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As her daughter battles sepsis, Priya Murugappan talks to The Saturday Paper about the four-year-old’s dramatic health decline while held in immigration detention. By Rebekah Holt.

Sick, trapped, scared: Priya speaks from Perth hospital

Tharnicaa and Priya Murugappan in Perth Children’s Hospital.
Credit: Supplied

Priya Murugappan holds her daughter Tharnicaa in her arms. On June 12, the girl will turn four years old – she has spent, by this point, most of her life detained by the Australian government.

When we speak via video call, Priya and Tharnicaa are under 24-hour guard at Perth Children’s Hospital (PCH). They are not allowed visitors, Priya tells The Saturday Paper, and the two guards watching them have “been writing down the names of the medical staff” that enter the room. Both mother and daughter have been isolated since their medical evacuation from the Christmas Island detention centre on Monday.

Lawyers and supporters of the family say doctors at PCH are treating Tharnicaa for sepsis, which they believe was caused by untreated pneumonia. Priya says her daughter was sick for two weeks before the Australian government flew them to Perth. “Four days [with a] cold, 10 days with a fever – up and down with the temperature, it was very high,” she says. “Friday night [June 4] vomiting and much pain.”

Then on Saturday, June 5, Priya says that Tharnicaa’s temperature shot up even higher, to 39.9 degrees. Although there are International Health and Medical Services staff on Christmas Island, as part of the company’s $563 million government contract to provide health services in onshore detention centres, Priya was directed to call an after-hours number that she believes connected her to IHMS headquarters in Sydney. “Night-time, every day, I call the health line in the Sydney head office,” she says.

Questions to Australian Border Force about what services IHMS supplies to people in detention outside of business hours went unanswered by time of press.

According to Priya and her husband, Nades, medical staff from IHMS did not attend to Tharnicaa on any of the nights Priya rang the helpline. “They [guards] would bring the Panadol. Saturday night, I ask helpline again. I argue lots,” Priya explains from Perth.

Inside the hospital room where the Tamil asylum-seeker mother and daughter are held, Priya has a small bed beside her daughter’s. It is the first time she has slept apart from her husband and her other daughter, six-year-old Kopika, since September 2019. On Christmas Island, the family is held in a cabin so small that all four must share a queen-size bed.

In the week leading up to Tharnicaa’s medical evacuation, her parents say she was seen several times during the day by IHMS doctors. But the family managed to get an IHMS doctor to attend to their daughter after hours on Sunday, June 6, about 2am, only after repeated requests. Priya says the IHMS doctor told them, “Tharnicaa looks okay. Tomorrow morning, I will arrange everything…” Seven hours later, the infant was admitted to Christmas Island Hospital.

There is a noted lack of medical facilities on Christmas Island, such that even the locals must travel to mainland Australia to give birth, and have done so for the past 20 years. Priya herself was flown to Perth for urgent medical attention last year when she required a functional MRI.

At Christmas Island Hospital, Priya says a blood sample was finally taken from Tharnicaa. “They say, ‘There is an infection,’ ” Priya says. Less than 24 hours later, staff at the hospital told the family that they would be sending Tharnicaa by air ambulance to Perth for urgent treatment.

Nades Murugappan came to Australia in April 2012 as a Tamil seeking asylum from the Sri Lankan government. Priya, also Tamil, arrived in March 2013 from India – having fled there from Sri Lanka in 2001.

Both were granted bridging visas and met one another through Sydney’s Tamil community and married. They decided to move to Biloela, a small rural town in central Queensland, where Nades found a job at a local meatworks. Their daughters were born in 2015 and 2017.

Then in 2018, just a day after Priya’s bridging visa lapsed, the couple and their infant daughters were collected by Australian Border Force officers in Biloela in a dawn raid, and transferred to a detention centre in Melbourne. Once there, they were denied access to their mobile phones for months.

Supporters say this dawn raid was part of a wider campaign by the Australian government against Tamils. If everyone in Australia whose bridging visa lapsed by one day was placed in detention, supporters point out, there would not be enough detention centres to hold them.

For 17 months, the family was detained at the Melbourne centre. During their first six months there, Priya and Nades say the family was allowed outside their unit for only 30 minutes a day. Tharnicaa developed a vitamin D deficiency, which left her prone to serious and repeated infections in her teeth. These required numerous trips to medical practitioners, which came about only after significant media coverage – including reports that Priya had to prechew her daughter’s food because of the teeth issues. Eventually, Tharnicaa would require surgery under a general anaesthetic to remove malformed and infected teeth.

This was not the first sign of ill health. The Saturday Paper has also seen a medical report compiled by staff at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne in August 2018, the first time Tharnicaa and Kopika were seen by doctors outside the detention centre and IHMS, before Tharnicaa developed the infected teeth.

The report says Tharnicaa, then 14 months old, was showing behavioural disturbance and a blood test confirmed a vitamin D deficiency. Notes on her behaviour mentioned she “spends a lot of time at the window, wants to go outside, and is notably quiet”.

Her lack of contact with other children was noted as concerning, and the report said “conditions described are not appropriate for young children … including the restrictions on their freedom of movement”. During the family’s detention in Melbourne, Tharnicaa was only taken out of the detention centre twice to attend a playgroup. The doctors’ report also notes Kopika was “biting her own hands when she becomes upset or frustrated”.

Despite this report being supplied to Home Affairs and, as The Saturday Paper understands, to IHMS medical staff, no further efforts were made for the girls to attend a regular playgroup outside detention.

Less than a year later, Tharnicaa required the surgery on her teeth, and she was also hospitalised on another occasion after an unattached whiteboard hit her on the head in a detention common room the girls used as a makeshift playroom.

In 2019, the family was taken from a detention centre in Melbourne in an ultimately unsuccessful deportation attempt by the Australian government. Lawyers for the family filed an injunction that forced the plane carrying the Murugappans to land in Darwin.  After a night under guard in a motel, they were driven to a local military base, where their phones were taken off them.

Activists filmed the family being driven into the base in one of the many anonymous white vans that ABF and Serco use to transport asylum seekers. In the mobile phone footage, Nades can be seen holding his hand up to the tinted window and smiling when he recognises it’s a supporter who is filming him.

These would be the father of two’s last moments on the Australian mainland. He remains on Christmas Island with Kopika while Priya and Tharnicaa are in Perth. It isn’t clear when the family will be reunited.

The premier of Western Australian, Mark McGowan, said this week Tharnicaa may have to remain in hospital “for a considerable period”.

“As we know, this illness is very dangerous,” he said. “It may take days; it may take weeks.”

Asked what could be done to help the family, McGowan said it was not in his power. “That is not something that is within our control, that’s within the Commonwealth control,” he said. “I just urge them to resolve the issues regarding this family as soon as possible.”

The messaging from the Commonwealth this week was chaotic, channelled through the new minister for the monolithic Department of Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Andrews’ usually more reliable colleague.

On Tuesday, both ministers dropped hints publicly that the family may be included in a possible resettlement deal with either the United States or New Zealand.

On Wednesday, New Zealand Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi stated unequivocally that Australia had not approached the NZ government regarding the family. He said the NZ offer of taking 150 people off Manus Island and/or Nauru still stands, but that the NZ government would not be encouraging one-off arrangements, such as one for the Murugappans. By the next day, Minister Andrews was doing interviews with Australian TV, disagreeing that she had ever raised the possibility of resettling the Murugappans in New Zealand.

While the government maintains that Priya and Nades face no threat of persecution in Sri Lanka, and therefore hold no claim to asylum, prominent immigration lawyers across Australia earlier this month called on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to retract a 2019 country report used as justification for sending Tamils back to Sri Lanka, after serious questions about the report’s methodology were raised in Britain. A letter from the International Truth and Justice Project and the Australian Centre for International Justice labelled the conclusion that state-sponsored torture of Tamils is no longer occurring in Sri Lanka a “staggering assertion … [made] in the face of overwhelming evidence from independent and verified sources”.

 

Carina Ford, the Murugappans’ lawyer, last visited the family on Christmas Island in early 2020. She confirmed they are never allowed to leave the centre without being under guard. She says the area they live in is unsuitable for family living. “It’s run-down and, to be honest, it’s sort of like tin sheds put together,” she says.

“The two playgrounds were actually taped up and I was advised that they couldn’t be used because of occupational health and safety reasons … which I thought was a bit odd at the time, given that the only people living in the detention centre were a family of four.”

As Tharnicaa’s health deteriorated earlier this month, Ford was coincidentally making submissions to the Home Affairs minister, using information gathered under freedom of information, raising serious concerns for both young girls’ mental and physical health.

Ford says the issues raised with the minister on June 6 included continued dental issues, as Tharnicaa has not attended a dentist in more than six months, as well as chronic sleep disturbance, including waking every hour during the night, and frequent parasomnias, talking and crying in her sleep.

ABF said in a statement that the health care from IHMS available to the family in detention was “broadly comparable to what families in the Australian community enjoy”. Ford disagrees.

“If they were comparable, you wouldn’t put the word ‘broadly’ in there,” she says.

“When a child has a fever at home, you would first use Panadol to treat it. You probably wouldn’t need to ring a doctor because you can manage it potentially through just using that … You know if [the fever] doesn’t go away, something is wrong.”

In her Perth hospital bed last week, Tharnicaa lay against mother, wearing a yellow sundress. A bandage was clearly visible around her left arm. Asked how she was feeling, she said, “Somebody got blood ... it’s really hurting.”

As Priya spoke about her daughter’s upcoming fourth birthday, spent more than 3000 kilometres from her sister and father, Tharnicaa said, “I want my dad.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "Sick, trapped, scared: Priya speaks from Perth hospital".

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Rebekah Holt is a Melbourne-based journalist who covers immigration and politics for the Australian and New Zealand media.