February 20, 2016 / 9:59 PM / 2 years ago

Infant refugee at center of Australian hospital protest gets reprieve

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia said on Sunday a baby girl facing repatriation to an offshore immigration detention camp would go to an onshore facility instead, easing tension that peaked in a blockade outside a hospital where she is a patient.

A banner calling for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to allow the infant children of asylum seekers to remain in Australia and not in offshore detention centers is shown during a demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, February 19, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Castro/AAP

Doctors at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane had refused to release the one-year-old girl after completion of her treatment for serious burns, adding to pressure on the government over its tough asylum seeker policy.

The number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is small in comparison with those arriving in Europe, but border security is a hot-button political issue in Australia, which is scheduled to hold a national election later in the year.

Federal Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the infant, known only as Baby Asha, would shortly be released into community detention, which allows free movement, in Brisbane.

However, Dutton stressed that the family could still be returned to a camp on the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru, about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) northeast of Australia, if they were not deemed to be genuine refugees.

Asha was flown last month from the Nauru center, which houses more than 500 people, to Brisbane for hospital treatment. The facility has been widely criticized for harsh conditions and reports of systemic child abuse.

“The advice I’ve received is that the doctors from the hospital have said they would be happy for the baby to go out into community detention,” Dutton told reporters.

“But at some point, if people have (asylum claim) matters finalised in Australia, then they will be returning to Nauru - that’s exactly the same treatment that we’ve applied equally.”

The High Court this month rejected a legal test case that challenged Australia’s right to deport 267 refugee children and their families who had been brought to Australia from Nauru for medical treatment.

Hundreds of Australians held an overnight vigil at the hospital, blocking exits and stopping cars in a bid to halt Asha’s removal.

The protest drew wide attention and support in Australia, with the Twitter hashtag #BabyAsha trending worldwide.

“Together we did it!” tweeted Kon Karapanagiotidis, chief executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, after Dutton’s announcement.

Australia maintains a policy of sending asylum seekers who attempt to reach the country by boat to camps on Nauru or on Manus island in Papua New Guinea. They are not offered resettlement in Australia.

The government says the policies are necessary to stop the drowning of asylum seekers as people smugglers use unseaworthy vessels to ship them from Indonesia to Australia.

Reporting by Jane Wardell; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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