An extraordinary act of public defiance has forced the federal government to back down on plans to return an asylum seeker baby being treated in a Queensland hospital to detention on Nauru.
On Sunday, after a week-long protest by doctors and others, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton announced baby Asha would be released into community detention and not immediately transferred to Nauru, essentially buckling to the protestors’ demands.
The one-year-old received treatment for burns she suffered from boiling water while in detention, with her plight triggering a rally of asylum seeker advocates outside the hospital lasting more than a week.
Queensland Council of Unions general secretary Ros McLennan told Fairfax Media it was a “backflip of Olympic proportions”, while activist organisation GetUp! claimed the development had changed the national conversation on asylum seekers.
Doctors at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital had refused to release baby Asha until an acceptable home was identified, with the stand-off prompting rallies outside the hospital by asylum seeker advocates.
“We are proposing that baby Asha will come from Lady Cilento and into community detention”, Mr Dutton said in Brisbane on Sunday.
Mr Dutton said although the Asha case had been “hijacked” by refugee advocates, that the government’s position was unchanged.
“I’m not sure if they are interested in the best interests of the child. I am. I want to look at each case, people can go into community detention – I have said to you before I want to get the number of children in detention down to zero.”
While the victory was being celebrated by refugee rights activists and doctors, it was a cautious celebration. Mr Dutton said the infant could still end up returning to Nauru.
— ABC News (@abcnews) February 21, 2016
Protestors vowed to block cars
In the days leading up the Mr Dutton’s intervention, protesters rallying outside the Brisbane hospital said they would put themselves in front of cars to prevent her from being returned to the Nauru detention centre.
The child’s fate had been at the centre of a week-long protest at the hospital, with dozens of protesters continuing to rally outside the building’s entrance.
Protesters said they would be satisfied if the one-year-old was moved to community detention in Brisbane, where she would be housed with her mother.
On Saturday night, hundreds of protesters surrounded exit points at the hospital amid reports there were plans to move Asha and her family to immigration detention.
They said they would put their bodies on the line to prevent Asha’s offshore removal.
“It’s difficult but people are prepared to put themselves in front of vehicles to try to prevent that from happening,” said Mark Gillespie, from the Refugee Action Collective.
“People are vigilant. We’re not relaxing until we get a better outcome,” he said.
Mr Gillespie said protesters were stationed at hospital exits and using mobile phones to communicate.
He said they were stopping police cars coming out of the hospital on Saturday night to check the child was not inside, but insisted the move was “good natured” and the group had shown no aggression.
The minister faced questions about why medical staff were not satisfied enough to discharge the patient sooner, at one point suggesting bed shortages were to blame for the change.
He refused to provide information about when or where the baby would be moved, citing operational security, but the hospital later advised she would be discharged within 24 hours.
“The (Immigration) Department advised that there is no imminent plan for the family to return to Nauru and the family’s case is under consideration,” Children’s Health Queensland chief executive Fionnagh Dougan said.
Natasha Blucher, former Nauru detention centre caseworker and family advocate, said Asha’s mother was relieved.
“This last week has been incredibly stressful and all she has sought is to be able to live in the community like everyone else,” she said.
Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler had warned the baby’s forced removal would have represented a point of no return in the asylum seeker debate.
“It’s a line that cannot be crossed. If crossed, there is no return,” he said.