The decision by the Lady Cilentro Children’s Hospital to not discharge the infant Nepalese refugee Asha back to Nauru and the emergence of a vigil in solidarity was an important and inspiring event. The experience of it was radically different from the protest-politics-as-usual that typify the activist repertoire in Brisbane. Now that Asha has been discharged into community detention, and is facing a very uncertain and probably deeply unpleasant future, there is a desire to make sense of what has happened, what is going on and what does it mean?
On Saturday 20th news began to circulate the Border Force was planning to remove Asha and deport her. The vigil outside the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital suddenly transformed into blockade and hundreds of people mobilised to make a stand. Due to the nature of the hospital it is unclear if a blockade could have actually prevented a swift and smart manoeuvre by the state – yet the possibility of confrontation seems to have been enough to force a back down or a rethinking from the government. Whether Border Force was or was not actually planning to make a move has become irrelevant. The vigil-become-blockade and, probably more importantly, the hospital’s continual refusal to discharge her, presented an undesirable conflict.
On Sunday 21st February Peter Dutton, the Federal Minister for Immigration, announced that Asha and her mother wouldn’t be returned to the camp on Naura but would rather be kept in community detention. However ‘their asylum claims would still be subject to the normal processing. They would not be allowed to settle in Australia’(Branco and Snow 2016). I don’t know what is planned for Asha’s father who is currently held at Pinkenba. Dutton claims that this was always the plan – a transparent lie. On Monday 22nd Dutton then stated that ‘the baby and her family would be returned to Nauru after medical and legal issues were resolved’(Anderson 2016).
So how do we make sense of all this? At first it felt like a victory. Yet the camps are still there and the Coalition, likely to win this year’s election, have just rejected an offer from New Zealand to resettle refugees because ‘Australia considers NZ to be too wealthy and attractive, a potential draw for a new wave of people smugglers carrying asylum seekers’ (Hartcher 2016). The ALP is of course just as committed to mandatory detention. The war then is very very far from won. Even for Asha her future is one in which given the current practices if granted refugee status by the state the best she can hope for is resettlement overseas.
So what are we talking about? In the last week I think three separate phenomena made up the event (cautious H/T to Badiou) of #LetThemStay. The decision by the hospital not to discharge Asha, the vigil outside that became a blockade of sorts and the multiple forms of stunts and symbolic actions where people declared ‘#LetThemStay’ that ranged from selfies taken at home or at work to illegal and risky banner drops.
There are at least four major lines of debate that are going on:
- Was this a victory or a defeat?
- Does the focusing on children (and/or women &children) reinforce a dichotomy that justifies the continual detention of adult male refugees?
- Is the demand of #LetThemStay different to and a distraction from the goal of closing the camps or a more radical challenge to the border regime?
- Is the movement compromised, and to what level, by the participation of organisations that have material links to the detention complex either via contracts for refugee services or through supplying capital via super funds?
Personally I also think that the social democratic and socialist Left have overstated the contribution from the Queensland Council of Unions and the importance of that contribution.
From what I can tell a lot of these debates focus on the statements and actions of activist groups, NGOs and trade unions. However I think this contains a methodological error as it assumes a level of closeness and agreement between those participating in all the different elements and these afore mentioned groups. I think this is wrong. It may be true that people read a tweet from GetUp! and that’s why they turned up – this doesn’t mean they share much of an ideological commonality with them. What metric do we use to measure the success of struggles or evaluate their elements? A far more investigative and qualitative process is required to bring to light the full dimensions of what happened if we want to seriously learn from it.
Below are twelve questions that I have developed to help me orientate myself towards developing a richer understanding. As much a life permits I will try to help answer some of them over the next few weeks. I would love it if readers too could contribute with their answers, but also their questions and thoughts and disagreements. I am very open to the idea of hosting guest posts too.
- What happened? What were the different elements of the event and how did they fit together?
- What was the composition of this event – who was there and who wasn’t?
- Who made the decisions at Lady Cilento not to discharge Asha, how was it made, what was the relationship between different levels of staff and management?
- What was the relationship between this event and activist and NGO organisational structures and practices?
- How were decisions made at the vigil and how did activist and NGO organisational structures and practices impact decision making?
- What was the experience of being part of the vigil like?
- What is the relationship between the experience of the vigil and its effectiveness?
- How and why did the vigil transform into a blockade?
- What actions pushed it forward, what actions pushed it back?
- What concretely did the Queensland Council of Unions contribute?
- What was new? What was old?
- Did #LetThemStay manifest power?
Anderson, Stephanie. 2016. Baby Asha: Dutton Says Government Won’t Be ‘Blackmailed’ into Changing Immigration Policy. abc.net.au [cited 23rd February 2016]. Available from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-22/government-will-not-be-blackmailed-says-immigration-minister/7190206.
Branco, Jorge, and Deborah Snow. 2016. Peter Dutton: Baby Asha Won’t Be Sent Back to Nauru. Sydney Morning Herald [cited 21st February 2016]. Available from http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/peter-dutton-baby-asha-wont-be-sent-back-to-nauru-20160221-gmzjbv.html – ixzz40mOPcRt5
Hartcher, Peter. 2016. Malcolm Turnbull’s New Push to Resettle Refugees on Nauru and Manus Island in Third Countries. Sydney Morning Herald [cited 21st February 2016]. Available from http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/malcolm-turnbulls-new-push-to-resettle-refugees-on-nauru-and-manus-island-in-third-countries-20160219-gmyysq.html – ixzz40mSr7SWj