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The Biloela family speaks out

Speaking from a hospital in Perth, Priya Murugappan details her daughter’s sickness and her family’s struggle in detention. More than three years after they were taken from their home in Biloela, the Tamil family just want to be settled.

Speaking from a hospital in Perth, Priya Murugappan details her daughter’s sickness and her family’s struggle in detention. More than three years after they were taken from their home in Biloela, the Tamil family just want to be settled. Medical records show their children are deficient in Vitamin D and have psychological issues related to being locked up.

 

Guest: Writer for The Saturday Paper Rebekah Holt.

Show Transcript

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt: 

“I’m just going to make some notes…”

 

Archival Tape -- Priya Murugappan: 

“Ok”

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt: 

“One second, because I'm trying to make something work at the same time…Hi, Tharni.”

 

Archival Tape -- Tharnicaa Murugappan:

“Hello”  

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt: 

“Hello”

 

Archival Tape -- Tharnicaa Murugappan:

“This is for my birthday,” 

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt: 

“Oh, you got that for your birthday?”

 

Archival Tape -- Tharnicaa Murugappan:

“Yeah one…balloon!” 

 

[Theme Music Starts]

 

OSMAN:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi. This is 7am.

 

Last week, four-year old Tharnicaa Murugappan, and her mum Priya, were medically evacuated from Christmas Island to a hospital in Perth. 

 

It was a dramatic escalation in the so far three-year long detention of the Tamil family from Biloela.

 

Today, writer for *The Saturday Paper* Rebekah Holt; on what has happened to the family - and why the government is treating them the way they are.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

OSMAN:

Rebekah, last week you were able to speak to Priya and Tharnicaa from the hospital where they were in Perth. You were actually the first journalist to talk to Priya. Can you tell me about that conversation? 

 

REBEKAH:

Yes, I've been reporting on this family since 2018, and over that time there have been a lot of health issues.

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt:

“How are you Priya?” 

 

Archival Tape -- Priya Murugappan:

“It’s very... very hard, very upset.”

 

REBEKAH:

She was in the hospital room that's under guard. They've got two guards outside of that room, the entire time. 

 

Archival Tape -- Priya Murugappan:

“I'm very sad, all the time Tharnicaa crying ‘Papa, papa’. ‘Dad, dad’, ‘I look sick,’ ‘sister, dad,’ all the time crying.”

 

REBEKAH: 

She was lying in the hospital bed, with Tharnicaa resting up against her and understandably, Priya is just exhausted.

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt:

“Tell me what happened?”

 

Archival Tape --  Priya Murugappan:

“Tharnicaa, two weeks sick, four days cold, ten days fever, up and down in the temperature is very high. Friday night vomiting, stomach pain, leg pain, ear pain, everything…”

 

REBEKAH: 

I wanted to know what the lead up to this air evacuation was. And she was incredibly succinct about what had led up to it. And there was the lack of care she felt that the family had received from the medical provider within the detention centre on the island. 

 

Archival Tape -- Priya Murugappan:

“Everyday I call the askline in the Sydney head office, no, no blood test, nothing no, ten days continue sick…”

 

OSMAN:

I think we all know the broad strokes of what's happening here. A Tamil family ends up in Biloela, a town in central Queensland where they become well-liked in the community. They have two daughters who are born in Australia and then they end up in detention. But let's go back to the very beginning, because how did they come to Australia? How did they end up in Biloela? 

 

REBEKAH: 

So both Priya and Nades are both Tamil, and they both came to Australia separately, and independently of each other, they didn’t know each other, met in the Tamil community very normally and married. 

 

And they went to Biloela, and Nades was working in the meatworks there at the time that the dawn raid happened and they were taken from Queensland in 2018, March 15th it was, all the way south to Victoria to the Melbourne Detention Centre. 

 

Priya’s bridging visa had lapsed literally the day before. It was predawn. It was dark. She was making some food. She's still breastfeeding Tharnicaa at that stage who was eight months old. The girls were tiny. And a bunch of uniformed ABF staff in unmarked cars showed up and took them into custody.

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:

“The town of Biloela rallied after the family was taken in March to detention, for allegedly over-staying bridging visas.”

 

REBEKAH: 

And everybody was in a state of disbelief that they'd been snatched from their community. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Biloela Resident #1:
“Our town loved this little family and we want them, we want them to come home”

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:

“100,000 people have signed a petition calling on Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to step in”

 

REBEKAH: 

So 17 to 18 months later, after that initial shift from their home down to Melbourne, they're in detention. There was an attempted deportation by the Australian government of this family. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:

“The children can be seen on this phone vision taken by their father Nades on Thursday night on board the plane that was to take the family back to Sri Lanka.”

 

REBEKAH: 

No warning. A bunch of guards, Priya dragged onto a plane. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:

“The children scream for their mother Priya, she can just be seen here surrounded by immigration staff who force her along the aisle.”

 

REBEKAH: 

That plane took off. But, just before it took off, the lawyer managed to get an injunction in place. The plane was forced to land in Darwin. 

 

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:

“The Tamil family was taken from a Darwin military base last evening to Christmas Island, they say they are the only detainees there.”

 

REBEKAH: 

And they landed on Christmas Island at 1:00 in the morning, at a detention centre that the government had seen fit to shut. 

 

And I often think about how that was for them. I think about the fact that they'd both spent time there when they first arrived in Australia and, you know, they arrived in the middle of the night with their little girls, their little Australian-born girls, and that would have been overwhelming. 

 

OSMAN:

So they end up on Christmas Island, why were they sent there and what is that facility like? 

 

REBEKAH: 

Christmas Island is technically a part of Australia's ‘onshore’ detention system, on paper, even though it's 2,600 kilometres from the Australian mainland. You know, that detention centre has been notorious as the harshest in the onshore system. It's a place that, asylum seekers are sent to be punished. And so it's incredibly isolated. 

 

And then the area that they live in is these, as their lawyer has said, it’s like old tin cabins sort of, all in a row. And that's meant that they've had to share a bed because there's not a way for the girls to have their own rooms where mum and dad can safely hear them and be in touch with them. And given that these are kids who’ve had so much trauma already - the girls already have disturbed sleep and that's been noted in psychological reports - so it's safer for them, they say, to be altogether because they're still checked throughout the night by guards. There's still a head count done. 

 

OSMAN:

So they're sent to Christmas Island. They're the only people living in this particular part of the facility. They're sharing a bed. The girls' sleeping patterns are disturbed. I'm sure that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the psychological and physical challenges. Can you take me to what happened last week? 

 

REBEKAH: 

Priya explained to me that Tharnicaa had been sick for 10 days leading up to that air evacuation, and they'd been trying to get doctors help from IHMS, which is the medical provider contracted to the Department of Home Affairs.

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt: 

“They've been saying, ‘No, it's just flu’ or something?” 

 

Archival Tape -- Priya Murugappan: 

“Yes, is virus infection - flu - for some time five days, sometimes three days, depending on children, 'its ok nothing not serious’, nothing, not serious”

 

REBEKAH: 

Now, here's an example of how nonsensical the living conditions are: they don't get given access to a bottle of kiddy Panadol, they have to ring a helpline.

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt: 

“Where were the staff? They didn't come to you?”

 

Archival Tape -- Priya Murugappan: 

“No, there's SERCO staff there, bringing the askline first, after mumma sometimes papa talking askline, finally SERCO brings the Panadol.”

 

REBEKAH: 

They go back and forth endlessly in these ten days at night time with this kind of situation. And they tell me that what happens is that eventually a guard will bring them a single dose of Panadol for Tharnicaa. So this had been going on for days. They are all exhausted. Nobody is sleeping. They've got a kid whose condition is unstable.

 

Archival Tape -- Priya Murugappan: 

“So many question, why is Tharnicaa’s symptoms, everything asked, every night. Saturday night, I askline, lots of argue, Sunday morning hospital and a pick up and the IHMS.”

 

REBEKAH: 

So they got finally got the attention of a doctor from the IHMS service within the detention centre at 2:00 a.m. that morning. At 9:00 a.m, they were taken to Christmas Island Hospital, which is the hospital service for the locals. And Priya has said - and this is quite a disturbing detail - that the doctors at the hospital at first didn't understand where she and Nades were from, and asked them why they hadn't brought their child to the hospital earlier. 

 

There was a concern about a blood infection and the decision was made in under 24 hours to get Tharnicaa air evacuated and onto the mainland of Australia for the appropriate level of health care, which isn't available on the island.

 

And when they got to Perth, the Royal Children's Hospital, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and she's under treatment for that at the moment. 

 

OSMAN:

We’ll be back in a moment.

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

OSMAN:

Rebecca, you've been covering the story of this family for many years now, Tharnicaa has been sick for much of that time. Can you tell me more about that? 

 

REBEKAH: 

So reports that I've seen, a report compiled by staff at the Royal Children's Hospital in August of 2018, said that there were already negative health outcomes for both girls. They were, both of them, having physical and psychological effects from living in that close detention environment. And that, for Tharnicaa, that was showing up is as a significant Vitamin D deficiency. 

 

Now, remember, she goes into detention at eight months old. Her teeth are still forming. She's breastfeeding. A really big shock on her little body. She goes from sunny Queensland, little small town, into Melbourne, into a small unit where she and her parents are only let out for up to half an hour a day. 

 

The notes on Tharnicaa’s behaviour mentioned that she spends a lot of time at the window, wants to go outside, and as a child, as a toddler was notably quiet. There’s additional mention of Tharnicaa's older sister, Kopica, who was demonstrating some behaviour at that point that was mentioned, which was that she was biting her own hands when she was feeling frustrated. 

 

OSMAN:

Rebecca, these are pretty disturbing reports and they go back three years. So were any changes made to the way the children were being treated in detention? 

 

REBEKAH:

No, there were no changes, and that was one of the really surprising things. So I reported on that report in September 2018. I thought that there would be some changes.

 

And to be honest, from a reporting point of view, I thought that they would be promptly let out of detention then, because I thought that it would be so embarrassing for the Australian government that a child had become that ill in a immigration detention centre, that they would want that particular flavour of shame to end there. 

 

OSMAN:

Ultimately, Rebekah, we're talking about one family right now. Why is the government taking such a hardline position here? The family has a home in Australia, the girls were born here. They don't know anywhere else to call their home. Why won't the government just allow them to settle here in Australia? 

 

REBEKAH:

It's a really good question, and I don't think there's a perfect answer to it, other than the government has chosen this path and stuck to it for a really long time. 

 

And Scott Morrison was the Immigration Minister when some, if not most, of the hardest and most extreme immigration laws were put in place in this country, which have seen terrible outcomes for asylum seekers, which will take years and years of law changes to recover from.

 

So that's the man in charge of this at the moment. And I believe it's the man who ultimately has the decision for what happens to this family. 

 

OSMAN:

Rebecca, when you called Priya last week, you also spoke to Tharnicaa briefly, what did she say to you? 

 

REBEKAH:

She said a couple of things, she talks about how her hand hurts..

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt: 

“You got some needles, and you were very brave”

 

Archival Tape -- Tharnicaa Murugappan: 

“My hand is hurting…”

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt: 

“You got some medicine?”

 

Archival Tape -- Tharnicaa Murugappan: 

“Somebody get blood..”

 

REBEKAH:

She talked about her birthday…

 

Archival Tape -- Tharnicaa Murugappan: 

“I want balu (balloon) for my birthday!”

 

REBEKAH:

She talked about a cake she wanted, that she'd seen a picture of some of her friends from Biloela had sent through a picture. And she was talking about that...

 

Archival Tape -- Tharnicaa Murugappan: 

“I’m going to be four.”

 

Archival Tape -- Rebekah Holt: 

“You are such a big girl now.”

 

REBEKAH:

And that's her fourth birthday under guard and, you know, effectively detained. 

 

Archival Tape -- Tharnicaa Murugappan: 

“That’s really hurting...I want my dad...”

 

OSMAN:

Rebecca, thank you for your time today and thank you for your reporting on this situation. 

 

REBEKAH:

Thank you, Os. 

 

OSMAN:

On Monday Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack announced that plans were being made to reunite the family,by bringing Tharnica’s father Nades and sister Kopika to Perth. But no decision has been made on their long-term future and whether or not they will be allowed to settle in Australia. 

 

[ADVERTISEMENT]

 

OSMAN:

Also in the news:

 

Victoria has recorded two new cases of Covid-19, both children. They are linked to existing cases and there had been no community exposure in their infectious period. There was no announcement yesterday on the proposed easing of restrictions.

 

And in NSW, a producer for YouTuber Jordan Shanks, known as ‘Friendlyjordies’ has been charged with stalking offences after interactions with NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro. Barilaro also recently launched defamation proceedings against Shanks.

 

As part of his bail conditions, the producer is not allowed to possess images or caricatures of Barilaro, or comment on his appearance or behaviour. 

 

I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

 

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