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There has been a moving vigil taking place outside the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital in Brisbane for the past 10 days. Night and day, individuals of all ages and professions were supporting the decision of hospital staff in their refusal to return baby "Asha" to the Nauru detention centre. This effort was vindicated on Sunday when Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirmed Asha would be released into community detention.
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Baby Asha moving to community detention
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has confirmed Baby Asha and her family will not be returned to Nauru, rather placed in community detention in Australia. Courtesy ABC News 24.
I abhor Australia's immigration laws and acknowledge that the public attention this saga has stimulated is a great positive. However, I am also concerned the demands of protesters have been short-sighted.
Asha suffered accidental hot water burns while on Nauru – burns that required transfer to a larger hospital as they were too severe to be managed on the island. Though staff had treated and medically cleared Asha, she was not ethically cleared for discharge due to a lack of a "suitable home environment".
Within that hospital, Asha and her parents found an island refuge, like Julian Assange in Ecuador's London embassy. There was a stalemate, but many Australian arms were open and waiting to welcome them.
Though the public's intentions have been noble, the precedent that has been set is a concern. Regardless of the questionable ethics of Australia's immigration laws and detention centres, one must carefully consider the consequences of allowing a family to stay after they have found fleeting refuge behind a wall of brave doctors and nurses.
Some justifiably desperate people will take risks to find freedom. While Asha's injury was accidental, this decision may motivate others to exploit illness or injury to replicate the outcome.
By analogy, consider child beggars in many third-world countries. From India to Western Samoa, children are exploited as conduits for money from the wallets of empathic tourists to the pockets of their parents and owners. Though one's dollars may prevent the hungry child in front of you from being beaten that day, the success of that enterprise ensures the industry will continue on.
The problem here is the irrationality of empathy: the imaginative capacity to place ourselves in another's situation. As psychologist Paul Bloom has said: "If you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide". Empathy favours an individual over many, stirring emotions that clouds rational decision-making. It's why we care more about an individual in dire straits than a genocide overseas. Indeed, research has shown that while people may give generously in response to a story of one starving child, that generosity rapidly falls away with each addition to the people in need. We are tribal creatures who care for a face rather than a number; whose concern for one trumps two, two over three, and so on.
Asha is that one we are so driven to help right now. Letting her family stay may make us feel good, but it could prove counterproductive for many more in this human rights crisis.
Rather than reactionary empathy, we require thoughtful compassion – value others' lives abstractly, recognise their misery and be motivated to help them. So by all means, protest ardently against our current immigration laws and state of detention centres, but the isolated success in Asha's case may have unintended consequences.
Steve Stankevicius is a Brisbane doctor in neuropsychiatry. He has recently worked at Lady Cilento Children's Hospital as a child psychiatrist. Twitter: @ScepticalShrink