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The baby Asha problem in Australia's refugee policy

  • 24 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.

The 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