The real story of the baby that Australia didn't want.

“I knew that things were not good in the Nauru Detention Centre but it didn’t occur to me that the government would send babies to Nauru without ensuring that their most basic needs would be met, including their need to be fed.”

Last month, a five month old baby named Asha and her parents were transferred from Australia to a detention centre in Nauru. Mother and daughter were so traumatised by the experience that Asha can no longer be breastfed. For the past two and a half weeks, Sydney academic Dr Karleen Gribble has been talking to Asha’s mother on the phone to help her get her milk back and to formula feed her daughter in the safest way possible.

Dr Gribble spoke recently about Asha’s life and her mother’s struggle.

I’m not a refugee advocate, I have never before been involved in asylum seeker or refugee issues in Australia. I’m a university academic with a PhD and my area of expertise is infant feeding, particularly infant feeding in emergencies.

For the past 2.5 weeks I’ve been speaking on the phone on a regular basis with Asha’s mum. I was asked to talk to her because she was having real difficulty in feeding her baby. The transfer from Australia to Nauru had been traumatic, and she had stopped breastfeeding as a result. She and her baby were in a dreadful situation because in a place like the Nauru Detention Centre, problems with feeding a baby could be fatal.

Baby Ash (Image: Supplied).

Infant mortality on Nauru is 10 times greater than in Australia and for formula fed babies in that environment the risk is large- especially when mothers don’t have the things they need to formula feed safely. Asha’s mum was quite desperate.

Traumatised and scared Asha’s mother felt that her milk had dried up when she arrived in Nauru and there was no breastfeeding counsellor  to help her understand that it was only that stress had slowed the release of milk and that she could keep breastfeeding. The only formula available at the detention centre was one that had previously made Asha sick, she was without any milk for two weeks and was living on just rice cereal and water. Formula has since been provided, but they are living in a tent with many others, her mum only has a bucket to wash things in, she has no detergent, no brushes for cleaning and nothing to store the food in to keep it away from rodents and bugs. In the crowded and unhygienic conditions of the detention centre she is at high risk of serious illness and even death. Medical care in the detention centre is very basic.

Click through for photos from the rally that Dr Gribble spoke at this week (post continues after gallery)….

I talk to mums regularly about their challenges with feeding their babies. There are few things that are more difficult for mothers than to have a crying baby and to be worried if their baby is getting enough milk. Mums often feel devastated and powerless. It can be earth shattering for them. And so it was with Asha’s mum, she really sounded just like any of the mums I speak to here in Australia only she had the added burden of living in such difficult circumstances in the detention centre.

For those of you who are parents, I want you to think about what it was like when your first child was born.

For so many mothers this experience is an overwhelming responsibility. It takes all of their mental and physical resources to just get through each day. Being emotionally responsive to a little baby is vital to their long-term wellbeing but this can also be a very difficult thing to do.

What do mothers need to be able to care for their baby?

Mothers need to feel safe- where mothers are traumatised, scared or stressed it can prevent them from being able to see their baby’s needs and to respond to them.

Asha’s mum has been terribly traumatised by her experiences and she’s terrified of the detention centre- she won’t leave her tent. It’s really hard for her to care for her baby.

Detention tents on Manus Island.

Mothers need to feel able to trust the people around them- they need friends, family and trusted health professionals to provide empathy, advice, support and assistance

Asha’s mum is socially isolated, she is separated from her family and friends. Her husband is not well and is really struggling. She doesn’t trust any of the health professionals she has seen on Nauru- she feels they have not listened to her concerns, have not provided her with the help or resources she needs to care for her baby.

Just imagine how it would feel to believe that none of the people around you have your interests or those of your baby at heart. In fact, you feel that many of them want to harm you. You cannot believe anything that they say. This is how Asha’s mum feels.

And imagine this: You are traumatised, problem solving is difficult, thinking is difficult, everything is hard. You have no one to help you. And you are having trouble feeding your baby.

Baby Asha is truly in a precarious situation.

children in detention
Supporters of the Bring Back Asha campaign. (Image: Siobhan Marren)

As I said at the beginning of my speech I have not been involved in refugee advocacy before. I knew that things were not good in the Nauru Detention Centre but I didn’t realise that they were as bad as I now know they are. It didn’t occur to me that the government would send babies to Nauru without having plans in place to ensure that their most basic needs would be met, including their need to be fed. But seemingly this is what has happened.

Every time I speak with Baby Asha’s mother I encourage her to smile at her baby and to look at her and think about how much she loves her and to enjoy that good bit of life, even for just a short while. I try to reassure her that right now, she is her baby’s world and Asha doesn’t care where she is so long as she is with her mum. But each time we speak she begs me to help her baby and to get her out of the Nauru Detention Centre.

Detention is no place for a baby

Dr Karleen Gribble PhD is an Adjunct Fellow in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Western Sydney. Her research interests include a variety of aspects on infant feeding. She is a member of the international inter-agency collaboration the Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies Core Group and has worked with aid agencies and governments to improve the delivery of aid to mothers and babies in emergencies, including in refugee situations.


For more on refugees, asylum seekers and advocacy:

It is now illegal to report child abuse at Nauru.

WATCH: What do Australian kids know about refugees.

Legal action being taken to stop a 5yo asylum seeker with PTSD in Wickham Point detention centre from being returned to Nauru.

Pregnant asylum seekers allegedly protest on the roof of Wickham Point detention centre. Threatened to burn down the facility.