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The baby Asha problem in Australia's refugee policy

Binoy Kampmark |  23 February 2016

Australia's refugee policy has tended to plummet at stages, some more dramatic than others. The issue with baby Asha has gone some way to find another depth.

Baby AshaThe activism regarding Asha's case has been vigorous. For ten days outside Lady Cilento Children's Hospital, protestors across the professional spectrum gathered to support the decision by medical staff not to return Asha to the Nauru detention centre.

Asha had suffered hot water burns on Nauru and staff would not permit her release until 'a suitable home environment' was identified.

On Sunday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton seemingly relented, allowing the child to be released into community detention rather than carting her off to Nauru. It has, however, been made clear that this is no prelude to settlement in Australia. In other words, child detention itself remains unquestioned.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has weighed in, arguing that the immigration minister was 'silent for weeks over Baby Asha'. The medical decision, she argued, was appropriate and Asha 'is in a fit state to be discharged into community detention'.

Invariably, any defence of Asha's plight, or advocating a policy that permits the discharge of asylum seekers into a form of community detention on the mainland is met with outrage.

This pattern manifests itself at each level of decision making on the issue of asylum seekers and processing. At no point can Canberra be seen to soften on the issue. Even critics of Australian refugee policies such as neuropsychiatrist Steve Stankevicius argue that asylum seekers should not be encouraged 'to exploit illness or injury to replicate the [Asha] outcome'.

Dutton's line goes to evenness in policy. In a form of crude populism that has become habitual, the purported human swarm (14,000 or so people), readied by people smugglers, remains the classic alibi.

'We are going to have a consistency approach here,' claims Dutton, 'because I can tell you that — intelligence out of Indonesia recently was that people smugglers were reporting the comments of premiers, including Palaszczuk ... to say that there was going to be a change in policy.'

None of these arguments passes muster. Stopping boats heavy with those seeking asylum only ever means relocation. The possibility of death is the tariff that comes with the journey, irrespective of where it is undertaken; the outcome of a calculation made about remaining in or fleeing a country.

The existence of such conditions begets the market that distributes individuals. It is questionable whether Australian officials are consistent on the program of punishing or deterring smugglers. The humanitarian argument often resolves itself as a matter of crude market strategy: deter the purchasers, but only in limited ways.

The report from Amnesty International, appropriately titled By Hook or By Crook, demonstrates how hollow such humanitarian considerations tend to be.

In May 2015, Australian officials engaged in Operation Sovereign Borders paid six crew responsible for taking 65 people from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar, seeking asylum in New Zealand.

The boat had been intercepted both on 17 and 22 May, the first time to issue the standard government line that the passengers could never be processed on Australian soil; the second to facilitate relocation, during which time the passengers were detained.

On 31 May, as the report claims, transactions took place. $US32,000 was exchanged to change course and direct the vessel to Indonesia instead. Indonesian authorities, who eventually apprehended the smugglers in question, confirmed the amount.

Witness testimonies and video footage suggest that Australian officials effectively placed asylum seekers in danger by removing them from the vessel and placing them on boats with insufficient fuel. The original carrying vessel, contrary to Australian reports, was not in distress.

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that those same officials offered advice tantamount to running the transfer operation, providing the smuggling crew with instructions on getting to Rote Island in Indonesia with a complement of landing sites marked on rudimentary maps. People smuggling indeed.

In July 2015, another incident of possible payment to people smugglers by Australian officials took place. This incident was even more dire given its virtual absence from media coverage. Amnesty International was told by the passengers that the boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy and Border Force on July 25 and the passengers placed on a new vessel on 1 August.

These incidents, which have never been conclusively, let alone convincingly denied by Australian authorities, contribute to a law breaking culture that has been encouraged from the Immigration Department to the private contracting companies on Manus Island and Nauru. A carceral environment that is unsafe, unsound and detrimental to the entire spirit of processing refugees has been created.

That releasing a child from a family of asylum seekers into community detention should itself raise a problem is one of its crudest symptoms, placing the onus on asylum seekers to behave properly, as opposed to authorities who should observe international refugee law.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.



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Submitted comments

The secrecy that surrounds these operations and indeed the whole detention issue is appalling. Out of sight, out of mind, except for the wonderful Australians who never give up their efforts to bring the suffering to public notice, provide solace to detainees and deride policies regarding asylum seekers and refugees.

Anna 24 February 2016

The most disturbing aspect of our refugee and asylum seeker policy is the willingness of the government (both parties) to ignore existing laws in order to maintain a so-called 'consistent' approach. Because the relationship between government and the people depends on trust, this relationship is at an all-time law and the tone is heavy on civil disobedience. The government only has itself to blame for this dire state of affairs, with the Greens standing out as the only alternative, both morally and practically. The truth is, the boats never stop, and neither do the deaths. They just happen somewhere else. It is all about plausible deniability. No wonder there is so much reliance on confidentiality and refusal to provide any information. Then the only question that can arise is, was it the 5 year-old, or the twelve-year old, who was allegedly raped on Nauru?

Eveline Goy 24 February 2016

All the do gooders strive to help baby ASHER. But why are they are not adopting other children in even more vulnerable positions. No- these do gooders prefer that those children go into care with the DEPT OF HUMAN SERVICES who treat the kids under their control like a number. And then these kids finish up in their own detention prison. Surely a child in detention is only there because the parent(s) are there. Dont use children as pawns like the do gooders- rather understand that family TOGETHER is more important AND SAFER than having a parent in detention and a child with DHS

PHIL 24 February 2016

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