Karen Andrews marginalising the condition of Tharunicaa is one part of the story. The fact that we’re still locking up asylum seekers overseas is another.



On Tuesday morning, the welcome news came through that the brave Murugappan family will be reunited in community detention in Perth after spending more than 1000 days in a tiny room on Christmas Island.

This is following the hospitalisation of their youngest daughter, four-year-old Tharunicaa, who became deathly ill with a septic infection despite there being literally no other detainees demanding the attention of the authorities. 

And this is welcome, but if you’re thinking that the shocking treatment of the Murugappan family is a throwback to a crueller time, back when Australia was locking up children in offshore detention under then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, then be advised this is still very much a live issue – it’s just that the government successfully prevented it hitting the front page story until a little girl almost died of a completely avoidable infection due to official negligence.

And this is a better outcome than, say, keeping half the Murugappan family incarcerated on Christmas Island while Tharunicaa still languishes in hospital, but there are a few things to note about this.

First up, this is temporary. The Murugappan family are getting a reprieve until the government feels that things are quiet enough to swiftly deport them to…well, somewhere? 

It’s been made clear by new Home Affairs minister Karen Andrews that options like the US and New Zealand are not open to them, and there’s no pathway being opened to them to remain in Australia, much less return to their adopted home of Biloela in Queensland where they’d become part of the local community. 



Immigration Minister Alex Hawke is maintaining the line that the slightest sign of compassion for refugees would “restart the boats” which have supposedly stopped thanks to our child-torturing policies, despite the government withholding all information on boat arrivals and turnbacks at sea since 2015 which, one would think, would bolster their claim – assuming, of course, it was true.

That leaves deposition to Sri Lanka where, as Tamils, they’re an ethnic minority of whom the government is not exactly fond. Indeed, the reason the family initially fled was because of Priya Murugappan’s brother’s links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the side that was defeated by the government in the civil war. And, of course, the two children were born in Australia.

But the lesson here is that clearly this government can be shamed into action when photos of a crying child hit the headlines, despite their remarkably strong stomach when it comes to action on other things like, say, sexual assaults in parliament or the multiple rulings about the illegality of Robodebt.

It’s rare for Morrison to bend to community pressure to do the right thing or, in this case, the thing that’s most right-adjacent, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this issue is now sorted and Tharunicaa is safe. 

This is about neutralising a political embarrassment quickly as the electioneering ramps up for 2022 – and the Murugappans are far from alone in being victims of this government’s opaque immigration policies.

Australia still has thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in detention. (Quick reminder: an asylum seeker is someone asking for protection from persecution by their own government and is still being assessed, a refugee is someone who has had their claims found to be genuine and that they are owed protection under international law. Australia locks both up in flagrant breach of international law, so far with no significant consequences.)

Indeed, the Refugee Council would like to make you aware that as of March 31 (the most recent data) Australia had 1483 people in closed immigration detention. And damningly, despite claims that Australia has ended offshore detention, 125 of them are in Papua New Guinea (including Manus Island) and 108 are still on Nauru. 

If you’re wondering how the government has been able to claim nobody is in offshore detention while literally hundreds of detainees remain in permanent limbo overseas, the answer’s pretty simple: the Turnbull and Morrison governments got around the whole “no-one in detention” thing by redefining what “detention” meant rather than by, say, actually letting people settle freely. 

On Manus, it meant closing the camp and all support for the men who were living there while preventing them from leaving, which had predictable results from the very pissed-off local community since the only well-paid jobs in the economically depressed region were in offshore detention. 

Some remain imprisoned on PNG, a larger number are in Port Moresby awaiting resettlement which may never come. And, shockingly, they have it better than those on Nauru. 

It’s worth remembering that Nauru is absolutely tiny – 21 square kilometres in size, about 80 per cent of which is uninhabitable due to the strip mining of guano (literally the shit of centuries of visiting sea birds) for the profitable phosphate used in fertiliser. Tullamarine airport is ever so slightly larger in area than Nauru, and the percentage of inhabitable area to barren poisoned wasteground is almost exactly equivalent to the terminal footprint versus the roads and runways. So when you think of the area Nauruans have for hanging out in, it’s basically Melbourne Airport minus the shopping.

So while the detainees on Nauru are technically free, that freedom isn’t exactly meaningful. They can’t leave the island, for one thing, and there’s not much space. Food is insanely expensive because the island grows nothing – even fresh water has to be airlifted in from Australia. Unemployment is almost 100 per cent. Australia dealt with the reports of endemic sexual assault and rape against asylum seeker women and children by sitting back and letting the Nauruan government charge a non-refundable $8000 “application fee” for journalists that might want to visit the island, and then knock back the applicants until they stopped applying. 

As for where these people can go, the US resettlement deal ends this year and New Zealand has had resettlement offers rebuked. The government has shown no sign of making fresh deals, despite hundreds of people set to have their bridging visas expire this year.

And that’s another sinister reason why Morrison would be very keen for this issue to get the hell off the headlines, since a recent report by the Human Rights Law Centre who cite a recent High Court hearing in which the Australian Government confirmed chartering flights to send asylum seekers and refugees back to Nauru, in a worrying sign that the camp might be opening up again. 

In other words, the Murugappans are only one family being punished for the not-crime of asking Australia for help. No wonder the government wants them off the front page.





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