'Indonesia solution' is immoral


The circumstances in which the Sri Lankan asylum seekers have found themselves in an Australian ship off the coast of Indonesia are dramatic. And the arguments about the legality of the steps by which they have found themselves there are complex.

But this incident is part of a clear policy to prevent asylum seekers from arriving by boat in Australian waters, and to transfer responsibility for housing them, adjudicating their claims and ensuring protection for those found to be refugees, from Australia to Indonesia, in concert with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Given the stridency of the arguments about the issue, it may be helpful to review the moral claims that asylum seekers in boats make on Australia, and the morality of attempting to prevent them from making those claims by transferring responsibility for them to Indonesia.

The core of the argument that we have moral obligations to asylum seekers lies in the responsibility we all have to one another by virtue of our shared humanity. When people come to us in need, they make a claim on us. Where their lives and safety are at risk, we are responsible for helping them insofar as is reasonable.

The difficult moral questions arise in assessing honestly what is reasonable. The obligation we have to try to save the life of a child who has fallen into a river, for example, will be affected by the fact that we cannot swim.

The responsibility to help those in need of protection also falls on us as a society and nation. It is acknowledged in our incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and Protocol into our domestic legislation. The UN also provides a framework for sharing the burdens of protecting asylum seekers. Australia, as a wealthy nation with considerable resources, helps by processing and accepting off-shore some refugees from nations where they face danger on return. These have recently included Myanmar, Sudan and Afghanistan.

The Convention also provides ethical ways of responding to people who make claims for protection on-shore. It allows for processes to discern those with strong claims for protection from those whose claims are weak.

Not all people in urgent need are covered by the grounds set out in the Convention, a fact that is recognised in forthcoming Australian legislation on complementary protection. But the Convention and the prospective legislation recognise that morally the reception of asylum seekers is to be judged primarily by the human reality of those who seek asylum, and not by the will or convenience of those on whom they make a claim.

The political challenge posed by asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat is not that they are not refugees, but that most are refugees. Even by the unsatisfactory processes of adjudicating claims on Nauru and on Christmas Island, the majority of claims for protection have been upheld.

So the only valid ethical grounds on which Australia could refuse to accept for adjudication claims made by boat people for asylum are that they would impose an unreasonable and disproportionate burden on Australia.

This case is difficult to make when we compare the number of asylum seekers making claims on Australia with those who are received in other nations, and the relative resources of these nations. It is also hard to sustain when we compare the numbers of those arriving by boat with the number of immigrants and of visa overstayers that Australia tolerates each year.

It's even more difficult to argue that Australia is entitled to transfer its responsibilities to Indonesia. The transfer does not guarantee effective protection to refugees, and Indonesia is less well resourced to provide protection, both financially and culturally, than Australia. Together these mean that asylum seekers held there will face a long and dehumanising period of detention, beset by fear, insecurity, and inability to live fruitfully.

The asylum seekers will not enjoy effective protection in Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the UN Convention and is unlikely to embody it into its domestic law. Without that measure, those found by the UN to be refugees have no guarantee that they will not be returned to persecution in the nations from which they fled.

Nor will an agreement with Australia promise resettlement outside Indonesia. On the evidence of those detained in Nauru, other nations will see it as Australia's responsibility to protect asylum seekers held in Indonesia at Australia's instigation.

It can be expected then that Australian policy will ensure asylum seekers found to be refugees will wait long in Indonesian detention centres under harsh conditions. Their future will be precarious, with no prospect of returning safely to their own countries, little possibility of resettlement and almost no opportunity to begin a new life in Indonesia. The human damage done by long detention is well documented. It damages human beings in ways that last long after they have been detained.

One argument put tenaciously by the previous Australian government, and still retailed, was that treating asylum seekers arriving by boat punitively was necessary to curb their exploitation by people smugglers and the dangers they would face at sea. Like the argument for deterrence by indefinite detention, this argument effectively involves abusing the human dignity of people in need in order to deter others.

Unless the Government establishes effective ways in which desperate people can find protection in Australia without the need for using people smugglers and accepting the risks involved, the argument is cant. It would also have told against accepting Jewish refugees from Nazi occupied lands and Indochinese refugees after 1975.

The moral argument must begin with the humanity of the asylum seekers and their need, with consideration of what demands are reasonably made on Australia. By these standards the Indonesian solution is morally unjustifiable.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Indonesia, asylum seekers, andrew hamilton, boat people, refugees, sri lanka, tamils



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Existing comments

I think this is pretty much Australia's problem, and Australians should appreciate that the Indonesian government doesn't want to get involved with this unnecessary problem.

Yohanes | 02 November 2009  

I think this is an excellent article. Is there some way you can get it into the daily newspapers? I think Paul Kelly would benefit greatly from reading it.

Anne | 02 November 2009  

good on you, Fr Andrew. A pithy argument in a very difficult situation

paul gill | 02 November 2009  

Excellent article. Please send to major papers plus Kevin Rudd and his minders

Margaret Wills | 02 November 2009  

As an Australian living in Indonesia, I can only say 'Well done, Andrew'. The poverty here is such that the idea of asking Indonesia to take on any further burden by taking care of refugees beggars belief. You can hardly blame Indonesia for not signing the Refugee Convention - they simply can't afford it.

From Australia's perspective, even on economic grounds, there is no argument. If Australia is going to pay Indonesia, will that continue forever? If that is the case, let them into Australia, give them some training and let them find jobs. If Australia will not pay forever, then it is expecting Indonesia, with its own problems with poverty to do so. And that's hardly moral either.

Erik H | 02 November 2009  

I thought your article on the Indonesian solution naive. The logic of it is that anyone in straitened circumstances who gets to Australia by boat should be allowed to stay. But the fact is that the Refugee Convention, designed 60 years ago for Eastern European refugees from Communism is no longer a platform for solving this type of global problem. It is a convention that has served some purpose in the past but is now completely overtaken by events.

The problem the rising expectations of the poor and the fears of those displaced by war must be solved in the countries of origin by a more robust attack on the origins of poverty and the consequences of war. The article also implies that there is no such thing as a refugee queue to get into this country. Who is to know whether the 78 people to be displaced from that queue are not more in need than these subjects of such costless compassion? Or how long they have been waiting?

The issue is not "desperate people finding refuge in Australia" but how many? If not an infinite number then some continuing systemmatic effort of the boat interdiction type is inevitable.

David Pollard | 05 November 2009  

Thank you for the many reasons given, why the Australian Government needs to welcome these desperate asylum seekers into our land.

I am ashamed that our leader has shirked his responsibilities, and actually given money to Indonesia as an incentive into taking these refugees, while Australia remains indifferent to their plight, and indeed creating a display of weakness to the world.

Mr Rudd's reason seems to be, that our borders are so sacrosanct, that they must not be tainted by asylum seekers, begging for permission to live without fear, in our free (or is it?) country.

What is happening to you Mr Rudd? Don't ruin the good work you have started in dismantling Howard's 'Pacific Solution'. Are you letting power rule you as it has done to so many before you.

This 'patience 'you proclaim may be your downfall, but in the meantime/ it is inflicting moore stress and suffering on men women and babies, waiting for you to save them?
For goodness sake, get those people off the ship into Australia, have them processed and allow them to to to lead a productive life in our great country.

There is no shame in changing your mind, but overwhelming shame in refusing to help your neighbour, where life and death is in the balance.

Bernie Introna | 05 November 2009  

An excellent article. I hope that readers opposed to the "Indonesian Solution" will write to Kevin Rudd and their MPs expressing their opposition.

Maureen O'Brien | 06 November 2009  

The so called 'Indonesian Solution' is a callous approach to a human problem. Australia may have genuine concerns that illegal immigrants are masquerading as asylum seekers but the solution cannot be to slam the door shut. There must be an ethical and legal approach, which I suppose would likely be more efficacious in the long ran. It requires sober contemplation.

Mucemi Mwangi | 08 November 2009  


gabbie | 05 December 2013  

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