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 Centre.
People at the blockade carried posters with the pixellated 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 criticised 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.