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Fatal cost of shutting borders

Andrew Hamilton |  07 September 2014

Barbed wire fence

Two significant news items about asylum seekers came in the past week. Hamid Kehazaei died in Brisbane from an infection acquired on Manus Island detention centre, and the Red Cross had to lay off five hundred workers after losing its contract to provide support to asylum seekers living in the community. The incidents attracted only passing notice. They simply restated and reasserted existing policies and values.

Mr Kehazei's death emphasised what was already clear from reports and leaks about conditions in the Manus Island detention centre. It is a dangerous place that affects people's physical and mental health.

The transfer of support of asylum seekers from the Red Cross to Centrelink and other agencies means that vulnerable people will lose the relationships they had built with dedicated and experienced workers. They had been able to trust an organisation with a humane ethos and wisdom in meeting their needs. That is now gone. Its loss will add to the misery of already fragile human beings.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison explained that the new system would give better value for money. From the perspective of Australian policy, both Mr Kehazei's death and the loss of the Red Cross contract do indeed give value for money. The misery and loss suffered by people who have applied for protection in Australia are an essential part of preventing other people from coming by sea.

No new ground is broken in these events. Nor will arguments change our readers' attitudes to them. Still, it is important for journals like ours to record them for the judgment of future generations. But it is worth reflecting on the Minister's phrase, 'better value for money'. For him the value at issue was simply economic efficiency. 

When we are dealing with people, however, values other than economic efficiency may also come to mind. Respect for our shared humanity, for example, helping people in need, building good relationships, acting with decency and encouraging human flourishing. Some people, perhaps temerariously, would describe these as Australian values. They might even prefer to have their tombstones inscribed with the words: 'He always treated friends and strangers with respect', than with: 'He always got value for his money'.

If people who come to us seeking protection are forced to leave Australia by choice or by death, might it not be to our credit as a nation if they could say that they found here respect and decency as well as economic efficiency?


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Image via Shutterstock. 




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Submitted comments

Making people starve to death here so they won't bother to ask us for help anymore is typical of the thought patterns of our parliament.

Marilyn 05 September 2014

Given the enormous cost of offshore detention, the "value for money" argument should be closing detention centres and processing asylum seekers in the community. If just a small proportion of the billions spent on Manus & Nauru were spent speedily processing asylum seekers in Indonesia, there'd be no "leaky boat" problem either.

LJ 06 September 2014

Well and truly said, Fr Hamilton. For the sake of our own humanity as well as that of asylum seekers, we cannot afford to sink any lower. I am ashamed beyond words that these barbarities are carried out in the name of Australians. What have we become if we accept this.

Patricia R 08 September 2014

When love for God declines, 'his' consequent worship is usually replaced by worship of the false 'gods' of Mammon, Power and Fame.....In a disordered society, Mammon (money),- is usually the leading contender, because it seems to promise the others as well. However too often have we witnessed that of those who were said to possess much money, that the money possessed them, and they spent their lives as slaves to their money, dedicated to protecting it, trying to make it grow, fearful of losing it, and losing sight of the finer aspects of life.

Robert Liddy 08 September 2014

Thanks, Andrew. As always I value your reflections and mourn the loss of humanity in our country.

Tom McDonough CP 08 September 2014

Thank you Andrew via Eureka Street for speaking out about current issues. You have a powerful voice for Justice and Peace yet I feel it does not get the wide attention that many feel it deserves. Is a more collective voice an answer, where the voice of justice and compassion forcefully present the issue before Team Australia? Economic rationales should be secondary to human needs. Increasingly I feel the government deal with people in a way that could be described as silent and sinister. I take that to mean that our form of democracy is more economically expedient when it comes to dealing with human beings and their needs, than open and freeing for all. Democracy seems to be struggling at present!

Br Geoff Kennewell,fsc 08 September 2014

Mr Morrison remember as you sow you shall reap. Problem if things go wrong we will also be unwilling reapers.

Clem SCHAPER 08 September 2014

I would prefer to die at sea than live in the filth and degradation of Manus Island and die of septicaemia from a cut foot. Of course they don't want Red Cross involvement, they actually CARE for people.

Vineta 08 September 2014

Forgive me Father Hamilton, for I suspect that I am about to sin yet again. Your article today is a massive over-reaction. Death from septicaemia according to official Australian figures from 2008 indicate that from 1999 -2008 septicaemia as a cause of death rose from 54% to 61% despite Australia's recognised leadership in world best practice in Medicine. Further, infection was the cause of death in 1,935 patients in 2008 - 1.3% of all deaths and 2 out of 3 of those due to septicaemia. Here we have one death from septicaemia in an asylum seeker community of many more than 1,935. this number pales into insignificance when measured against the number of asylum seekers drowned at sea after the Rudd-Gillard confluence opened our borders. Thank goodness the closing of that flawed disaster has eliminated the thousands of deaths at sea. Time to get over the hysteria and address reality. I am sure the Salvation Army has more than sufficient funds to cover its humanitarian efforts for asylum seekers. If not they will come knocking on the doors of the Australian people who provide enormous funding for the Salvos quite apart from the compulsory taxes they pay for the running of the country and the care of asylum seekers.

john frawley 08 September 2014

For all I know, Fr H may be right. Perhaps, behind closed doors, the Coalition pollies last week were clinking champagne glasses at the death of poor Mr Kehazaei while patting Mr Morrison on the back for a job well done. But when bubbly runs out and they stop to think, shouldn't they sack Mr Morrison on his record? I mean, two deaths in a year, as opposed to the 250 per year under the Labor/Greens regime! Why would a prospective boat person be scared off by Morrison’s paltry death rate, but happily take to the water (as they did) when the likelihood of ultimately perishing was vastly greater? If at Fr H suggests, the penny-pinching Coalition is serious about its death-and-misery-as-disincentive policy, it needs to stop forthwith the expensive airlifting of sick detention inmates to high quality hospitals, improving conditions on Manus Is. (as UNHCR inspectors reported in July), and maybe go easy on club-happy security guards. I can’t understand what the Coalition is on about. The only other possible explanation – that it believes boat people are discouraged not by deaths, but by the hugely increased likelihood that their boats will be turned back to Indonesia or that even if they made it to Australia and were deemed genuine asylum seekers, they would be settled in country other than Australia, is surely a fantasy not even this cruel, dumb government could possibly entertain, right?

HH 08 September 2014

I am deeply ashamed at the governments inhumane policy . It doesn't even make economic sense yet MONEY seems to drive Abbott's government . they are ideologues & dangerous

val 08 September 2014

Scott Morrison says that developing infections is not unusual in the northern tropical places (read Manus). Surely that suggests that there is an obligation to provide specialised and preventative medical care should be essential and readily available to people/asylum seekers. My shame in our government, grows by the day. Ady

Adrianne Hannan 08 September 2014

Some people might wonder which political party the majority of ES commentators vote for? Well it is not difficult to know who they vote for ! When Tony Abbott is blamed for a disease, that he has no control, well we all know, which political party they support.

Ron Cini 08 September 2014

Perhaps a better heading for this article would have been “Fatal cost of NOT shutting borders”. After the Rudd government scrapped Howard’s border protection policies in 2008, 1200 asylum-seekers drowned tying to get into Australia, over 200 people a year. While the AS lobby agonises over the deaths of two asylum-seekers on Manus Island, probably over 200 people, including several dozen kids, have not died trying to enter Australia. But now that the flood of asylum-seekers has been stemmed perhaps Australia’s refugee intake total which was cut from 20,000 to 13,750 a year should be restored. One would have thought that the AS lobby would be pressing for that rather than constantly whacking the Government over Manus Island. But then I suppose it’s more sexy and emotionally satisfying to keep vilifying the cruel mean Abbott government than pressing it to adopt feasible policies that would help thousands of desperate refugees. Restoring the refugee quota would mean that we could accept far more genuine refugees from war-torn areas who’ve lost everything instead of self-selecting economic migrants posing victims of persecution. And the $2.5 billion already saved from stopping the boats would pay for this. But perhaps a billion of that could be put aside to house Australia’s homeless (our urban refugees) which currently number 105,000 with about 6500 sleeping in our cities' streets nightly. But that’s not a very sexy cause either is it for the PC fraternity?

Dennis 09 September 2014

What a disgusting state of affairs - another life lost through no fault of his own. When are we as a society going to take action against the governments and policymakers of this country of ours, going to speak out against such inhumane treatment of our fellow human beings. Shame! Shame! Shame!

Barbara 09 September 2014

Excellent Comment Dennis. I think that you have hit the nail squarely on the head here. 50,000 refugees fleeing ISIS would be more deserved of places here than either the Sri Lankan Tamils who were safely housed in India, yet self-selected themselves to come here. And as you pointed out there have been no deaths as sea. These called refugee advocates are failing miserably at displaying their so-called superior sense of compassion, when they have demonstrated their clear desire for asylum seekers to die at sea. Two deaths in detention centrs is a tragedy. 1200 deaths at sea is an unmitigated catastrophe.

Neil 09 September 2014

Denis, we could save the billions by simply not locking up refugees in the first place. Not helping them is not an option under the law.

Marilyn 09 September 2014

I never dreamt that the day would come when I would be ashamed to be Australian. We are dealing with human beings! People who are fleeing for their lives, turning to us for help not imprisonment and worse. What has happened to the 'do to others as you would have them do unto you'.

Marie 09 September 2014

Very persuasively argued Andrew. Concerning asylum seekers who come by boat, they have been used by our representatives - so-called - in Parliament. Two issues especially need to have a focus. The first is that so many asylum seekers who come by boat have no other option, because, as people in danger in the countries from which they are fleeing, they cannot present themselves at an embassy of our country to get the all-important paper work. An example i know of personally is children in Iran with their dad after the parents split went to our embassy in Tehran to get visitors' visas, to come and see their Mum, now resident in Australia, only to be told only Australian citizens could be seen by embassy staff, So, so much for claims that Iranian 'boat people' are just economic immigrants. And, in so many countries in so many parts of the world, there is no way those fleeing for their lives in the only direction open to them can head in the opposite one to get visas. A second major issue is that so many are being held in offshore detention centres where it is very difficult for them to contact refugee advocates, or for those lawyers in many cases even to know where they are are and how to contact them. And, it seems that the majority being held in the two now-notorious centres in PNG - Manus Island and Nauru, have no prospect of ever coming to Australia, so are being punished, and 'demonised' as well - for seeking basic human rights, including, yes, access to adequate medical care, John! And what about the other Iranian man, bashed to death as he hid from violent assaults by staff in their detention centre? And, another huge area of concern - the impact of being detained, in many cases indefinitely, on children, How will they survive, to live lives some of us, the fortunate ones, take for granted? Finally, what are we, the 'people-on-the-ground' prepared to do, to make it clear to our 'leaders' - so-called - that we are not prepared to keep on sitting on our hands when these people need our care, not our scorn, or much worse. As a member of a state ecumenical refugee support task group for many years, my heart aches to join again with others in welcoming people who most need our care and support. Anyone else out there interested in joining that effort? In prayer, and with concern, Lynne

kynne green 10 September 2014

Marilyn: I don’t think we would save billions by not locking up asylum-seekers. If we allowed them to live in the community till their asylum claims were processed we would have to provide welfare payments to support them and full access to all the health and social welfare services – as we do with bona fide refugees who’ve legally entered Australia. This too would cost billions. But relative costs is not the main issue here. It’s the fact that the by not detaining them, but allowing them to live in the community, we make Australia an even more attractive destination for them, prompting even more to come (and drown). As it was the prospect of spending many months or years in detention centres on Christmas island and elsewhere did not deter 51,760 coming from 2008-13. In 2008 it was only 161, but shot up to 2727 in 2009, 6555 (2010), 4565 (2011), 17,202 (2012) and 20,587 (2013). Imagine if Labor’s original open-border policies prevailed how many more would have come. And imagine how numbers would have soared even more if asylum-seeker arrivals had not been detained but allowed to live almost immediately in the community. Perhaps hundreds of thousands in a couple of years. Is this what you would have wanted Marilyn? How many such people do you think Australia could or should take?

Dennis 10 September 2014

It appears that the issuing of opening up borders and deaths at sea is truly a global issue. This (rather hard-hitting) article from the UK about Italy's issues is a must-read, to gain a sense of what is going on... http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9303722/italys-decriminalising-of-illegal-immigration-has-acted-as-a-green-light-to-boat-people/

Neil 10 September 2014

Another excellent article from the Guardian highlights the global - not just Australian issue of offshore v onshore processing. I think that once readers get a sense of the issues involved, the debate is really over. We can't, just for the sake of showing how compassionate we are, pretend that onshore processing is the way to go, when we know for sure that this will kill people 0-as it does all over the world... Even the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, "has said for the first time that the large-scale processing of migrants and refugees outside Europe, in countries such as Egypt, Libya or Sudan, may be necessary as frontline authorities claim they have been abandoned by Brussels in the face of a "colossal humanitarian catastrophe"." http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/02/europe-refugee-crisis-un-africa-processing-centres

Neil 10 September 2014

The difference, HH, is that those who would potentially have died at sea are now possibly having their throats cut open by IS militants. Morality and justice is not confined to just sweeping global problems under the rug with petty political tactics.

AURELIUS 10 September 2014

Two people dying when they are under the care and protection of Australian authorities is two too many. If we are serious about "better value for money", then perhaps the multimillions spent on detention camps in Anywhere-but-Australia would be better spent supporting the processing of refugees within their communities in Australia. It is not an impossible challenge.

Brett 10 September 2014

Denis, welfare is a maximum of $20,000 per annum per refugee, prison on Nauru or Manus is $890,000 per annum per person.

Marilyn 10 September 2014

So the asylum seekers you refer to preferred having their throats cut back home by ISIS to a refugee camp in Indonesia or Malaysia or in several nearer destinations, Aurelius? Strange priorities. But even if that were the case, it's completely irrelevant to my point: the notion suggested by Fr H that the Coalition deliberately tolerates deaths in offshore detention camps as a means of discouraging would-be boat people, and thereby saving money, is as absurd as it is offensive. Excellent points, Dennis and Neil (and John Frawley, etc). Europe is at last painfully beginning to realize that no-one - including the genuine asylum seeker - benefits from national auto-demolition via PC versions of "kindness".

HH 10 September 2014

Marilyn: Thanks for the info on the costs of detaining as opposed to permitting asylum-seekers to live freely in the community. It seems that the latter would be a “cheaper” option, financially at least. But I suspect the support services required by asylum-seekers would push the total to well over $20,000 a year. But that doesn’t really answer the questions I raised on the huge numbers of asylum-seekers who would come if we adopted open borders-live in the community policies on them. Over 20,000 a year were arriving by 2013, despite all efforts to deter them by not adopting such policies. Were we to do so one would expect their numbers to explode – along with their death tolls (about 2% of those who try it seems). Perhaps 100,000-200,000 would come in the subsequent couple of years with death tolls of 2000 to 4000. Do you pro-asylum-seeker people ever consider such questions and the consequences of the asylum-seeker policies that you so stridently advocate? And how many of these people can Australia afford to take? Should we just scrap our current immigration policies and simply replace them with one that simply lets in all who claim they are fleeing persecution? Still waiting for answers Marilyn.

Dennis 12 September 2014

Hi, just for the record, the figures of $20,000 for community detention and $890,000 for detention on Nauru or Manus Island are not correct by a far way. The Greens (who are hardly likely to exaggerate the cost of community detention, and under estimate the cost of Nauru/ Manus Island) have cited the cost to be $35,000 for community detention and $225,000 for detention on Nauru/ Manus Island. So the difference is no doubt significant. The current policies have limited boat arrivals to such a negligible amount, saving lives in the process that offshore detention, on a purely costs basis is by far the best option. As Dennis (and Fr H) correctly point out however this matter cannot be viewed in terms of costs. The issues is asssit those who are most in need AND genuinely in need. Read this article by Lyle Shelton of the ACL which balances the need to stop people smuggling with the need to open our hearts and increase our intake of refugees.

Neil 12 September 2014

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