tharunicaa was only eight months old at the time.
Now they are the only family detained on Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory closer to Indonesia than the Western Australia coastline.
Tharunicaa's mother, Priya, says she and her husband, Nades, are in a state of despair watching their daughters grow up in detention.
“They are yearning for freedom, they want to be happy and free,” she told SBS in Tamil from Christmas Island, ahead of the third anniversary of their detention. “The conditions are not suitable for the kids’ health and mental state.”
But despite the Australian government’s promise to remove all children from immigration detention by the end of 2019, following a concerted campaign by medical professionals, there still remains no known plan to allow the girls to reenter the community.
The government has so far spent more than $6 million detaining the family, according to figures released in Senate Estimates, despite ongoing pleas from the Biloela community for their return.
The impact of detention on children
GP and former federal member for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps, who recently spoke with Priya, is among the thousands of Australians calling for the immediate release of the family.
Dr Phelps, who is also the former federal president of the Australian Medical Association, says it is widely accepted within the medical profession that detaining children leads to increased rates of early depression, distress, anxiety and impairment of their social development.
It is also the position of the United Nations, which in 2015 found Australia had “violated the right of the asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” by failing to end the practice of detaining children.
The severe mental health impacts were observed over the last decade, where, at its peak in July 2013, almost 2,000 children were in immigration detention in Australia.
Dr Phelps described a condition called “traumatic withdrawal syndrome” where children “literally lost the will to live, they didn’t want to drink, they didn’t want to engage in any kind of interaction with other people”.
“Highlighting the plight of those children meant that all children were removed with their families by the end of 2019, and yet, here, we are still detaining children in a detention centre,” she told SBS News.
“For this to be happening as a deliberate outcome of government policy is just not acceptable.
“If we look at the situation on its merits, by any estimation, the most sensible and human thing to do would be for this family to continue their lives in Biloela.”
In 2019, four of Tharunicaa’s teeth were surgically removed due to severe decay which advocates believe was caused by a lack of fresh food and vitamin D deficiency brought on by life in Melbourne detention.
“She lost her deciduous teeth, and they are gone forever,” Priya said. “We have to wait for her to get the permanent teeth when she gets to age six.”
She also expressed concerns about the conditions of their current accommodation, describing it as a “tough environment to bring up children”.
She said there were no playgrounds for the children, who are permitted to attend the local primary school but are escorted there by armed guards. She also reiterated that the family-of-four has been sharing one queen-sized bed in a room that leaks when it rains and is “infested with centipedes”.
“The children have grown up a little and they don’t like the environment they are in,” she said. “Nades and I feel that it is not safe for our children and that it is causing a lot of anxiety for both of us as parents.”
Angela Fredericks, a friend of the family from Biloela, has spearheaded a three-year-long campaign to prevent their deportation. She says it has been heartbreaking to watch the girls miss important childhood milestones.
A mental health social worker by profession, Ms Fredericks knows too well the lifelong impact childhood trauma can have.
“What has gone on in three years; the money that has been spent, the trauma that has been placed on this family, let alone the vicarious trauma that a lot of us have dealt with going through this journey,” she said.
“As a practitioner, it devastates me ... as a friend, it just horrifies me.
“But there have also been so many victories. The fact that this family are still safe, they’re still in Australia, that’s a victory.”
Fighting to bring them home
For as long as the family has been detained, their community has fought for their release. On Friday they will continue the tiresome battle to ensure their plight is not forgotten by hosting dawn to dusk vigils across the country.
The first will be held at 5am in Biloela - the same time officials took the family away from their home three years ago - and end with evening events in most capital cities.
“It’s really about honouring the memory of everything that has happened … everything this family has been through over the past three years,” Angela said.
The Department of Home Affairs has repeatedly insisted the family does not meet the criteria for a protection visa. In a statement to SBS News, a department spokesperson said: "The Government’s policy is clear; no one who attempts illegal maritime travel to Australia will be permanently settled here".
"At no time has any member of the family been found to be owed protection," they added.
Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are not acting illegally. Material from The Refugee Council of Australia states: "The UN Refugee Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) recognises that refugees have a lawful right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents".
If deported to Sri Lanka, the family say they fear they will face persecution due to their Tamil ethnicity and Nades’ connection to the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam group.
Labor’s spokesperson for immigration, Senator Kristina Kenneally, said it was up to Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, who took over the job from Alan Tudge in December, to use his discretion to allow the family to remain in the country, pointing to the family’s wide public support.
"It seems the only three people in Australia who want the Biloela family to remain locked up are the three people with the power to end this nightmare; Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton and Alex Hawke,” she said.
They “are simply choosing not to intervene,” she said, which allows “this cruel and inhumane saga to continue at considerable cost to the taxpayer”.
A complex and lengthy, court battle aiming to stop their deportation is ongoing. Last month, the full bench of the federal court upheld an earlier ruling that found Tharunicaa was not given procedural fairness when her application for a protection visa was assessed.
The ruling was appealed by the federal government, while lawyers acting for the family also issued a cross-appeal against a second ground which was dismissed.
The family's legal team is now considering whether to seek leave to appeal the ruling in the High Court.
But Ms Fredericks is frank that the family’s ultimate future will not be decided in the courtroom. “No court actually gets to decide if people seeking asylum deserve protection or not,” she said. “We’re at that point now where Scott Morrison, as the leader, has to make a captain's call.”
Two billboards have recently been erected by the Home to Bilo campaign in Mr Morrison’s electorate of Cook in Sydney and Brisbane calling on the Prime Minister directly to intervene.
“I want to express my gratitude and thanks to the wider Australian people, good friends, and my community in Biloela for all the love and support,” Priya said.
“I wish to enjoy my freedom with my community in Biloela."
Kulasegaram Sanchayan is a journalist with SBS Tamil.
Video shows supplied footage from 2020 courtesy of Rebekah Holt.
This article has been updated to include a quote from The Refugee Council of Australia.