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Federal

Feb 4, 2016

Govt has mangled its moral calculus on asylum seekers

By adopting an unnecessarily punitive policy of detention, the government has created a self-perpetuating problem of what to do with the victims of "offshore processing".

The government’s growing political problem around returning asylum seekers to Nauru flows directly from its decision to favour a policy of punitive detention over one of offshore processing for maritime arrivals.

While it constantly uses the phrase “offshore processing”, the government has not implemented such a policy. The status of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island is of indefinite detention, rather than being subject to a finite processing period, and of detention in hellish, punitive conditions in which murder, rape and child abuse have all occurred, in addition to the physical and mental health impacts of prolonged detention.

The offshore processing model proposed by Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle in 2012 was very different. Detention was proposed to be of a duration limited to a period of time that ensured maritime arrivals received no advantage over asylum seekers who had not tried to reach Australia. And detention was to involve a strong framework of support for detainees to address their educational and health needs while awaiting resettlement. That panel recommended that model fully aware of the mental health impacts of long-term detention — Aristotle noted that such impacts were better than people dying in boats trying to reach Australia.

That was the moral calculus at the heart of their recommendations: offshore processing wasn’t ideal, but if it helped to stop maritime arrivals and the deaths at sea that were a necessary component of maritime arrivals, then it was a justifiable policy. The panel cast that calculus in terms of changing the incentives for asylum seekers — increase the incentive to not get on a boat by substantially lifting our humanitarian intake, decrease the incentive to get on one by preventing any advantage to those who did.

Few opponents of offshore detention will engage with this moral calculus — they dismiss the justification of preventing drownings at sea as a figleaf for hostility to refugees. Undoubtedly for many in politics (in both major parties), and many in the community, it plays such a role. Some opponents also assert — without offering a coherent argument — that “ends don’t justify means”. But that doesn’t wave away the moral implications of adopting any policy that increases the chances of people dying at sea. That is a consequence that must always be considered, even if some hold such a position disingenuously. And responsible policymakers must always consider the consequences of every policy.

But the government’s problem — and that of Labor, which has uncritically accepted every aspect of the government’s treatment of asylum seekers — is that it has instead implemented a kind of nightmare version of offshore processing, and is now having to deal with the consequences in terms of broken bodies and minds. Offers from New Zealand to resettle some asylum seekers have been rejected. The Department of Immigration treated the widespread incidence of rape, sexual and physical abuse of women and children on Nauru as an inconvenience that was nothing to do with the government, until it became too difficult politically to ignore.

Both Labor and the Coalition, in government, failed to provide adequate facilities for the housing of families on Nauru. Medical treatment and access to appropriate services was poor (the government continues to insist medical services for detainees are “on par” with those available in Australia, presumably on the basis that they’re on par with the most remote and isolated communities in the country). Asylum seekers have been essentially left to the mercy of people on Nauru, with rape and physical assault occurring outside the “processing” centre with little apparent consequence for the offenders. And the government put more effort into trying to hide evidence of the treatment of detainees than to remedy it.

Now it faces the choice: does it send profoundly damaged people, especially children, back to Nauru (where, notionally, they are not “detained”) to endure more of the conditions that have damaged them; does it send a five-year-old child who has been raped back to a place where his rapist roams free? Does it perpetuate conditions that may well result in detainees killing themselves and harming themselves?

And this is a self-perpetuating problem: the longer the government maintains its punitive version of “offshore processing”, the more people will be damaged, the more people will be raped and abused, the more people will need to come to Australia to access the kind of services that are required to try to begin repairing the damage done to them.

The government argues that returning them to Nauru is necessary in order to ensure maritime arrivals don’t restart — that, in effect, their suffering is required to prevent future deaths of as-yet unidentified people. But that moral calculus is no longer so straightforward. The government itself has magnified, far beyond necessary, the suffering of detainees for its own political convenience. Moreover, it claims that its boat turnbacks policy has been highly effective in stopping boats reaching Australia. What the government is really arguing, therefore, is that it is required to continue gratuitously punishing detainees far beyond the requirements of policy in order to prevent further maritime arrivals, even though it has another, effective policy in place to prevent maritime arrivals.

“Let Them Stay” is a simplistic slogan that ignores the complex morality of real-world decisions and their consequences. But the government’s reflexive invocation of the need to stop the boats is similarly simplistic — and hides the fact that it has consciously adopted a policy of deliberate cruelty that has destroyed any moral case for what Australia is doing to asylum seekers.

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63 thoughts on “Govt has mangled its moral calculus on asylum seekers

  1. Jaybuoy

    Saving other people from drowning by making the ones you have saved wish they had…it would make Joseph Heller envious..

  2. Nicholas

    Bernard Keane’s anodyne centrism won’t solve this problem. His assumptions about the nature of the problem are just as flawed as those of the disingenuous people he claims to be separate from.

    He assumes that it is morally better for large numbers of persecuted people to be killed, raped or tortured out of our sight in their home countries than for a much smaller number of them to die at sea while trying to escape.

    He assumes that Australia faced overwhelming, unmanageable numbers of unauthorised maritime arrivals, and offshore detention therefore serves a necessary and justified deterrent role.

    Both of those assumptions are spectacularly flawed. Bernard Keane would be better served by interrogating those two assumptions than by espousing centrism for centrism’s sake. Being at the centre of a heavily skewed, deeply misguided national approach to asylum-seekers doesn’t make you right. Focus on what’s right rather than where you sit relative to others.

  3. David Hand

    The cold hard fact in all this is that most Australian voters want secure borders and control over who arrives. Any government that relaxes such measures faces a massive electoral backlash. This is why Labor has a bipartisan position over asylum seekers.

    This bipartisan position is that asylum seekers who arrive by boat will not be settled n Australia. That is why the campaign to let them stay is dishonest. Success of such a campaign would give people smugglers a product to sell and the boats would start again.

    Campaigners for softer measures such as SHY et al are not helped by the social disaster that is unfolding in Germany and Sweden. Germany got over a million last year, half of them single men and there’s a good chance they’ll get another million in 2016. We can expect plenty of emotional causes for refugee advocates to get excited about when Sweden tries to deport its unwelcome arrivals. Australians look at that and breathe a sigh of relief that the boats were stopped.

    But it is not a self perpetuating problem. Because the boats have stopped, there are no new arrivals coming into the asylum processing system and those in it will eventually be helped.

  4. graybul

    “And responsible policymakers must always consider the consequences of every policy.”

    Oh that that was the only driver, motivation. Policymakers however, draft their policy based on the known intent of those that employ them. And those that employ them in this case, are politicians. Politicians believe in the art of the possible, at the centre of which is personal belief, retention of power and the accepted guiding philosophy, ideology of those around them that allocate power.

    As an individual, an Australian, in the full knowledge of this Nation’s beginnings, our history of a fair go, stability, trust and belief in each other, has led me to, over recent decades to deeply question our political leadership. To imprison, detain indefinitely, and under our law to facilitate murder, rape, and abuse of women and children reflects exactly our nation’s beginnings in 1788.

  5. Jaybuoy

    @DH.. In the meantime these people are kept as “heads on pikes” as a warning to others.. even an offer from NZ to take some of the families was rebuffed..so much for “reprocessing” … using human misery as a policy tool is inhuman and unworthy of us..

  6. Lachlan Duncan

    If we are going to engage in “moral calculus”, i think it is important to make sure the assumptions we use are based on fact. For instance, I have not seen any evidence that a punitive dentention system or offshore processing, actually saves lives. I would be interested if anyone could provide that documented evidence for me. Also, are we looking at the calculus of the whole picture? Is punitive detention actually deterrent? Again, is there any independent evidence for this? If offshore detention is a deterrent, where are people going instead? Perhaps they are going to other countries where the journey is just as dangerous? If they are choosing to stay in their own countries – maybe this is more dangerous than an Indonesia / Australia sea hop? So if we are going to look at moral calculus, we need to look at the complete picture and not just a small part of it. My guess that the government is not really interested in this sort of calculus. I would suggest that the people taking these journeys look at these equations pretty closely and choose to take the option where they are least likely to die.

  7. John H

    Well said David Hand. You have very eloquently refuted all the arguments put forward by opponents of offshore processing. Like the editorial in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Bernard Keane is quick to denounce offshore processing but silent when it comes to offering a viable alternative. And yes the behaviour of Syrian refugees in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland has destroyed any goodwill towards Syrian refugees that may have existed.

  8. Venise Alstergren

    Perhaps politicians should ask themselves…”Is it better to send asylum seekers to an out of control ‘leper colony’ or is it better to watch them drowning themselves at sea?

  9. Pamela

    “responsible policymakers must always consider the consequences of every policy.”

    The Expert Panel knew from the previous experience of Nauru, the likely consequences.They witnessed first hand the suicide attempts, mental breakdown, illness and death which occured after 2001.

    As for “short term circuit breaker”- how could it be short term when it was specified that the people sent to Nauru could receive no advantage over the millions waiting in camps in Africa for 30 years or the Refugees waiting in Indonesia for resettlement some 40 years hence by current rates. No Nauru is intened to be a life or death sentence. The only chance is an offer of a place in somewhere even poorer less safe and with less protection than Nauru if Australia can find it. So far knocked back by Kyrgstan, Phillipines, Timor south American Countries etc but grabbed 4 places for 40 million dollars from Cambodia.
    No thinking Australia believes that Manus or Nauru are sustainable solutions- they are just political fixes.
    The question to be asked and tackled seriously is WHY Australia believes we have a right to CLEANSE THE COUNTRY OF ALL ASYLUM SEEKERS- or put simply on what grounds do we assert the right to be an asylum free zone at a time when this movement of people seeking protection is the greatest Human Crisis of our time? What gives us the right?

  10. paddy

    It’s a deeply and profoundly shameful thing, to be an Australian in 2016, still listening to a constantly updated version of “here comes the yellow/brown/Muslim peril”.
    Whether it’s disguised as “we don’t want them to drown” or “there’s not enough room” or “they must form an orderly queue”. It still makes me sick to the stomach.
    As a certain dog once famously tooned. Let them all come.

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