We won't be blackmailed over asylum-seeker policy: Canberra

Students in Brisbane with photos of baby Asha during a protest last week outside the hospital where she was being treated for burns. Yesterday, Asha and her mother were released into community detention but Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insists t
Students in Brisbane with photos of baby Asha during a protest last week outside the hospital where she was being treated for burns. Yesterday, Asha and her mother were released into community detention but Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insists the asylum-seeker family would still be sent back to Nauru island.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Australia insists baby and family will be sent back to detention isle

The uncertain fate of a 12-month- old asylum-seeker baby in Australia has sparked a fresh debate over the nation's hardline approach to migrants.

For almost two weeks, the dispute over the Nepalese baby named Asha has galvanised refugee advocates, who have urged the government not to deport her or any other children of asylum seekers. 

But the government yesterday said it would not be "blackmailed" over the issue or soften its stance on asylum seekers.

The saga began when the Australian-born baby was brought to Brisbane from the Pacific island of Nauru - where asylum seekers are held for processing - for medical treatment for burns from hot water. 

But doctors refused to release her from the hospital over concerns about unsafe conditions facing asylum seekers on Nauru. Several have allegedly been raped and assaulted on the island, where almost 500 people, including 54 children, are being held as part of a policy to stop people smugglers sending refugees by boat to Australia.

After a tense 10-day stand-off, Asha and her mother were finally released from hospital yesterday into community detention in Brisbane but Immigration Minister Peter Dutton insisted that the family was still due to be sent back to Nauru .

"We will not be blackmailed into changing this policy, because this policy has resulted in lives being saved," he told Parliament. "We will provide medical assistance, including to this baby… and when the medical assistance has been provided… the policy of this government, the policy of the opposition is that that person will return to Nauru."

Australia's policy of transferring all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to detention centres on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea has been condemned by human rights groups and the United Nations. The Australian authorities have also towed boats back to Indonesian waters, angering Jakarta, and allegedly paid people smugglers to turn their boats around.

The controversial suite of policies has proven highly effective and brought an end to the flow of rickety boats arriving from Indonesia. Some 1,200 asylum seekers died on the passage under Labor's softer approach from 2008 to 2013, prompting Canberra to insist its tough policy was crucial to deterring asylum seekers and saving lives.

The tough steps appear to have overall public support, with the Labor opposition largely backing the approach of the ruling coalition. 

But the policy has also led to vocal protests from opponents  - and even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has admitted that the consequences for asylum seekers have been "harsh".

Mr Turnbull reportedly wants to ensure that all children are removed from detention and that the remaining migrants on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea are resettled.

The High Court ruled three weeks ago that the asylum policy was valid under the Constitution, clearing the way for 267 migrants, including 37 babies, in Australia for medical treatment, to be sent to Nauru.

Several state leaders have urged Canberra to adopt a more compassionate stance, saying they would be willing to help house children in detention.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has voiced support for the Brisbane hospital staff, accusing Mr Dutton of "playing politics" over the fate of Asha.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'We won't be blackmailed over asylum-seeker policy: Canberra'. Print Edition | Subscribe