She was born in Australia, but the country wants to send her back to alleged war criminals
Updated 8:51 PM ET, Fri June 18, 2021
Brisbane (CNN)Tharnicaa was eight months old when Australian Border Force officers burst into her home in rural Australia, and tore her Sri Lankan refugee parents and their children from their new life.
The shocking dawn raid infuriated locals who began a nationwide campaign against their removal to Sri Lanka, where as minority Tamils they fear persecution.
After a traumatic three years, during which the family was held offshore on Christmas Island, and Tharnicaa had to receive medical treatment for illnesses she developed in detention there, the Australian government has finally succumbed to pressure to let them stay -- for now. This week, it announced they can remain in community detention in Perth while they finalize their legal challenges.
Thousands of Tamil asylum seekers in Australia are closely watching their case.
Tharnicaa, now 4, and her sister Kopika, 6, were born in Australia, but the government considers the entire family "illegal maritime arrivals" because their parents, Priya and Nades Murugappan, paid traffickers to take them to Australia by boat.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said Australia doesn't owe protection to the family, and others like it. "Sri Lanka is safe. People are returning from all around the world to Sri Lanka ... it is safe to do so and that's the government's policy," he said.
But mounting evidence suggests that is not the case, according to the United Nations, rights groups and a UK tribunal that recently criticized one of the main sources of information used by Australian immigration officers to deny Sri Lankans refugee status.
Human rights groups are calling for an urgent review of all rejected Tamil asylum cases, arguing that Australia's Sri Lanka country information report, compiled by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is out of date and "inaccurate."
Seeking safety in Australia
Nades and Priya didn't know each other when they came to Australia on boats filled with asylum seekers in 2012 and 2013. Those were peak years for a refugee rush to Australia before the government slammed the door on new arrivals with a tough policy of offshore detention.
The couple arrived before the deadline of July 2013, when the then-Labor government announced no asylum seeker who arrived by boat would ever be settled in Australia.
The Murugappans were part of the "fast track" cohort -- people who arrived by boat between August 13, 2012, and January 1, 2014 -- who could live in the community while their asylum claims were processed.
The couple married in 2014 and moved to Biloela, a country town in Queensland, known to locals as Bilo, with a long history of welcoming immigrants to fill local jobs on the land and in the nearby power station.
The Murugappans quickly made friends. Nades found a job in the local abattoir and Priya made curry for staff at the local hospital.
Friends knew they had "visa issues," but no one expected them to suddenly disappear from the remote town in March 2018.
Word spread that something had happened when Priya missed a regular physiotherapy appointment at the local hospital. "It was unusual," said friend Bronwyn Dendle. "She was very dedicated, and committed to appointments, and she respected people's time."
Dendle said people in the town felt "violated" when they learned their new friends had been bundled onto a plane and taken to an immigration detention center in Melbourne more than 1,800 kilometers (about 1,118 miles) away. Locals donated cash and held Tamil feast nights to raise money for an immigration lawyer.
Angela Fredericks, a friend who has spent years advocating for the family's freedom said: "At the end of the day Priya and Nades just want a safe future for their children, and ideally themselves."
One night in August 2019, immigration officers told the Murugappans they were being sent back to Sri Lanka. Supporters raced to the airport to try to block the plane's departure, but it took it off while lawyers scrambled to prevent the aircraft from leaving Australian airspace. A judge granted an emergency injunction that forced the plane to land in Darwin.
The next day, the family was sent to a largely disused detention center on Christmas Island, 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) west of the Australian mainland, while one of their final legal claims was processed.
That case rests on Tharnicaa, who wasn't included on the family's application for protection, because it was lodged before she was born. A judge ruled the family couldn't be removed until her claim was processed.
On Christmas Island, the family lived in a single-story, temporary building surrounded by wire fences. Kopika went to the local school each day, escorted by guards. The Australian government spent at least 6.7 million Australian dollars ($5.2 million) to detain them on the island.