SYDNEY (Reuters) - The significant sympathy generated by the detention and likely deportation of a baby girl born in Australia to Nepalese parents could be a watershed in public opinion about the country’s harsh asylum seeker policies.
The infant, known only by the pseudonym Asha, Nepalese for “hope”, has humanised hundreds of anonymous asylum seekers who are faced with deportation from Australia to a detention camp on the South Pacific island of Nauru.
The outpouring of public support, including an overnight blockade at a Brisbane hospital where she was treated for severe burns, has been likened by some to the shocking images last year of a young Syrian asylum seeker dead on a Greek beach.
Supporters credited the week-long protest at the hospital with forcing the hand of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who on Monday had Baby Asha and her family moved to a local community detention facility, which allows some freedom of movement.
“What is resonating is that a lot of people are looking at that baby and thinking that could be my baby,” said Kon Karapanagiotidis, chief executive officer of the Asylum Seeker Resource Center.
People at the blockade carried posters with the pixilated face of the baby girl and the hashtag #BabyAsha was Twitter’s fourth highest trending topic worldwide over the weekend when the hospital stand-off reached its climax.
The number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia is small compared with those arriving in Europe, but border security has long been a hot-button political issue.
The coalition government led by the conservative Liberal Party came to power in 2013 on a campaign to “Stop the Boats”, adopting tough measures as a deterrent. Everyone who arrives by boat is detained and sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. The government also conducts tow-backs, or turning a boat back to its origin.
The policies have been widely criticized by international human rights groups and the United Nations. Medical groups have been particularly critical of detaining children in the offshore camps, where abuse has been frequently reported. Doctors at the Brisbane hospital had refused to release Asha.
Still, Australia’s High Court this month rejected a legal challenge to the country’s right to deport 267 refugee children and their families brought to Australia from Nauru for medical treatment.
Asha, the first baby born in immigration detention in Australia to be transferred to Nauru, was flown back to Australia last month for medical treatment after she scalded herself with boiling water while learning to walk in a tent at the detention center.
“In terms of a dramatic shift in community attitudes, there is no going back from this one,” Ian Rintoul, coordinator of the Refugee Action Coalition, said of the public support for Asha. “I think for a large number of people this has been a turning point.”
However, others said any public shift in attitude was unlikely to impact government policy. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton strongly hinted at that when he said on Monday that Asha and her family would be returned to Nauru at a later date.
“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,” Dutton told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“I couldn’t be any clearer - once the medical assistance has been provided and the legal issues resolved, people will go back to Nauru.”
Writing by Jane Wardell; Editing by Richard Borsuk