biloela family detention
Kopika, Priya and Tharunicaa (Image: Rebekah Holt)

Yesterday Priya, the Sri Lankan mother of two young girls from Biloela in Queensland, was at the first play group session her daughters have been allowed to attend since they were removed from their Queensland home last year.

Tharnicaa (nearly two) and Kopika (four) had been thrilled to go in the van with Serco guards. It was the first time the girls had left detention for anything besides an urgent medical appointment in 15 months.

While at the play group, Priya heard her family have lost their bid for the High Court to review their asylum claims. Priya said the playgroup visit had become tense because Serco guards saw media filming outside the playcentre and “became angry”.

I spoke to Priya via FaceTime from her unit in Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) after she had heard the High Court result. She began crying almost immediately, but her daughter Kopika was still excited about playgroup — she took the phone to show me a paper mask she had made that morning. Another parent from the detention centre gently returned the phone to Priya, and I asked if she has been getting any sleep.

“I don’t think so, not in last two or three days. The situation is very hard, I think my heart is broken. Everyone from my community of Bilo is working so hard.”

Last night Carina Ford, the lawyer for the family, said her firm was still working out what the best options are for the family following yesterday’s decision while family supporters are terrified the family could now be deported immediately.

Last Sunday, Mother’s Day, was Kopika’s fourth birthday. Friends and family are not permitted to bring gifts during visitation, but an application to bring a birthday cake was approved. Unfortunately, things didn’t go smoothly. I received calls from another mother in detention, Huyen, who is in the same unit saying there had been a 45-minute delay in families being transported to the visiting room where friends and family were waiting.

The delay meant the visit was only an hour and 25 minutes instead of two hours. Both Priya and Huyen asked guards why there had been a delay, and told me they were met with stern responses. Huyen has experienced the delay many times previously, and claims a Serco guard told her “if you yell at me again, I will write to the boss and have your visits cancelled”.

Crikey submitted questions to Australian Border Force yesterday to ask why there was regularly a delay in taking children and parents to meet their visitors, and if Serco has the discretionary power to cancel visits. No reply was received before deadline.

A couple of weeks ago, Priya told me she was distressed about International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) staff being hours late with medication for her youngest daughter. Tharnicaa was taking prescribed antibiotics and Pandaol for a painful infection in her mouth. Ensuing media coverage, including pictures of her swollen face and malformed teeth, raised concerns. Parents in MITA have said for months that their children have serious health issues from being kept in detention.

Simone Cameron, a teacher and law student, met Priya’s husband Nades in 2014 when she was involved with a Biloela program that teaches English to asylum seekers. Cameron moved away from Queensland, and later heard the family had been uplifted by Australian Border Force in a dawn raid and taken to Melbourne. Friends and advocates for the family, including Cameron, knew of the problem with Tharnicaa’s teeth but wanted to protect her privacy and her parents from unfair online criticism.

“We weren’t sure whether to release the images of her dental infection because when people see really distressing images, they tend to switch off and actually try to blame the victims as a coping mechanism. And we did see a few people commenting on Facebook and Twitter about how it was Nades and Priya’s fault because they hadn’t brushed her teeth, which is absolutely untrue.”

A medical report seen by Crikey raised the issue of potential vitamin deficiencies and noted the need for a dental examination in August 2018. No dental examination was organised until late April 2019 when the toddler’s face was swollen and she had stopped eating.

After we spoke yesterday, Priya was going to ask for more medical help for Tharnicaa, who is again suffering pain from her teeth and not eating. The toddler has been placed on another round of antibiotics and has a hospital appointment in place for next Monday — two days after Australia’s general election. Until then the family wait it out alone in their unit, smack bang in the middle of a Melbourne suburb, hoping the current government does not see fit to deport unwell toddlers.