Australia is not a country that cares enough about children

We cannot say we’re a country that cares about children

Tharunicaa Home to Bilo

Australia is not a country that cares enough about children

You would be hard-pressed to find a politician or leader in Australia willing to stand up and say they don’t care about children. Caring about children is generally such a no-brainer that it can be quite safely taken as a given regardless of where a person sits on the political spectrum. In times gone by perhaps its universal appeal meant something. Perhaps “caring about children” once resembled a verb. 

Right now it’s hard to overlook the ghastly truth that Australia is not a country that cares enough about children. The continued systematic removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families – at 11 times the rate of non-Indigenous children – is devastating proof.

There is no photographic evidence as tragically compelling of our disregard for children than the heart-shattering image, shared earlier this week, of five-year-old Kopika Murugappan leaning over to kiss the cheek of her crying three-year-old sister Tharunicaa in a hospital bed on Christmas Island on Sunday night. 

The tenderness, love and innocence in the photograph, the sweet Paw Patrol stickers on Tharunicca’s bandaged arm and Kopika’s fierce yet gentle affection, sits in cruel contrast with the terror and distress in Tharunicaa’s eyes. Even without a skerrick of context it’s a heart-rending image. With just a skerrick of surrounding context it is harrowing beyond words. 

Tharunicaa was evacuated from Christmas Island, with her mum Priya Murugappan, to a hospital in Perth on Monday night. It is the first time she has been separated from her sister and father. 

We know this sweet little girl, who was born in Queensland four years ago next week, had experienced vomiting, diarrhoea and dizziness for 10 days before she was flown to Perth. It’s been reported that she is fighting a serious blood infection caused by untreated pneumonia. It’s been reported that on the flight from Christmas Island to Perth on Monday her fever spiked dangerously. 

Just contemplating even an ounce of the anguish and pain and fear that Tharunicaa, Kopika and their parents Priya and Nades, have experienced this week, a medical emergency compounded by a family separation, feels unbearable. Imagine living it? Not as an exercise in perverse tragic voyeurism but as an exercise in humanity.         

For every person in Australia who categorically rejects that caring about children is merely a subjective platitude, we owe the four members of the Murugappan family to sit in the discomfort of imagining their pain. The cruelty this family has been subject to, in the name of our government, is unspeakable. But we must speak. Loudly and together. Because the cruelty has to end. 

Tharunicaa and Kopika are the only two children being held in Australian immigration detention. They have been held in detention for more than two years now. It is incontrovertible that prolonged detention has profoundly negative impacts on the mental and emotional health and development of children.

In 2015 a report published by the Australian Human Rights Commission, produced after a National Inquiry into children in detention undertaken in 2014, concluded that mandatory and prolonged immigration detention of children is in violation of international human rights law.  

“Given the profound negative impacts on the mental and emotional health of children which result from prolonged detention, the mandatory and prolonged detention of children breaches Australia’s obligation under article 24(1) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

No child in any country deserves to be held in prolonged detention. No child – in or out of detention – deserves to be denied medical treatment they urgently need. They are well established fundamental human rights that Tharunicaa, who is just three, has had breached egregiously by the Australian government.    

Tharunicaa and Kopika were both born in Australia. Their parents are Tamil asylum seekers who separately fled Sri Lanka and sought refuge in Australia. For a period of time they found it. Priya and Nades married in 2014 and started to build a life and family in Biloela, a regional town in north Queensland. The town’s community has fought to have this family back since they were removed from their home at 5am on Monday 5th March in 2018.

They have been in limbo since then. The family successfully obtained an injunction to prevent them from being returned to Sir Lanka, which remains in effect, but they are still being held in detention awaiting a decision on their future.

The home affairs minister Karen Andrews has the power of discretion to end the cruel misery and allow the family to settle in Australia.  This was the recommendation given to the then-Immigration Minister David Coleman in 2019. Andrews, like the ministers before her, has so far declined to act upon that advice.  

The unconscionable cruelty exposed by Tharunicaa’s medical emergency has led to mounting calls , even privately among Liberal MPs, for the family to at least be returned to community detention in Australia while their fate is determined by the courts. 

Australia is the only home Tharunicaa and Kopika have. Priya hasn’t been to Sri Lanka for more than 20 years. Nades hasn’t been there since 2012 and as a Northern Tamil, if he is returned to Sri Lanka the risk of persecution is high. The validity of a DFAT report that has been replied upon by the Australian government to justify the risk of returning Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka as low, has been rejected as lacking credibility by an influential UK tribunal. 

Which brings me back to Kopika and Tharunicaa. Where exactly are Priya and Nades expected to raise their daughters Kopika and Tharunicaa safely? What nation would look at these two children, born into a scenario they cannot change, and relegate them to detention? Subject them, via their parents, to the cruelty and instability and inhumanity of alien status? To permanent harm? 

We cannot say we care about children and let two girls in our care languish in detention that we know is profoundly harmful. We cannot say we care about children and let three year old in our care suffer with a blood infection for several days before getting her the urgent medical care she needed.   

Saying we care about children is different to caring about children. Caring about some children is different to caring about children. Because if you only care about some children, you don’t actually care about children.  

Despite being a high income country with some good national conditions for child wellbeing, including a globally well-ranked economy, last year UNICEF ranked Australia as 32nd among 41 countries for child wellbeing. The verdict – “Australia is falling short in delivering consistently good health, education and social outcomes for children” – was sobering to read. 

It surprises many Australians, mostly, I assume, those who have hopefully clung to the idea that as a nation we truly care about children. The alternative – that we don’t care about children – is confronting and yet the evidence is clear. The abysmal UNICEF rating confirms platitudes aren’t enough and that we are failing too many children.  

At this moment, we are failing few as catastrophically as we are failing Tharunicca and Kopika Murugappan. If our leaders continue to deny these children their most fundamental human rights, those same leaders can say what they like but their actions will confirm they do not care about children. 

At which point we all have to ask ourselves, very seriously, if we’re comfortable with leaders who do not care about children? 

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