Update: Australia moves refugee family after criticism

Tharnicaa crying on a hospital bed as her sister Kopika kisses her cheek to comfort her

Australia has released a refugee family from Christmas Island, after their youngest child was flown to the mainland for medical care. The family will now be allowed to live together in Perth while they pursue legal action related to their immigration status.

Four-year-old Tharnicaa Murugappan was evacuated to a Perth hospital last week after contracting a blood infection. Her medical condition reignited public concern for the family’s welfare. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the father, Nades, and eldest child, Kopika, 6, would be flown to Perth on Monday where they can join Tharnicaa and mother, Priya.

The family has been separated for more than a week. They will live in “community detention” – government housing in Perth’s suburbs – where they will be monitored but free to move around while Tharnicaa undergoes treatment in hospital. Previously, they had been held in a detention compound on Christmas Island, an Australian external territory, where they had been monitored daily by security guards.

Tharnicaa also developed pneumonia and her family says her treatment was delayed while on the island.

In 2018, the Murugappan family were removed from their home in the town of Biloela when their visas expired. Advocates for the family welcomed their release from offshore detention, but said the family ought to be granted immediate protection and returned to their Queensland home.

“We hope and assume that [community detention] is only a temporary step. Community detention is no guarantee of safety and peace for this family,” said the HometoBilo campaign.

Opposition lawmakers as well as a few government backbench MPs have also called for the family to be allowed to returned to Biloela – citing the local community’s support for the family.

In recent days, protests were held in Sydney, Melbourne and other Australian cities, condemning the government’s treatment of the family.

Protesters in Melbourne at a rally for the Biloela family

But on Tuesday Mr Hawke emphasised Australia’s stringent asylum rules saying that the arrangement “releases the family from held detention” but “importantly…does not create a pathway to a visa.”

“If they are not found to have matters where we owe them protection or they’re not refugees, we will ask them to leave for Sri Lanka.” The family have become Australia’s most high-profile asylum seekers.

Their forced removal from Biloela sparked outcry from local residents, who launched a national protest campaign and helped fund a legal battle.

Australia has tried to deport the family twice after finding the parents did not have a legitimate asylum claim as Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. But each time the attempts have been stopped by court injunctions.

A family picture of Nadesalingam and Priya and their two daughters holding a sign reading "thanks you Biloela and people around Australia"

Lawyers for the family argue that the parents’ asylum claims deserve reconsideration. They also say that the Australian government has declined to consider a separate asylum case of the youngest child, Tharnicaa.

Although she was born in Australia, she has been denied the opportunity to apply for refuge under the country’s tough immigration laws, because her parents arrived in Australia by boat. On Tuesday, Mr Hawke said he would consider “at a future date” whether he would agree to allow her case to proceed.

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