Community detention: what does it mean for the Biloela children and the 181 others?

Children living in the limbo of community detention suffer poor mental health because of their parents’ uncertain futures

Kopika and Tharnicaa Murugappan have been put into community detention after spending nearly 1,200 days detained in immigration centres, but their futures remain uncertain.

They are only two of nearly 200 children living in community detention in Australia.

The Biloela family – the children and their parents, Priya and Nades – were reunited in Perth last week and will remain there in community detention while the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, considers their case. The matter remains before the courts.

In community detention, Kopika and Tharnicaa will have a place to live and will be able to go to school. But they do not have visas and their parents will not be able to work. Priya and Nades will be able to volunteer, however, with permission. They will be provided with welfare payments to live on.

The Biloela family cannot leave Perth. Overnight guests in their home must be approved as well any trips they take to stay with others.

They will have healthcare but no access to Medicare. Health services will be provided by the same organisation – International Health and Medical Services – which provided treatment on Christmas Island.

Then-three-year-old Tharnicaa was flown to Perth almost two weeks ago with a blood infection caused by untreated pneumonia after Priya said she spent close to 10 days trying to get the required medical care on Christmas Island.

While the plight of the Murugappan family from Biloela has captured the attention of the nation, they now join the close to 450 people – adults and children – living in community detention in Australia after they or their parents were transferred into offshore detention from July 2013 as a result of Australia’s strict policy of not resettling people who arrived in Australia by boat.

In the past eight years, approximately 200 children have been born to asylum seekers held in Australia’s immigration detention network, including 153 in Australia, according to data provided by the home affairs department to the parliament in May – 181 of those children are in Australia.

Children born in Australia to asylum seekers are given their parents’ immigration status, meaning under government policy they are unauthorised maritime arrivals and will not be resettled.

Guardian Australia has previously reported on the challenges faced by some of these asylum seekers and their Australian-born children in the Lives in Limbo series last year.

Pakistani refugees Zijah Haider and Mehreen Ibrahim met and married in Australia and had a daughter, Eshal in 2018. Ibrahim told Guardian Australia as part of the series their then-two-year-old daughter had been confused about why her father had been taken into immigration detention, and had been slow to learn to talk as a result of the stress.

Many in the limbo of community detention are reluctant to speak while their future remains uncertain. Living in community detention in Australia is seen as an improvement on the conditions faced on Nauru, and they fear media attention could accelerate any plans the government has to force them to leave Australia.

In an Australian Human Rights Commission report in 2019, caseworkers reported children living in community detention had poor mental health because of the uncertainty their parents face.

“So dad’s depressed, he hasn’t gotten up for two days, and so older kids are helping younger kids to get organised, get off to school, and getting organised and really taking a lead role because of the fallout from the adults in the family unit and their mental health,” a case worker told the commission.

“Their parents [are] struggling mentally and they’re not coping,” another said. “That has an impact on children’s ability to develop normally and ability to engage in school and all of that. The domino effect of that is that if the parents aren’t coping, that then impacts the whole entire family, and specifically the children.”

Jana Favero, director of advocacy and campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, told Guardian Australia the children’s mental health often reflected that of their parents.

“We’ve seen for people in community detention – especially for families – that when the parents are stuck in limbo it has a detrimental impact … because of the restrictions to engage in meaningful activity, work or studying. Then of course that then leads to impact on the children,” she said.

“Community detention is just another form of cruelty.”

The Murugappan family was reunited with supporters from Biloela on Wednesday evening, and family friend Angela Fredericks said on Thursday they would keep up the fight to make sure they could return to Biloela.

“This family has been through more than anyone can imagine and to just hold Priya and to let her know that while it’s not over yet and we don’t have a set outcome yet, we’re still going,” she said.

“We are still determined to protect this family, to get them back home to Biloela where they belong.”

Hawke has a brief from the family’s lawyers detailing the medical issues affecting Kopika and Tharnicaa as a result of being detained for over three years. Hawke said he needed more time to consider the brief as part of his legal requirement to assess whether to lift the bar preventing Tharnicaa from applying for a visa.

No deadline has been given on when such a decision might be made. Ultimately Hawke could at any time use his discretionary powers to allow the family to stay in Australia and return to Biloela.


Josh Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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