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Ongoing detention of Biloela Tamil family causes ‘extreme’ risk to children’s health, peak medical bodies say

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Nine peak medical bodies have called for a Tamil asylum seeker family to be urgently released from immigration detention on Christmas Island, warning ongoing detention presents an “extreme and unacceptable” risk to children’s health.

It comes amid growing pressure for the immigration and home affairs ministers to use their discretion to allow the family to live freely in Australia, after four-year-old Tharnicaa Murugappan was admitted to Perth Children’s Hospital last week with a blood infection caused by untreated pneumonia.

In an open letter to Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews on Sunday, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) and eight other medical bodies said they were “extremely concerned” by the family-of-four’s ongoing detention, which has now surpassed three years.

The Murugappan family have been the only family detained on Christmas Island since August 2019 when an urgent court injunction blocked their imminent deportation to Sri Lanka. Prior to that, they had been detained in Melbourne’s Immigration Transit Accommodation. 

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The family has been in detention since 2018.

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“Being held in detention presents an extreme and unacceptable risk to children’s health, development and mental health. These risks are particularly high for infants and toddlers. If detention is prolonged, the consequences may be long term or permanent,” the letter read.

“As medical experts, we believe that immigration detention is not an environment in which children can thrive and it is not appropriate to continue to hold children in detention.”

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The signatories – including President-Elect of RACP Jacqueline Small, president of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine John Bonning, president of Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine Sarah Chalmers, and president of the Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association Karen Booth – said it was time the family were urgently released.

The letter follows an ongoing campaign by the Australian Medical Association to see the family released into the community.

Tharnicaa was medically evacuated from Christmas Island with her mother, Priya, on Monday after more than 10 days of high fever, vomiting, and diarrhoea. 

Her condition has stabilised, but on Saturday she celebrated her fourth birthday in hospital, separated from her father, Nades, and sister who were forced to remain on the remote island.

The situation has bolstered long-running calls for the family to be released into the community, after spending more than three years in immigration detention.

Pressure is also building within the government’s own ranks after Coalition MPs have come forward to express their desire to see the family released.

Liberal backbencher Katie Allen was the latest politician to add her voice to the growing chorus of support, tweeting on Sunday that the family’s detention had “gone on for too long”.

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“We urgently need a timely resolution to a situation that is endangering the health and well-being of innocent children,” she wrote.

It follows comments from Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman and Nationals MP Ken O’Dowd, whose electorate takes in Biloela. They have both contacted Immigration Minister Alex Hawke to express support for the family to remain in Australia.

“I think it is time we put this to an end and bring them back to the mainland,” Mr Zimmerman said on Saturday.

However, not all Coalition MPs agree, with Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack saying that “what we don’t want to see is the boats return”.

“Trent was not in parliament when some of those ships were lost at sea, some of those leaky boats were dashed up against rocks and all lives lost,” he said.

“I was. I remember the heartache, I remember the loss.”

Mr Hawke is currently reviewing a file on the family’s situation, and it is understood a decision on the family’s future could be expected within days. 

He declined to comment to SBS News as the matter was still before the court. 

Speaking to ABC’s Insiders on Sunday, Greens leader Adam Bandt said Australia’s detention system had led to Tharnicaa being transferred to hospital “in a very serious condition”.

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“What this particular case has shown is Australia’s refugee policy, backed by Liberals and Labor, is based on putting people like this in effective prisons,” he said.

“If they came here again today, both Liberal and Labor would send them offshore and we would be back having this debate time after time after time again and we need to end mandatory detention.

“We need a broader rethink.”

A protracted legal battle currently hinges on Tharnicaa’s right to apply for protection after the other three family members exhausted their appeal options.

In February, 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 parties are now applying for the matter to be heard in the High Court.

The Department of Home Affairs has repeatedly said the family do not meet the criteria for protection visas.

Meanwhile, the family’s former community in Biloela are preparing to celebrate Tharnicaa’s fourth birthday with a vigil at a local park on Sunday afternoon.

With reporting by AAP.

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