What exactly is the policy issue at the heart of the debate over offshore versus onshore processing? And what is its morality as public policy?

Public policy has different rules than personal morality, and what’s justified morally as public policy, even outside extreme situations such as war, can be different to personal morality. Policy affects several people, and usually very large numbers of them. That brings into play competing interests which, all other things being equal, are usually resolved via a utilitarian approach that tries to maximize net community welfare. But things are rarely equal, and we tend to accept that even a net increase in welfare isn’t justified if it means an individual, or a small number of people, suffer a debilitating disadvantage.

One of the ways they’re not equal, of course, is that we have a hierarchy of interests. The interests of non-citizens tend to be ranked lower than those of citizens; the interests of non-citizens outside Australia are ranked lower than those who are actually here; the interests of low-income citizens tend to be ranked lower than those on higher incomes; the interests of indigenous people, those from ethnic minorities and the disabled are ranked lower than the rest of us, young people’s are ranked below those of older people, safe seat voters’ below marginal seat voters’, and, still, the interests of women are ranked below those of men.

You could pick a different hierarchy, of course, but being human, we tend to end up with hierarchies of things we either feel matter to us, or which reflect self-perpetuating institutional structures.

Asylum seekers are at the bottom of most of those hierarchies, which is not to say ones that make it to Australia themselves aren’t at the top of other hierarchies outside Australia.

The logic of true offshore processing (that is, processing that means asylum seekers don’t settle in Australia) tends to be obscured by the other views of those who support it. One suspects, without any hard evidence, that the reason many people support it is because, bluntly, they don’t like asylum seekers who arrive by boat and want them to go somewhere else. Boat arrivals push buttons in Australians that people arriving at airports — like “normal people” — do not.

Nonetheless, regardless of the prejudices of those who support it, you know the logic of offshore processing: preventing asylum seekers from staying in Australia even after reaching here may deter people from trying to arrive by boat (or, for that matter, plane, if the same rules were applied to air arrivals). But it is boat journeys we are concerned about, because it’s an established fact that people die on boat journeys.

This is where public policy morality comes in — preventing the deaths of asylum seekers should be a policy imperative, and in net welfare terms that will justify measures that make life more difficult for people who would otherwise seek to arrive by boat.

How much does onshore processing address the imperative of preventing people from making boat trips? Does it play no part in increasing the risk of people coming by boat — that is, it is 100% push factors and 0% pull factors driving people into boats? Clearly push factors are the primary driver of asylum seekers. But does anything Australia does have any impact on the likelihood that people will risk boat trips? Not to address the issue is to risk substituting the welfare of asylum seekers who make it to Australia for the welfare of those who will in future perish making the attempt.

Let’s go back a step: what are Australia’s obligations? Not treaty obligations, but moral obligations? Notionally it has no obligations to anyone outside its borders — just its national interests. But as a civilized nation, our policymakers have a responsibility to try to prevent deaths even of non-citizens if possible. We can’t stand by, indifferent, to people dying outside our borders, especially when they are trying to reach us, if we can in any way stop them dying, even if it inconveniences or even harms some other people.

From that point of view, the Malaysian Solution is indeed, in Chris Bowen’s words, “elegant”, even if there is a risk that asylum seekers sent by Australia to Malaysia will be harshly treated. Let’s assume that the Malaysian government indeed mistreats asylum seekers, but does not execute them. At what point does the mistreatment of some asylum seekers balance the future deaths of others in the attempt to reach Australia? Where is the net welfare?

This is where personal morality, and our concern for the asylum seekers whom we send to Malaysia, departs from moral policy, which aims to maximise net welfare. Asylum seekers who will later drown have no one to speak for them in this debate. Securing guarantees from Malaysia as to the treatment of asylum seekers sent to Malaysia should thus be the best way to achieve a net welfare outcome, even at the expense of the interests of those asylum seekers sent there.

But as I said earlier, things are not equal.

There’s an asymmetry of interests between asylum seekers and Australia. It is in our interests to prevent boat arrivals, as a civilized society, but asylum seekers feel they have little choice. Current international arrangements are almost designed to encourage them to try to reach countries like Australia. There is a huge mismatch between the needs of asylum seekers and what they’re able to access. According to the UNHCR’s most recent Projected Global Resettlement Needs report, there are 172,000 people awaiting resettlement (bearing in mind only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugees actually want to be resettled somewhere else; most want to return to their homeland) but only about 80,000 resettlement positions available this year.

As the UNHCR figures show, at the recent nadir of asylum seeker numbers in 2005, the agency almost managed to place as many asylum seekers needing resettlement as it determined needed it, but it has been overwhelmed as numbers spiked in the last three years. Thus, whatever queue there is that some people think is being jumped, is getting longer, or at least was until global asylum seeker numbers began declining again last year. The cruel maths of that chart is many years of limbo for asylum seekers. In those circumstances, the risks of a boat trip are offset by the reality of limbo and the prospect of limbo for years to come.

How does that change the morality of our policy choices? The only policy that maximizes net welfare and achieves a moral balance is one that both deters boat trips and makes a significant difference to UNHCR resettlement. The Malaysian Solution gestures toward this with a small, temporary rise in our asylum seeker intake. And Australia is already the third greatest recipient of UNHCR resettlements, behind the US and Canada, out of the 24 countries that participate in resettlement processes with the UNHCR.

But a truly moral policy would mean increasing our humanitarian program not by a paltry 1000 a year as the government proposes, but up to well over 20,000 a year. As a wealthy country, we can afford it. Rather like climate change, asylum seekers are a global problem that Australia can’t solve by itself, but unlike climate change, the costs of taking action are small indeed; in fact, to the extent that refugees historically have become excellent citizens, we are a net beneficiary of our humanitarian program.

It also means providing significantly greater resourcing to the UNHCR, which identifies its own lack of staff and resources for delays in resettling asylum seekers around the world. Labor has significantly increased its contribution to the UNHCR since 2007, to around $45 million last year, but it’s still a small fraction of the amount we’ve spent trying to deter asylum seekers over the last decade. Further, targeting UNHCR funding within our region, in order to improve the capacity of the agency to resettle asylum seekers in the region in which they are most likely to attempt to reach Australia by boat, would lessen the impact of “push” factors driving people to risk their lives.

As for policies that have been demonstrated to fail, like Temporary Protection Visas, or are unlikely to work, like Nauru, they fail any basic test of morality. They are likely to cost lives, if implemented.

Peter Fray

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