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Ethical demands of a regional solution

  • 30 June 2011

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