MELBOURNE, Australia – The 3-year-old girl was born in Australia, in a small town called Biloela, far from the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne. But his parents seeking asylum from Sri Lanka and living in a country that strongly discourages illegal migration, the government sent them to a distant island while deciding their fate.

This week the young girl, Tharnicaa Murugappan, returned to mainland Australia, but not for the reason she hoped – she was medically evacuated to Perth, where she is now battling a blood infection at a hospital after a long illness. Supporters of the family say she received only pain medication for almost two weeks in the remote government detention center while her fever rose, and now suffers from pneumonia, which has led to his blood infection.

Tharnicaa and her family, often referred to as the “Biloela family” among Australians, are Australia’s most prominent asylum seekers. In a country accustomed to criticism from international human rights organizations for its “draconian”Immigration policy, the detentions of Tharnicaa and her older sister have sparked outrage.

Tharnicaa’s disease has renewed calls for the family’s release from detention and sparked candlelight vigils and protests across Australia. More than half a million people have signed a petition demanding that the family be returned to Biloela, a town of about 5,800 residents 260 miles northwest of Brisbane. Politicians on both sides have called for the family to be released from detention while maintaining their support for the harsh immigration policies that put them there. Home Secretary Karen Andrews has been so inundated with calls about the case that her voicemail says anyone wishing to speak to her must do so in writing.

The Murugappan family – mother Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam, father Nadesalingam Murugappan, Tharnicaa and her 5-year-old sister, Kopika – are the only people held in the Christmas Island detention center, which is 1,000 miles north of Australian continent. The two sisters, who were both born in Australia, are the only two children currently held in immigration detention in Australia. Unlike the United States, Australia does not automatically grant citizenship to children born in the country, and the two daughters are not eligible as children of “illegal sea arrivals”.

The case is unusual in that the small rural town of Biloela, which is leading the fight to get the family back, is a politically conservative place. But when the family were taken away by immigration officials in 2018 after their asylum claims were rejected and their temporary visas expired, locals were not thinking about politics. This case “was not about politics or asylum seekers, but our friends,” said Simone Cameron, a Biloela resident and friend of the family.

The family has been held on Christmas Island since 2019, as they fight government efforts to deport them to Sri Lanka.

At the end of last month, family supporters said, Ms Nadesalingam and Mr Murugappan began raising their concerns to International Health and Medical Services, the private company that provides health care at the detention center in Christmas Island, after Tharnicaa developed a fever on May 24. Requests for antibiotics were ignored and the family were given only over-the-counter pain relievers and a fact sheet on common flu symptoms, even though her fever rose and she began to vomit.

Tharnicaa was hospitalized on Christmas Island on June 6, supporters said. The next day she was evacuated, along with her mother, to a hospital in the mainland city of Perth. She is recovering, but doctors are still trying to find the cause of the infection.

“It was sheer negligence on their part in not giving Tharnicaa antibiotics that caused her to develop pneumonia,” family friend Angela Fredericks said in a telephone interview Thursday. She added that the family had to “beg and fight” for Tharnicaa to be evacuated to the mainland.

In previous statementsHome Secretary Karen Andrews defended Tharnicaa’s treatment, saying she was evacuated to Perth as soon as she was recommended. International Health and Medical Services did not respond to requests for comment.

Tharnicaa’s parents are from Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and fled violence in their home country, where a civil war raged for decades before ending in 2009. Mr Murugappan arrived in Australia by boat in 2012 and Ms. Nadesalingam in 2013, and both were awarded a temporary contract. visas that allow them to live in Biloela, where they met, got married and had the two daughters.

Their asylum claims were rejected on the grounds that Mr Murugappan was able to return to Sri Lanka three times and the war in Sri Lanka is over, meaning that the risks they face have diminished. After Ms Nadesalingam’s temporary visa expired in 2018, the family were sent to an immigrant detention center in Melbourne and then airlifted to Christmas Island in 2019, where they are the only detainees at the facility. , built to accommodate 400 people. The government made two attempts to expel them.

The government has repeatedly said that allowing the family to stay would encourage other asylum seekers and smugglers to try to reach the country by boat – an often fatal journey.

But that “doesn’t mean we’re keeping two kids locked up just to make a point,” said Carina Ford, the family’s immigration lawyer.

“They do not constitute a threat to our sovereignty,” Anthony Albanese, leader of the Australian opposition Labor Party, told a press conference on Thursday. “Our sovereignty is not diminished by taking care of these young girls, who were born here, and of their mom and dad.”

Supporters continue to call on the government to use ministerial discretion to allow the family to return to the community. “They have had a beautiful, peaceful life in Biloela and they could do it again tomorrow if the powers that be so decide,” said Ms. Cameron, the family friend.

Tharnicaa will be 4 on Saturday, most likely in hospital. It would be his fourth birthday in custody.

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