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Ethical demands of a regional solution


The SBS series Go Back to Where You Came From had the great merit of touching the imagination of viewers and participants. It created space for a thoughtful conversation about asylum seekers and the Malaysia solution.

That space is also needed to reflect on the ethical issues at stake in the Malaysia solution. I shall outline my argument that it is not morally justifiable and what follows from that conclusion. Others may disagree. But the subsequent conversation may then illuminate points of divergence about the importance of moral considerations in public policy, and about the principles that make a policy right or wrong.

The starting point of my argument lies in an understanding of human dignity. It argues that each human being is precious, and must be treated as an end in herself, and not as a means to an end. Our dignity must be respected because we are human, not because we are Australian, Christian or whatever.

What respect for human dignity entails can be spelled out in terms of human flourishing. If they are to flourish, human beings need security, shelter, food, health, education, freedom of belief and expression, and a society to belong to and contribute to. The absence of such conditions is reflected in physical and mental distress.

For the argument, too, it is axiomatic that human beings can only flourish within society. We are diminished without families, schools, markets, places of conversation and governments. If we can live with human dignity only because we are supported in a network of structured relationships, we are bound also to ensure that our society respects the human dignity of all others, and particularly those whose flourishing is threatened.

This obligation falls on us as individuals and citizens, and on the governments through whom our obligations to those distant from ourselves are coordinated. That obligation is measured by the extent to which it is reasonably possible for people or institutions to meet it. That is why some obligations can be discharged only through international cooperation. But citizens are responsible for demanding their governments act ethically.

This is the basis for reflecting on what respect for the human dignity of refugees entails. The ethical obligation of society to respect the human dignity of refugees is roughly codified in the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the status of refugees. It commits signatory states to offer protection to claimants who are found to be refugees.

Measured by this ethical framework, Australia does show respect for the human dignity of those whom it brings to Australia as refugees. This is a gesture of international cooperation to protect those whose human dignity is not respected in their own nations.

But Australia fails in many ways in respect for the human dignity of those who come to Australia, particularly by boat, to make their claim for refugee status. Prolonged detention has led to mental trauma and often to prolonged mental illness. When detention and other measures are deployed as a means of deterrence, they are doubly wrong because they infringe the human dignity of asylum seekers in order to gain a broader end.

Supporters of the Malaysian solution have advocated it as an instrument for sharing international responsibility for refugees. It involves Australia accepting up to 5000 asylum seekers in Malaysia, who have been declared to be refugees but who have not yet found a country that will offer them protection. In return Australia will send up to 1000 asylum seekers to Malaysia without adjudicating or accepting their claims for protection.

The morality of this proposal must be judged by the extent to which it respects the human dignity of the asylum seekers whom Australia proposes to send to Malaysia. Because human dignity is inviolable and non-transferrable, any disrespect for their human human dignity cannot be justified by the benefits received by others involved in the policy. Their claim on Australia for protection cannot be transferred to others.

This means that the proposal can be ethically justified only if it guarantees to those sent to another country as high a level of protection as they would find in Australia. For all asylum seekers this means adequate food, shelter, medical care, security and support for family groups. For refugees, it also means as prompt acceptance into a society with opportunity to build a new life there as they would find in Australia.

These are the minimal ethical demands of a regional solution. Most discussion has turned on whether the basic conditions of human dignity will be guaranteed in Malaysia. But even if the Malaysian government guaranteed the security, sustenance and education of the asylum seekers, the human dignity of those found to be refugees would still be significantly infringed. They would be unable to enter Malaysian society equally, and they have no possibility of prompt acceptance into another society. The claim that they justly make on Australia for the protection of their human dignity is therefore contravened.

This failure to respect the human dignity of claimants could only be ethically justified if the burden that Australia incurred by offering protection were unreasonable, either absolutely, or in comparison with neighbouring nations. Any comparative statistics make that claim unsustainable.

The Malaysian solution raises further ethical question for those who judge it to fail the requirements of respecting human dignity. As citizens, they would be expected to make clear their moral judgment of the policy. If they are involved in discussing and implementing it, they would not be able to take any active part in implementing processes that involve disrespect for the human dignity of the people involved. But they might properly be involved in attempting to mitigate the effects of the disrespect for human dignity involved in it.

That is my argument. Of course it is open to question at many points. Some will argue that all ethical positions are relative and so irrelevant. Others may assert that it is arbitrary to speak of inalienable human dignity. It might also be argued that only individuals have ethical obligations, not groups or nations, or that we have moral responsibilities only to our own, and not to strangers.

Some may claim that it is legitimate to infringe the human dignity of one group of people in order to benefit a larger number. Some may claim that in dealing with governments one must leave behind one’s ethical principles and be pragmatic.

But I expect that there is something to be said for aiming at consistency between our ethical principles, our actions and our hopes for national life. That is the presumption of any ethical discussion.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Malaysia solution, go back to where you came from, asylum seekers, refugees



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Existing comments

One would have thought that Malaysia, whose inhabitants are mainly Muslim, would welcome [mainly] Muslim refugees. I understand that non-Muslims are not equal to Muslims in Allah's eyes [not that I agree with this view] but I can't understand why Muslims would not treat fellow Muslims with greater respect.

Skye | 30 June 2011  

The only true solution is that we welcome the Suffering Other to honour their dignity and our own.

Dr Vacy Vlazna | 30 June 2011  

The mesmering line in Andrew's commentary is the assertion that "...citizens are responsible for demanding their governments act ethically."

For weeks we have watched our television screens deliver us a panorama of brutality in those lands where its citizenry have indeed demanded ethical government...and have been shot down by government snipers even at the suvsequent and constant funerals. Australia has barely opened its international voice.
Where was Kevin 747 when, betwixt flying into so many lands, he never landed in Damascus?

The best recent people-power demonstration most recently seen in Australia was the upheaval of disgust over the television news portrayal of the cruelty of livestock sent to Indonesia. The most significant stunning in this case..and I use the word deliberately...was that of the Gillard government. It was overwhelmed into action.

While its demonstrably true that detention for refugees fiercely aggravataes mental illness, let us not forget that the whole question of mental illness in Australia has treated like a refugee bundle...something to be put out of sight and thus out of mind.Only now is it being drawn out of the cupboard and being recognised for the national plight that it is.
In more distand lands where brutal regimes hold sway...such as in the poverty stricken North Korea...or the obscenely wealthy Arab countries it seems that only a constant stream of willing martyrs are needed,ready ro sacrifice a sea of blood, to effect change...but here in Australia the challenge is the combination of a government's tin ear and the apathy of a spectator nation, content to watch on.Dignity? That was abandoned a long time ago.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 30 June 2011  

The Government's and Opposition's machinations on asylum seekers brings to mind the terse opinion of Albert Camus - "By definition, a government has no conscience". Thank you again, Andrew, for a trenchant piece on what is fast becoming a defining moral issue of modern Australia as it touches on human beings rather than cows.

Duncan MacLaren | 30 June 2011  

Well written, Andrew! I believe that the way we treat these people is a disgrace, whether it be in a 'prison' type situation in Malaysia, Nauru or some outback place such as Baxter. Skye your comment about Muslims is silly and naive. I never saw the SBS show, but suspect it is nothing more that 'mickey mouse' fictional reality TV. I believe these refugees should be shown a bit of old fashioned charity and given a temporary visa and some Centrelink income for approximately three months or until their bona vide refugee status is determined.

Mark Doyle | 30 June 2011  

One would have thought that Malaysia, whose inhabitants are mainly Muslim, would welcome [mainly] Muslim refugees. I understand that non-Muslims are not equal to Muslims in Allah's eyes [not that I agree with this view] but I can't understand why Muslims would not treat fellow Muslims with greater respect.

Skye | 30 June 2011  

Your piece is spot on but to quote Qoheleth "how useless it all is , what chasing of the wind "
Such Christian morals and ethics that you use as the first principles to base your article on are of no use in secular Australia .Our parliment is not a Christian one and Christian views are in fact dispised in it hence Homosexual Mariage ,euthenasia ,Malaysian solutions ,animals more important than people etc are all ok in modern Australia ..The brilliant article earlier in the week on the "slippery slope" exposed all of this as the consequence of moving away from God as the foundation of our behaviors and the total unsurety of where it will end.
We can talk to each other in the pages or Eureka St but we must remember that the people of Australia and the people they elect are totally opposed to Christian views because they demand to many tough decisions .We are on the slippery slope .

john crew | 30 June 2011  

Tone Poem for Skye

One would have thought that the United States, whose inhabitants are mainly Christian, would welcome [mainly] Mexican Christian refugees. I understand that non-Christians are equal to Christians in God’s eyes, so I can't understand why Christians would not treat fellow Christians with greater respect.

Likewise, one would have thought that Italy, whose inhabitants are mainly Christian, would welcome [mainly] Albanian and other Balkan Christian refugees. I understand that non-Christians are equal to Christians in God’s eyes, so I can't understand why Christians would not treat fellow Christians with greater respect.

One would have thought that South Africa, whose inhabitants are mainly Christian, would welcome Zimbabwean and other southern African Christian refugees. I understand that non-Christians are equal to Christians in God’s eyes, so I can't understand why Christians would not treat fellow Christians with greater respect.

Desiderius Erasmus | 30 June 2011  

Mark Doyle - careful what you say as you insult Islam if you believe Islam says all are equal in dignity in Allah's eyes. Read the Koran. Sura 9:1 in which Allah frees Muslims from obligations of treaties with non-Muslims - i.e.idolators. Do you ever wonder why Christians are treated so poorly in Islamic countries? Also check Sura 9: 29 in which Allah advocates fighting people of the Book - that is Jews and Christians unless they pay jizya tax - that is the tax of subservient peoples.

There is an apartheid system built into Islam - where some people are not equal to others and as such notions come from the direct word of Allah himself, they cannot be 'revised'.

Skye | 30 June 2011  

Desiderius Erasmus- of course your comment ignores the fact that the US has accepted millions of refugees [go and check, how many has Malaysia accepted as citizens ..

Skye | 30 June 2011  

It's just plain illegal, no more needs to be said.

Marilyn | 30 June 2011  

Not to mention that there are only .01% of the world's refugees here and we still treat them with revulsion and disgust.

And Mark, watch the show, it is the best TV you will ever see and nothing remotely MM about it.

Marilyn | 30 June 2011  

It is good that we are accepting more asylum seekers. Other countries like New Zealand should accept more. The real problem is the people smugglers who exploit the vulnerable through criminal methods. It appears that Indonesia and other Asian countries regard them as legitimate business people. Recently it has been reported that three smugglers that have been in prison in Indonesia have been released. it is important that the Australian government bypass the smugglers and through advertising and other means in these countries encourage refugees to apply for asylum through normal channels and at the same time try and clear the camps with the help of other countries.

john ozanne | 30 June 2011  

Alas, we've yet to call ourselves civilised. As Christians we should all hang our heads in shame.

Notwithstanding Hamilton's assertion that there may be diverse opinions about ethics or moral responsibility (etc), like pregnancy, either you are or you are not.

Alex Njoo | 30 June 2011  

Treat others only, as you consent to being treated in the same situation.
This, the golden rule, is the core ethical teaching of all the world’s great religions. To use this rule, knowledge and imagination is required. So what effect will our actions have on the lives of others? And then, can we imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes on the receiving end of actions. If we violate the golden rule then are we violating Australia’s great spirit of fairness and concern for other?

The golden rule is best seen as a consistency principle. And as you say Andy, ‘there is something to be said for aiming at consistency between our ethical principles, our actions and our hopes for national life. That is the presumption of any ethical discussion.’

jo dallimore | 30 June 2011  

For god's sake, they are not people smugglers, they are people asked to give refugees a damn ride.

If we stop them John then the refugees are stopped and they die.

Marilyn | 30 June 2011  

Taking 4,000 additional refugees from the front of the queue is a step toward humanely dealing with the world's refugees. Commentators seem to forget this aspect of the proposed arrangement.

Sending undocumented asylum seekers to Malaysia to join the back of the queue is a disincentive to paying people smugglers to transport people to Australia. If I was a refugee, and I knew that I could pay $15,000 or whatever to ultimately wind up at the back of the queue in a Malaysian refugee camp, I'd save my $15,000 and just knock on the front door of the camp.

David Arthur | 30 June 2011  

Skye, it doesn't matter what Malaysia thinks or doesn't think. The point of Andrew's article is that it is not ethical for Australia to send refugees to Malaysia - that's the nub. What Malaysia does is immaterial.

By the way, most of the refugees from Sri Lanka are Hindu, not Muslim, and amongst the refugees from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, there are Christians. I don't think the Government's calculus distinguishes between these. As for the Opposition, they are in a complete moral vacuum anyway when it comes to refugees.

ErikH | 30 June 2011  

the mythical queue, David!

jo dallimore | 30 June 2011  

The only queue David Arthur is here. Are we such savages we think we can trade away human beings like tins of peas?

Marilyn | 01 July 2011  

Hey SKYE- did you know that Malaysia already has 94,000 card carrying refugees? There are thousands more not yet processed. Did you know that many have spent 10-20 years waiting for resettlement.
This year so far Australia has had 1621 people arrive by boat.
Forget all this Muslim / non Muslim rubbish- Malyasia is carrying a load and has not signed the refugee Convention and is not too great on human rights..

pamela | 03 July 2011  

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