The Let Them Stay movement has been a ubiquitous force over the past few weeks. Images of baby Asha, as photos of Alan Kurdi did last year, have dominated progressive media. Following eight days of picketing at the Lady Cliento Children’s hospital in Brisbane, Peter Dutton acquiesced to the protestors, announcing that Asha and her family wouldn’t be returned to Nauru.
Advocacy group GetUp!, one of the numerous leftist organisations that lead the charge, was quick to label this outcome a “victory”. Though this triumphant language is understandable, it reflects the sorry state of asylum seeker discourse in Australia, and not only because, as we later learnt, Asha’s release “into community” was code for release into community detention.
As of March 1, there are still 88 children in closed detention, 54 of whom live on Nauru. A further 31,137 people are awaiting final determination. Though Asha’s conditions may have improved marginally, attention has moved away from improving the welfare of those who remain trapped in detention centres indefinitely.
The emphasis on Asha as an individual reflects the way the conversation has shifted to the right. Having met little success elsewhere, the movement has been forced to revert to images of children and constructs of innocence. Depressingly, it’s because it’s beyond people to have compassion for asylum seekers more generally.
Though Asha’s innocence may have generated additional support for the movement, such support hasn’t extended to older asylum seekers who are equally, or perhaps more, worthy of empathy.
A baby like Asha has not been persecuted for decades. She hasn’t been forced out of the country she loves, hasn’t left behind family, and isn’t conscious to the daily torture of Nauru. A baby like Asha is, however, a visceral appeal to the last vestige of human compassion that might lie in the hearts of the Australian public and, against all odds, the Coalition.
Ultimately such an appeal is symptomatic of a broader trend: focus has turned to preventing asylum seekers from being returned to camps, rather than freeing them altogether. Unsurprisingly, this benefits the government, who can now satiate momentum by making easy concessions.
Yet this issue is more than cunning Tory politicking – whether by virtue of necessity or defeatism, we often forget that thousands more continue to be detained in torture camps. Let us continue the fight, not just to prevent Asha’s return, but also to secure the freedom of those whose stories we haven’t heard.
As the movement rightly proclaims, we must #LetThemStay – all 31,137 of them.