Ruminations on refugees: the moral worth of non-Australians
The issue of asylum seekers has become a constant feature of Australian news and politics over the last few years. From the Liberal Party’s mantra of ‘Stop the Boats’, to Labor’s failed Malaysia refugee swap, to the recommendations of the Houston Panel, to a return to off-shore processing reminiscent of Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’, and finally to Amnesty International’s recent condemnation of the Nauru detention centre, there is little reason to believe this issue will go away any time soon.
- Asylum seeker: “a person who has fled their own country and has applied for protection as a refugee”
- Refugee: “a person who is outside their own country and is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”
Having followed most of the twists and turns of the politics of the issue in recent years, I find that most commentary revolves around the how of discouraging asylum seekers from attempting to reach our shores in leaky boats. But not enough attention is devoted to the basic question of to what extent Australians should care about the lives and well-beings of non-Australians in the first place. So with that in mind, I now canvass two opposite positions addressing that question, and discuss their implications.
Position 1: “Australian lives and livelihoods should take full precedence over people from other countries, and the Australian government should act purely in Australian self-interest.”
According to this view, Australia should accept only as many refugees as needed to avoid negative repercussions from the international community or our neighbours in Asia and the Pacific. Our first choice would be to turn away all boats approaching our shores regardless of their sea-worthiness, but given the likely international condemnation such behaviour would receive, our next option would be to punish all ‘boat people’ in such a way that all future potential refugees are deterred from seeking asylum in Australia.
(Note: this logic is only consistent if it to be assumed that accepting refugees will only be detrimental to our economy, our national security, or our ‘culture’. This assumption is not at all proven; in fact the opposite could well be likely.)
Position 2: “Australian lives and livelihoods are not more worthy of moral consideration than the lives of foreigners, and the Australian government should act with both the interest of Australians and non-Australians in mind.”
According to this view, Australia should not only accept all refugees who reach our shores, but should invest much of our wealth and resources in preventing the poverty and violence which causes people to seek asylum in the first place. The logical conclusion of such a position is that Australia becomes the destination of choice for asylum seekers worldwide, who understand that once they reach Australian waters they will almost certainly be granted residency there, provided they are found to be refugees. This would eventually create an unsustainable refugee intake, as even Australia with its huge land mass does not have the capacity to house the world’s 42 million displaced people.
Most people would tend to place their views on the issue somewhere in the middle between Position 1 and Position 2. They’d reject the notion that Australia should serve its own narrow self interest to the extent of watching asylum seekers drown in our waters, but they’d also be concerned about the effect on the Australian economy, security and society if we opened our doors to all refugees. The problem is that this questioning of the appropriate moral consideration of refugees is rarely debated, despite being the underlying cause of most of the policy gridlock on the issue. (For the record, I’d lean almost all the way to position two, but that must wait until another blog post).
The issue is also complicated by the sticky notion of queue-jumping, i.e. that there are refugees in detention in Indonesia who are waiting ‘their turn’ to be processed and accepted into Australia. Those who arrive by boat and are granted immediate processing (and entry if they are found to be refugees) are said to be ‘jumping’ this ‘queue’. Queue jumping relates back to the question of moral worth: if all refugees are equally worthy of moral consideration, why should precedence be given to those who managed to get as far as Australian waters before being detained?
So assuming our view on the issue is roughly in the middle between Position 1 and Position 2, here is our dilemma:
- We don’t want people to drown in our waters, or attempting to reach our waters
- We don’t want to subject asylum seekers to poor conditions in detention
- We don’t want, by accepting refugees arriving by boat, to create further injustice for those in Indonesia already waiting to be processed
- We don’t want Australia to be seen as an automatic open door for all the world’s refugees who manage to make it to our waters
- First, increase funding for overseas refugee camps, which are the first port of call for refugees who will eventually attempt to reach Australia. If the living conditions of refugees in camps in Pakistan, Malaysia and Kenya are improved it will lower the push factors for people willing to risk their families’ lives on leaky boats. Addressing the push factors is more efficient (not to mention more humane) than addressing only the pull factors.
- Second, collaborate with Indonesia and Malaysia to create a regional strategy for dealing with refugees. The ideal strategy would be to standardise every refugee camp in the region, in terms of conditions, waiting periods for processing, and likelihood of being resettled in either country. In other words, regardless of whether an asylum seeker reaches Australia, Indonesia or Malaysia, they will face the same living conditions, the same waiting period before being processed, and will have the same chance of being resettled in any of those countries. This will ensure that there is no incentive for refugees to try and reach Australia by boat from Indonesia, and thus no ‘queue’ being ‘jumped’.
- Third, drastically improve the processing time for these refugee camps. Not only is an extended period of detention inhumane and detrimental to the well-being of refugees, but it is also a drain on resources.
- Fourth, work to ensure every camp in Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia, will have a multitude of facilities to ensure adequate living conditions for those waiting to be processed, including: schools, workplaces, health facilities, religious sites, exercise areas, and some local autonomy for determining how the camp is run, thus giving people a voice in how they spend their lives while waiting to be processed.
- Fifth, improve Australia’s coast-guard/ naval intelligence and capacity around our waters.
- Sixth, drastically increase our asylum seeker intake. If this is looking unsustainable in terms of population then numerous measures would be taken before cutting back on asylum seekers, including:
- Cracking down on illegal immigrants arriving by plane, including those from Europe (i.e. people overstaying their visas)
- Making refugees account for the vast majority of our immigration intake.
This solution that I’ve proposed:
- Addresses the push factors, so as to prevent people risking their lives at sea
- Improves the capacity of Australia to save and protect people who regardless hop on a leaky boat to the mainland
- Ensures there is no priority given to people who attempt to reach Australia by boat (and thus no incentive over reaching other regional refugee camps)
- Improves the living conditions and processing times of asylum seekers
- Has measures in place to ensure Australia is not ‘inundated’ with the world’s asylum seekers
- Balances most of the concerns of people who find themselves somewhere in between Position 1 and Position 2
Let me finish by saying that this is an incredibly complicated topic. While trying to address the main components, I’ll admit that there are several important issues I’ve left out, including the international relations element of constructing a regional agreement, the economic feasibility of improving the conditions of first-port-of-call refugee camps, the issue of dealing with countries who aren’t signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, and the concern that Australia should accept only migrants with certain skill sets to match the needs of our economy. But at least we can agree that grappling with the ethical complexity of asylum seekers, and questioning our underlying moral judgements upon which we build our policies, is a hell of a lot better than simplistic three word slogans.
Note 1: An excellent (if one year old) source of information on asylum seekers can be found here.
Note 2: Credit for these ideas goes partly to Jack Waterford’s article in the Canberra Times this year “Leaders playing chicken on boats”.