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Asylum Seeker ‘Baby Asha’ Becomes a Rallying Point for Opponents of Australia's Offshore Detention

About six thousand people rallied in Melbourne for the Sanctuary call for the refugee families to #LetThemStay rather than be returned to Nauru. Photo from Flickr page of Takver (CC License)

About 6,000 people rallied in Melbourne to #LetThemStay, protesting the return of asylum seeker families to Nauru. Photo from Flickr page of Takver (CC license)

Following a 10-day stand-off with doctors and hundreds of protesters, Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton finally confirmed that 1-year-old asylum seeker ‘Baby Asha’ would not be deported back to the Australian immigration detention centre housed on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. She will instead be released into community detention in Brisbane along with her family, who are Nepalese Christian asylum seekers.

Community detention – where asylum seekers are placed in designated community housing – has been shown to mitigate many of the negative impacts of closed or offshore detention by affording detainees a degree of independence and facilitating better access to services and community support. It also tends to be cheaper.

However, the fight to keep the Australian-born toddler in the country is far from over.

The case of ‘Baby Asha’

Initially brought to Australia for medical treatment after suffering accidental burns on Nauru, staff at Lady Cilento Children's hospital refused to discharge ‘Baby Asha’ due to concerns she would be sent back to the offshore detention centre:

As widely reported, we are currently treating a young child from the Nauru Detention Center at the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital.

In line with every child who presents at the hospital, this patient will only be discharged once a suitable home environment is identified.

News of the hospital staff's stand quickly spread on social media. Hundreds of protesters (including Australian pop rock duo The Veronicas) gathered for days outside the hospital, demanding the government allow ‘Baby Asha’ and her family to remain in Australia.

A week into the protest, reports circulated that the child's mother had been refused access to her lawyers and guards were preparing to move the child. In response, protesters stopped cars departing the hospital to check for a forcible removal:

On February 21, in a move advocates are hailing as a victory for people power, Immigration Minister Dutton made a statement confirming the family's transfer to community detention. However, he told ABC News there would be no special treatment for them:

I couldn't be any clearer – once the medical assistance has been provided and the legal issues resolved, people will go back to Nauru… We are not going to allow people smugglers to get out a message that if you seek assistance in an Australian hospital, that somehow that is your formula to becoming an Australian citizen.

Health professionals later corroborated the transfer:

Reiterating her offer to resettle more refugees in her state, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk criticised Dutton's response as being too slow and lacking in “character and compassion”.

The broader picture

The controversy over the fate of ‘Baby Asha’ encapsulates the widening rift in Australia's asylum seeker and refugee policies.

Poor conditions on Nauru for asylum seekers — including incidents of rape, sexual abuse and the damaging impact of indefinite detention on mental health — have been widely criticised by the international community, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Australian Human Rights Commission and former detention centre employees. A government-funded inquiry also confirmed allegations of abuse.

She is but one of 267 asylum seekers in Australia who face deportation back to Nauru, following a recent decision by the nation's highest court which upheld the legality of the current offshore detention regime.

Detractors from the government decry the inhumanity of returning asylum seekers to places where they are subject to harm and uncertain futures. Worryingly, the latest figures provided by the Department of Immigration show that the average time spent in detention has blown out to 445 days.

Those who support the government's hardline stance fear that accepting asylum seekers who arrive ‘illegally’ by boat will only encourage more people to make the treacherous journey. There are also worries this would put a strain on Australia's social welfare system.

Complicating matters is the fact that independent media access to Nauru is extremely limited. New laws brought in last year also threaten anyone working for the Department of Immigration with up to two years’ jail time if they disclose unauthorised information about what happens in detention centres.

Despite the temporary reprieve for ‘Baby Asha’, there seems to be no end in sight for the fight over what Australia's legal and moral obligations towards asylum seekers and refugees should be.

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