#SaveAsha: Australian Off-Shore Detention Threatens Baby’s Life

Is Tony Abbott (the Australian prime minister) a robot? Taking his inhumanity to new levels Abbott is in the process of returning infants to the horrors of Nauru island; the government-run detention centre that increasingly sounds like the seventh circle of hell.

Described by a veteran nurse as akin to “a concentration camp”, Nauru is dogged by ongoing allegations of rape by government workers, excessive force used on detainees and insanitary conditions. Detainees in treatment centres are referred to by number rather than name. Rats run freely. In a statement last week the NGO Human Rights Watch said that “Australia’s experiment in offshore detention has been a disaster.” It is one of the last places I would want one of my babies to end up, but that’s where Abbott’s government sent baby Asha last month.

She is the first infant to be returned to Regional Processing Centre 3 after a ‘“one-off” deal to allow babies born before 4 December 2014 to apply for protection visas came to an end. A dozen others are due to be returned imminently. Asha’s vulnerability as a five-month old born on mainland Australia to Nepalese refugees sparked global interest and outrage. Local protesters recently staged a sit-in in Parliament House. The #saveAsha social media campaign and petition are raising awareness of her plight.

Last year Asha’s parents (Vijay and Abhaya) were detained on Nauru and routinely evacuated to the mainland to have their baby. Five months later, wearing the bruises and cable-tie marks from their brutal journey, they were returned to the island with Asha. A move that a Save the Children risk assessment previously described as ‘potentially catastrophic’.

Their family home today is a leaking tent without running water which they never leave and the potential catastrophe is looming large. Dr Karleen Gribble (a midwifery fellow of the University of Sydney and expert in infant feeding in emergencies) has been supporting the family via phone. She told me of their transfer to the island. Brutalised and separated from her baby Abhaya believed her breastmilk had dried up due to stress.

Contact with a trained feeding supporter would have reassured her. As Dr Gribble explains, “undoubtably her milk supply had not gone but stress was impeding the milk ejection reflex.” But Nauru is not a place of support and concern. Detention centre staff agreed that her breastmilk had vanished overnight and gave them formula. Gribble (who was not in contact with the family at this stage), explains that Abhaya was too afraid to give this milk to Asha because it had previously made her ill.

By the time Dr Gribble was involved (at the request of the family’s former caseworker) Asha was being fed a life-threatening combination of water and rice cereal. Gribble is seriously concerned for the baby’s health, telling me that “ a few days ago the information she gave me suggested that the baby had become very dehydrated.”

Since then, due to the media attention, they have been provided with a different brand of formula and Dr Gribble is encouraging Abhaya to use it alongside putting her baby back to her breast. But Asha’s health is hanging in the balance. Dr Gribble adds, “they are not being appropriately supported. The baby is still not getting enough formula milk. hey’ve gave this mum one tin of formula for the baby they have refused to give any more and she’s about to run out.” No one has helped the mother with breastfeeding. She is washing dirty bottles in a bucket with no detergent and no bottle brush. It is so dangerous. Asha is at real risk of infection. Nauru is a wet and hot environment; perfect for bacterial proliferation and extremely dangerous for formula feeding.”

It should be clear to everyone that babies do not belong on Nauru. The Australian government needs to remove this family and make the wider “one-off” deal a more permanent one. Until then conditions need to be made safer; something Dr Gribble has already advised them how to do.

Safer conditions will mean supporting mothers who wish breastfeed to continue to do so for as long as possible. In this dangerous place breastfeeding is the easiest and by far the safest way to feed, comfort and protect their infants. Midwives on the island need proper breastfeeding training and other detainees who have breastfed could provide peer support.

For women who want or need to formula feed their babies hot water, detergent and sterilising equipment needs to be readily available. Pre-preprepared formula is the safest option and a clean area with hand washing facilities a must. Crucially women shouldn’t have to ask and wait for supplies each time they need to feed their child and mothers and babies should be kept together during transfer; ideally skin-to-skin, to minimise stress. None of this is difficult there just needs to be the will.

Through Abhaya’s tears and confusion Dr Gribble has heard the voice of an ordinary woman in despair. “When I have spoken to her she has sounded like many others to whom I have spoken about infant feeding: desperately worried for her baby and wanting to do her best. I think that many mothers would be able to understand just how awful the current situation is.”

But of course Asha’s mother isn’t like many mothers; she is helpless. She must rely on a State apparently devoid of compassion to prevent her baby from dying while being shunted against to a hostile environment. Those in charge of their fate must be shown, in all it’s grubby human detail, the picture of a mother holding her wailing, squirming baby to her breast and believing she has nothing left to give. Abhaya, Vijay and Asha, and the other babies soon-destined for Nauru, are people in need of our help and compassion. You’d need to be a robot to turn away.



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