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

Almost a month ago, the Biloela family was told it was crucial their youngest daughter gained at least three kilos in weight.

Doctors working for International Health and Medical Services (the company contracted to supply medical care inside Australian detention centres) observed that 28-month-old Tharunicaa’s weight hadn’t increased in four months, since she had surgery to remove four teeth which had become chronically infected due to severe vitamin deficiencies and a lack of sunlight.

Tharunicaa’s mother, Priya, often had to pre-chew food, because her daughter’s mouth was too sore. The family say they were not supplied with food soft enough.

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This was before they were sent to the newly opened detention centre on Christmas Island.

The family have since told Crikey that Tharunicaa’s appetite decreased dramatically after the government’s failed attempted to deport them from Australia in late August. In extensive translated interviews, they also say their living conditions have worsened since being housed in the facility on Christmas Island.

This is the same facility that currently employs more than 100 staff and, from February to August this year, has incurred $26.8 million in administrative expenses. Australian Border Force did not respond to questions from Crikey before deadline asking for clarification if this figure was separate or additional to the $185 million that it cost to re-open the detention centre. Either way, it is a sizeable sum for a facility that currently only houses the family of four.

Is one of those 100 staff members a nutritionist for Tharunicaa? In early October, Crikey submitted questions to the Department of Home Affairs, asking if the family had been consulted and provided with food to assist with the toddler’s weight gain. Had a nutritionist been consulted?

A Home Affairs spokesperson replied: “The family has been comprehensively consulted throughout their time in immigration detention, in both Melbourne and Christmas Island, about their food needs and preferences.”

“The catering arrangements for the family in Christmas Island have been refined in consultation with the health service provider and the Serco onsite catering manager.”

The family refute this. They say there has been no consultation, and that there has been no assistance after the initial doctor’s consultation about Tharunicaa’s weight. They say she has another medical appointment scheduled for the end of October.

“I am allowed to cook so I try to make something she likes from the food we are provided with,” Priya says. “But the only additional food we have been given was from a visitor.”

Priya says she also has problems making kindy lunches as the family is given only one loaf of bread per week. She says neither child has been supplied with a lunch box for when guards take them to attend pre-school outside the detention centre.

The family can no longer video call from their phones, because they are not given access to wi-fi, but they have described their accommodation to Crikey.

They say the four family members currently all share one queen-sized bed. There is another room the toddlers could sleep in, but they say it is located in an adjacent cabin that makes it hard to easily hear or access the girls. They also say the room isn’t safe, as they have seen a scorpion and mosquitoes.

In Melbourne, their detention unit was more like a house (though they were still under guard and monitored), but on Christmas Island they say the cooking facilities, dining areas and computer room are separate and at some distance from the room they sleep in.

Priya says the family have no privacy and they are constantly surrounded by guards filming them with body cameras. Both parents raised concerns for their daughters’ mental health and say their Australian-born children have none of the things they were familiar with. They say the girls can’t watch Play School, as the TV in the dining area does not appear to have children’s shows.

Asylum seekers have told Crikey that the family’s old unit in the Melbourne detention centre remains empty.

On October 1, the UN asked the Australian government to remove the family from the detention environment within 30 days. This was shortly after the Federal Court in Victoria found the family had a prima facie case to stay in Australia; the family will receive a full hearing at a date yet to be announced.

The UN request is non-compellable, but the family’s lawyers have pointed out that it’s preferable to consult with their clients in person or without such stressful conditions.

Crikey submitted more questions to Home Affairs last week, including what the department or their contractors pay for the single loaf of bread the family say they receive weekly.

We received no response before deadline.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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