By Julie Owens

22 June 2021

Two weeks ago, a photo brought Australians face-to-face with the cruelty visited on the Muruguppan family by the Morrison Government.

The photo showed then 3 year old Tharunicaa Muruguppan crying in a hospital bed, suffering from a blood infection caused by untreated pneumonia.

We now know that Tharunicaa was very sick for 10 days before she finally got proper medical treatment. Until then, despite her parents’ desperate pleas, she was only offered over-the-counter painkillers by medical staff on Christmas Island and her condition became so serious that she had to be medically evacuated to Perth.

The treatment of the youngest member of the ‘Biloela family’ – named for the Queensland town where they became much loved members of the community – is the latest instalment in a long and terrible story.

Priya and Nades Muruguppan are Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers who met in Australia and settled in Biloela in 2014. Their two daughters Kopika, 6 and Tharunicaa, now 4 were born there. Nades worked in the local abattoir and volunteered in the community.

In March 2018, soon after Priya and Nades’ visas expired, the family was taken into custody in a dawn raid by Border Force officers and police. The raid shocked the Biloela community, which started to campaign for their return almost immediately.

In August 2019, after more than a year in immigration detention in Melbourne, the family was forced on a plane bound for Sri Lanka. A Federal Court injunction forced the plane to land in Darwin and the family was moved to Christmas Island, where despite being the only detainees on the island, they were confined to two rooms and rarely allowed to leave the centre.

While the family has been in immigration detention the ‘Home to Bilo’ campaign has brought the family’s plight to national – and international – attention. A petition asking the Morrison Government to bring the family home to Biloela has over 550,000 signatures (and counting).

Under intense pressure, the Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, has released the family into community detention in Perth, allowing Nades and Kopika to be reunited with Priya and Tharunicaa, who will need 8 weeks’ treatment to fully recover.

This is a reprieve, but it doesn’t bring the family any closer to going ‘home to Bilo’, and there is still no certainty of an outcome.

Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews seemed to downplay the seriousness of the situation when she said last week that reporting of Tharunicaa’s illness was “inaccurate” and that she had been “well and truly treated.”

The Morrison Government has defended its treatment of the Muruguppans by saying that letting them stay would weaken Australia’s borders. But it is possible to be strong on borders without losing our humanity.

The Migration Act ensures this by giving the Ministers for Home Affairs and Immigration the power to exercise discretion – something they do thousands of times each year.

After spending an estimated $50 million to detain and try to deport the family and causing untold pain and suffering, it’s hard to see what the Government hopes to achieve by keeping the Biloela family in detention.