Turnbull, Key and the refugee offer that divides them

New Zealand offers to take Australia’s refugees but there appears to be little chance Australia will accept the offer.

Asha Australian refugee baby Brisbane Nauru
Baby 'Asha', who faces deportation to Nauru [Supplied]

You need to be security-vetted to go to a press conference with Australia’s prime minister. You have to have a “National Visits Media Card”. For that, you need to supply your passport and a letter from your employer. 

This morning, after showing my card, I and a handful of other journalists were escorted up the service elevator of a Sydney office block and into a small windowless room. There we waited for Malcolm Turnbull and his guest, John Key, the prime minister of New Zealand. 

As a group, the Australian-based journalists were allowed to ask three questions. We discussed among ourselves who should ask what: I wanted to ask about New Zealand’s offer to take Australia’s refugees

Among those wanting to hear the prime ministers’ answers most, though, were people I met on Monday, at a protest outside a hospital in Brisbane. Inside the hospital was – and, as of Friday – still is, the baby known by the pseudonym “Asha”. One year old, she was born in Australia to Nepalese asylum seekers.

But under Australia’s tough policy towards refugees, she and her parents were soon transferred to the Pacific island of Nauru.  Asha is back in Australia now because, in January, she accidentally pulled a pot of boiling water over herself.

Australia has the burns specialists she needed, and Asha was air-ambulanced to Brisbane.  She’s now better, but doctors won’t discharge her if they think she’ll be deported back to Nauru.

With New Zealand offering to take refugees like Asha and her parents, would Australia accept?  

The short answer: no. The offer, with some caveats, still stood, John Key told me.  But Malcolm Turnbull said that while he took the offer “into account” he wanted to give “no encouragement, no marketing opportunities to the people-smugglers”.  

The suggestion is that resettlement in New Zealand could be seen as a good outcome for refugees who originally tried to come to Australia by boat; it might encourage others to try their luck too.

Boats of refugees might start coming, again, to Australian shores.

Not mentioned by Mr Turnbull, but a concern to among other Australians I’ve talked to and who post opinions online, is that any exception to Australia’s “off-shoring” of refugees could see others emulate the circumstances that led to that exception.  

Might refugees deliberately injure their children if they thought it could mean medical evacuation to Australia and, ultimately, resettlement in New Zealand?   

Natasha Blucher – a former case worker with Save the Children who knew Asha’s parents when she was working with them on Nauru – is adamant that the baby’s injuries were accidental.

In Brisbane she told me: “If anything, [Asha’s mother’s] has been anxious about her parenting.  She’s been saying ‘Oh, I don’t want to put her down, the ground’s not clean.  What if she falls over?  What if she hurts herself?  She can’t crawl on the gravel’.  So in that sense I have absolutely no doubt [the burns were accidental]. I’ve spoken to the social workers and the treating doctors in the hospital and they tell me there’s absolutely no doubt in their minds that this was nothing other than an accident.”

But cynical Australians worry that other refugees might see an exception for Asha and her parents as repeatable – for their ticket off Nauru. 

There was none of that cynicism at Monday’s protest. More than 300 people were there; the rally had an energy I’ve rarely seen when covering protests in support of refugees.

And, more broadly, there’s certainly sympathy for Asha and other refugees languishing within Australia’s domestic and international detention network.  

But, so far, that sympathy is not changing policy.  

New Zealand’s prime minister knows that.

A cynic – an this time that cynic is me – might suggest that John Key’s offer makes New Zealand look more compassionate than Australia, but has been made in the full knowledge it’s very unlikely to be accepted.  

Source: Al Jazeera