Australia accused of failing to give medical care to two-year-old Tamil girl

A Tamil mother who was taken with her family from their home in Queensland and put in immigration detention in Melbourne has accused the government of failing to give proper medical care to her youngest daughter.

The Victorian children’s commissioner, Liana Buchanan, has described the case of Tharnicaa as “hard to fathom” and increased her calls for the federal government to urgently provide access to detention centres.

Tharnicaa is almost two and, like the handful of other children in detention with her, she has passed several milestones there. Both she and her older sister will soon spend their birthdays inside the Melbourne immigration transit accommodation for the second time, after the family were taken from their home in the regional Queensland town of Biloela in a dawn raid in March last year.

Photos and medical records reveal she has suffered serious dental problems, culminating in an infection last week, but her family and doctor said it was 10 months before she was taken to hospital, and detention staff were still inconsistent and late with giving her medication.

Her mother, Priya, said the family were kept in a closed room with no outside access for the first seven months of their detention.

Medical records seen by Guardian Australia note both girls suffered severe vitamin deficiencies, as well as behavioural and other medical issues.

Priya said Tharnicaa’s teeth that had grown in since the vitamin deficiencies were treated were in much better condition, but her front four teeth were blackened and painful.

“Tharnicaa is in pain. For a week she couldn’t eat anything she had to bite, I had to bite anything I gave her,” Priya said. “Last week when she was eating something she got an infection and for one week she didn’t eat any solids.”

Buchanan said she had learned of the “distressing case” through advocates, and the photos showed “clearly a child in pain”.

“I’ve had several different advocates contact the commission about broader concerns around the number of children in the detention,” Buchanan told Guardian Australia. “But the specifics of this case and the specific issue of the failure to provide medical assistance has taken my concern to another level.”

Buchanan said she had also heard concerns over failures to provide interpreters during medical appointments.

“Australia is a really well resourced, supposedly civilised country and it’s appalling to think we may be harming children because of the conditions in which they’re being detained, and particularly through a failure to give them medical treatment,” Buchanan said. “It’s hard to fathom.”

She has sought information on the number of children in immigration detention since last year but the department has refused to provide specifics.

Guardian Australia is aware of at least five minors in immigration detention – four of them very young. It’s understood a mother and child were released on Thursday afternoon, following public criticism from the children’s commission on Wednesday.

An August medical report notes that the Tamil girls’ presentation was the first time doctors were aware there were any children in detention.

“The family have been very isolated in detention, and the conditions described are not appropriate for young children, particularly the lack of contact with other children and the restrictions on their freedom of movement,” the report said.

Freelance journalist Rebekah Holt, who visits the families regularly, said they all had the same frustrations.

“The lack of early childhood education and no consistent or reliable access to health services, as evidenced by this,” she said. “The lack of translators is crucially and consistently [a factor] – when they do see a medical person they don’t fully understand what’s happened.”

Priya has a bladder problem which she said was due for surgery before the family’s detention. It had never been rescheduled, she said.

Priya said as her daughters grow up in detention, they are gaining an understanding of their situation.

“I have an older daughter who is a little grown-up and she knows what she’s doing,” Priya said. “She wants to go outside to playgroup and to play with other kids. There are only five kids. They don’t have many others to play with.”

Thousands of people have called for the family to be allowed to stay in Australia. But legal appeals risk splitting the family, with only Priya and one daughter, Kopika, subject to protection from deportation for now.

Priya said the family was extremely concerned about their safety if they were deported, “because we all know what happened in Siri Lanka and at the moment it’s not safe now”.

The department said it did not comment on individual cases but it strongly rejected claims that people in detention were prevented from receiving medical treatment, including dental care.

“The department upholds Australia’s international human rights obligations by embedding the consideration of the best interests of children into internal procedures and policies,” a spokesman said. “The department regularly examines options to vary detention arrangements for children in detention environments within the parameters of health and security requirements.”