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Why calls for compassion for refugees don't work

  • 09 September 2015
It's easy to disparage those calling for a more humane approach to the refugee crisis.

There's The Spectator's line about moral grandstanding and, locally, Chris Kenny's call for sobriety in The Australian: 'Emotion, moral vanity, political posturing and good intentions won't be much of a guide when it comes to making the right decisions and delivering the best results'.

Such opinion writers get so much traction because they're essentially correct. Of course, compassion alone is not enough: money, personnel, resources, diplomacy, aid, accommodation and many other things are required.

The implication is that 'moral grandstanding' — or what I would call a sense of humanity — creates a kind of junk energy that not only doesn't help solve the crisis, but actually makes it worse by focusing attention on an entirely unhelpful element of the problem.

In other words, time spent complaining about how callous everyone else is, is time spend on an entirely unproductive (and self-serving) pursuit.

Australia has long led the world in cruelty towards refugees, so the experiences here provide a good arena to test these claims. The fact that both major parties support harsh measures would suggest that those calling for a more humane approach have been largely ineffective. In fact, it might be having the opposite effect.

Referring to the detention facilities as 'torture camps', one 'senior source' within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection explained to The Saturday Paper how the government actually benefits from news about sexual assaults, rape, torture and deaths within these centres: ' ... the more the stories get out about how awful it is, from the government's perspective, the more it serves as a deterrent.'

This doesn't mean that calls for a more compassionate approach should be abandoned, but those who are outraged by the treatment of refugees, both here and in Europe, need to acknowledge that putting compassion at the centre of the argument simply hasn't worked.

We live in a society in which economic rationalism predominates and those who simply discount or dismiss economic arguments around migration policy risk being ignored. There is something abhorrent about reducing the life of an asylum seeker to a dollar amount on a balance sheet. For this reason, it's important that an economically-minded approach doesn't replace calls for more compassion, but operates alongside it.

The first part of this argument should focus on the cost of the current Fortress Australia policies. Take, for example, the recent announcement that Cambodia