Putting Refugee Policy on a Bedrock of Decency

My op-ed in the Drum today is about the ethics of asylum-seeker policy, and the need for more bipartisan decency.
Let's put refugee policy on a bedrock of decency, The Drum, 24 March 2014

If there’s one point that unites people across the political spectrum, it is that the issue of refugees has not been well managed over recent years.

Refugees comprise just one-tenth of permanent migrants to Australia in the past decade. So refugees are not clogging our roads. But the asylum seeker conversation is clogging our migration policy debate, because it’s both controversial and complicated.

Australia takes 13,750 refugees a year, down from 20,000 under Labor. Globally, there are 11 million refugees. Add those who are internally displaced or stateless, and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees counts 39 million people on their list of ‘persons of concern’.

Among developed nations, there are two ways of taking refugees: the ‘knock on our door’ approach, and the ‘go to the UNHCR’ approach. Most developed countries follow the former principle. A few – notably Canada, the United States and Australia – work with the UNHCR. These three nations take nine in ten of those from UNHCR camps.

And then there are the drownings at sea. We will never be quite sure how many people died in the past decade coming to Australia by boat – but the figure probably exceeds 1000. About one in twenty asylum seekers who set out on the sea journey to Australia die on the way. Under Labor, the Refugee Resettlement Agreement with Papua New Guinea – and the previously unsuccessful agreement with Malaysia – were an attempt to close off the channel of refugees coming by sea.

The purpose was compassionate – to prevent events like the SIEV X disaster and the Christmas Island tragedy from ever happening again. But it is undeniable that the approach is harsh even when implemented well. And as recent events at the Manus Island detention centre illustrate, the policy has not been implemented well.

After participating in this debate closely for four years, I’ve come to the view that which approach you prefer depends on whether you think in categorical or utilitarian terms. Categorical reasoning, as you’ll recall, judges the morality of an individual act. Utilitarian reasoning looks at the greatest good for the greatest number. A categorical rule might say ‘never set fire to the Australian bush’. A utilitarian might judge it to be appropriate in a backburning operation.

In the asylum-seeker debate, many people of goodwill simply cannot get past the fact that a person who claims a well-founded fear of persecution comes to Australia and is turned away. This is the categorical approach.

Others of equal goodwill could not abide the approach that prevailed after the High Court struck down the Malaysia agreement – which led to refugees having a strong incentive to travel by boat to Christmas Island, rather than attempt to be processed by the UNHCR. Utilitarians argued that taking more onshore arrivals didn’t make us more generous. Unless you think we should have no cap on refugee arrivals, then for every additional person who arrives by boat, we end up taking one less person from a refugee camp. The utilitarian approach is to meet our refugee quota in the way that jeopardises the fewest lives.

In the asylum seeker debate, we can probably get further if we admit the truth in each other’s positions. Utilitarians should recognise that the Refugee Resettlement Agreement effectively sends away people who have come knocking at our door. Those who prefer the categorical approach should admit that their preferred policy would not achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

In answering most problems, I tend to use utilitarian reasoning. That leads me to believe that we have to deter a sea journey with a one-in-twenty chance of death. At the same time, I think we should at the very least restore the annual intake of 20,00 refugees – taken almost exclusively out of UNHCR camps – and encourage other developed nations to join in this process. (It’s a mark of the prevalence of categorical reasoning in the asylum seeker debate that a one-third cut to Australia’s refugee intake has passed largely without comment.)

I also hope that the coming decade sees asylum seekers becoming less of a partisan issue. Over the past twenty years, Australia has seen Indigenous policy go from being used as a wedge issue in racially-charged elections to commanding bipartisan support. In the early-1990s, conservatives argued that native title would ‘destroy our society’, ‘break the economy and break up Australia’. Today, all politicians support Closing the Gap. I would like to see the same outbreak of bipartisan decency occur with asylum seeker policy.

A bipartisan approach to respecting the dignity of asylum seekers would mean never playing politics with the funerals of asylum seekers. No longer talking about ‘illegals’ engaged in a ‘peaceful invasion’. Not deploying the language of human rights in the service of a partisan agenda. Not making tear-choked over-my-dead-body declarations, and then dropping the issue after your side wins power.

Putting the dignity of refugees at the heart of the policy would also make it feasible for Australia to play a leadership role on the issue of asylum seekers. This means better regional cooperation, and exploring innovative solutions, such as the developed world financially supporting developing nations to take more refugees. To eschew creative thinking is to doom the silent millions in refugee camps worldwide to lives of hopelessness and unfulfilled potential.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, and the federal member for Fraser. His website is www.andrewleigh.com. This is an edited extract from a speech delivered to the Lowy Institute.

Showing 4 reactions

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  • commented 2016-10-18 15:36:04 +1100
  • commented 2016-06-08 18:19:48 +1000
    Waleed Aly on “utilitarianism” as a justification for harsh treatment of detainees:
    http://www.theage.com.au/comment/doctors-protest-over-asylum-seekers-shows-us-what-real-morality-is-all-about-20151014-gk9emp.html
  • commented 2016-02-08 18:16:28 +1100
    Jay Wetherell: “Any policy which deliberately harms people, but little children in particular, can’t be justified on any basis… I don’t think that there’s any justification for any policy which can allow you to intentionally put children in harm’s way. That’s the simple message. I don’t think it’s something that can be negotiated. I think it’s a monstrous means-end argument to suggest otherwise”. http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2016/02/bst_20160208_0806.mp3
  • commented 2014-09-29 21:04:54 +1000
    Dear Andrew,
    Please know that people will always seek asylum from us. How they do that and whatever way they come we need compassion and understanding. The furphy that is ‘no more drownings’ will not wash. What we need to understand is the desperation of people fleeing torture and war, horror and poverty. When someone gets on a boat paid or unpaid, it is their decision. They have a right to do so. We all have a right to board a boat, a ship for any reason. We are then responsible for our decision. However when it comes to their safety after they reach our shores, that is our responsibility. Manus Is, Nauru Is must be shut down. No Cambodia transfers. Bring OUR asylum seekers here. It is our responsibility to respond to people in need. We can do it. We can afford it. We CANNOT afford not to have asylum seekers in our midst.
    Please, Andrew. You may be the ALP next leader if you just know how to lead. Like Fraser did during the Vietnamese boat people, it was purely his ‘leadership’ role that silenced the ignorant and the racist.
    Do the same, Andrew for these people. Raise Australia once again to a great and compassionate nation. Please.

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