Getting serious about asylum seeker ethics


The word 'ethics' written on a scrap of paperIn his recent article my Jesuit colleague Frank Brennan asked whether there is any ethical discussion to be had about stopping the boats. He proposed seven points that would give greater ethical coherence to the Government's 'shock and awe response'.

I am in substantial agreement with Frank's argument, and recognise how much hard labour will need to be invested in the political process if his seven points are to be adopted. I would like to carry the conversation further from the ethical perspective.

My question that goes beyond the scope of Frank's paper: if his seven points were implemented, would Australia's asylum seeker policy be ethically coherent or acceptable? I shall argue, as I suspect that Frank also would, that this is not the case. The corollary of this position is that pressing for legal and practical changes to policy will not redeem the policy but will be a necessary and worthwhile exercise in harm minimisation.

The ethical premise from which I begin is that all human beings are precious and unique simply because they are human, and that this value must be respected. They cannot be treated as things or as statistics. In particular their treatment cannot be used as a means to a policy objective that does not look to their personal good.

The second premise of my argument, flowing from the unique value of each human being, is that nations, like individual persons and communities, have an ethical responsibility to help people who come to them in great need if they can. When the priest and levite in the story of the Good Samaritan passed by the traveller in desperate need, they did not simply act uncharitably. They acted wrongly.

Australian asylum seeker policy is based on the harm done to people who come to Australia in great need. The harm done to people is caught in Frank's phrase 'shock and awe'. In military theory the exemplar of shock and awe is Hiroshima. It involves an exercise of overwhelming power that will instil in the enemy the fear of action that will shut down their society and render them unable to fight. That is a fair description of the effects on human beings of prolonged detention in Australia and Nauru documented over many years. In McGorry's phrase they are 'factories for producing mental illness'.

In exercises of shock and awe the destruction of civil society is a means to a military end. In Australian policy, too, the harm suffered by people who have claimed our protection is a means to an end. That end has variously been spelled out in terms of stopping boats, impeding people smugglers, saving drownings and creating an orderly and fair immigration program. Because it relies on the harm deliberately caused to innocent people as a means to these ends, however good these goals may be, the policy is ethically unacceptable.

Seen from this perspective the seven points made by Frank mitigate to some extent the unjustifiable harm done to people by the policy. But they do not make the policy ethically acceptable. If implemented they will certainly exempt from the full rigour of the policy unaccompanied minors, some of those who arrived by boat after the August 2013 cut off date and the group of West Papuans. But the harsh treatment of other people who claim protection from Australia remains ethically unjustifiable.

Frank also emphasises how important it is that Australian refugee policy should be duly enacted in Australian law and that its administration be consistent with it. I agree with this insistence. Parliamentary approval is necessary if the Australian people are to accept responsibility for what the Government does in our name, including our treatment of people who seek asylum.

But of course the fact that a policy is implemented in law does not make the treatment of people that follows from it ethically acceptable. This truism has reference also to use made of the legal distinction between the direct and secondary movement by people who claim protection from Australia. The circumstances of their flight may be humanly material to the ethical claim they make on us; they may also be humanly irrelevant to it. The matter needs to be assessed in each case.

For this reason I would argue that the legal distinction between direct and secondary movement cannot ethically function as a sole or automatic criterion for accepting some claims for protection and excluding others, particularly if the treatment of those excluded is designed to deter other claimants.

I conclude by reemphasising the importance of engagement with government and with the political process in order to make an inhumane policy less inhumane. That work for people at risk is arduous and necessary, and is not helped by making ethical differences central to the engagement. But it is also important for ask and make a call on whether our asylum seeker policy is ethically justifiable.

The conversation won't change Australian attitudes. But the people whose humanity is damaged by our policy and the Australians who will come after us deserve no less from us than moral seriousness.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Frank Brennan, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Thanks Andy. As I said when you first proposed this piece, “There is nothing I would enjoy more than some civil public discourse amongst Jesuits” and our circle on this vexed political and ethical issue. In terms of the short term solution to the loss of life at sea and the expanding trade of the people smugglers luring increasing numbers of asylum seekers to Indonesia for transit to Australia , we all need to work within the reality that all major political parties in Australia are committed to a shock and awe approach. Some of us are prepared to discuss how that shock and awe approach might be tailored to be less callous and objectionable. Others find it so objectionable as to not warrant discussion. Many of us are just deeply troubled and have no idea what to do or say, hoping the problem will go away soon. If in the midst of the evil of the present situation, I can do something to save one life or to accord proper protection to one additional refugee I will do it. I am very grateful that you are prepared to engage in ongoing dialogue on this issue. When confronted with moral evil in public policy, church personnel always have a choice: to be prophetic sticking to the moral absolutes (like the Greens or the US style Right to Life Movement), or to be pragmatic engaging in the compromises needed to temper the evil (like the major political parties and those who agitate better welfare measures for mothers so that they might be less likely to choose abortion). Whichever option we take, we all need to concede that at the moment, the only political parties not wanting to embrace a short term shock and awe approach are the Greens and the Palmer United Party. I wish them all the best, but neither Christine Milne nor Clive Palmer will ever be Prime Minister. I hope our alumni are listening and happy to contribute to the conversation. It’s great that we have Eureka Street where we can have the conversation, anyone can contribute, and everyone can listen in.

Frank Brennan SJ | 04 October 2013  

I recently attended a one-day course on "manual handling" of elderly and disabled people. This was in connection with some voluntary work I do. The leader of the course emphasised to us of the need to put the organisation first, voluntary workers (ourselves) second and 'clients' after that. Because we could not help the 'clients' without a workable organisation and healthy volunteers. A voice inside me said "no, our friends we tend to are just as important as the organisation and the volunteers." I couldn't do the work without that attitude, whether it's right or wrong.

Pam | 05 October 2013  

For completeness, I should include John Madigan of the DLP also opposing the shock and awe tactics of Labor and the Coalition. And neither do I think he will be Prime Minister any time soon. As John knows, that is no offence to him.

Frank Brennan SJ | 05 October 2013  

To be ethical the first thing we do is recognise the legal right to people sailing on the seven seas and stop the pretext that we want to torture survivors because others drowned, they drowned because we let them. 2. refugees seeking asylum are not migrants and there is no legal way to enforce so-called managed migration them, that is a Ruddock and Australian delusion Frank seems to have swallowed with fear that too many might arrive. 3. There is no such legal thing as secondary movement, we don't try and force any other group of people to stay in just one country. The human rights instruments we have ratified and support are more than enough protection for all of us if would implement them instead of throwing them in the bin. There are no smugglers, we are simply punishing refugees who can't pay Qantas because we won't let them. I am astonished always that adults can be so frightened of others that ethics and rights for them don't matter, that includes Frank it seems who is scared 40,000 people might come here, 180,000 arrived in tiny Yemen last year alone with the whinging we do.

Marilyn | 05 October 2013  

There are no smugglers luring anyone anywhere 'Frank but if they were why is that any of our business? There is no vexed business, the human rights treaties we have ratified lay out the minimum standards and other nations get on without pretending we own other countries. people are allowed to seek asylum, the rest is us trying to get out of letting them.

Marilyn | 06 October 2013  

Andy & Frank: Don't let the minor differences between you distract from the main game and let's call a spade a spade - the current policy is an exercise in "hostage taking". It tortures one group of people in a purported attempt to punish and deter another group of people. I know of know ethical system that would countenance such wrong-doing as anything else.

Terry Laidler | 07 October 2013  

If "we" are to become serious about the ethics of seeking asylum in this country, Is not the first essential step that we desist from the usual knee jerk response to any effort to change the situation, particularly the carping high dudgeon that colours so much comment. Surely the "we" of the world who find the whole business unethical and inhumane need to adopt a whole new approach and begin to put forward and champion a practical and achievable ethical position in the public domain, a position that is proactive rather than reactive and which admits empathy to its arguments rather than hackneyed, repetitive dudgeon that serves nothing other than personal, frequently ridiculous, opinions. And I do not refer in this statement to Fathers Hamilton or Brennan whose opinions I respect and which do not qualify as high dudgeon.

john frawley | 07 October 2013  

How do we solve this ethical and moral dilemma?can we absorb all who want to come? It has been suggested that some are economic migrants,do we have the same moral responsibility to them? These are genuine questions, all good people are appalled and saddened by the plight of these suffering people. We hear a lot about the problem of those seeking asylum by boat but no acceptable solutions are put forward.

Ann Bristow | 07 October 2013  

Firstly we should recognise that we are part of the problem. Australia has agreed too easily to support wars in distant parts of the world without seriously looking at the situation. In most places foreign intervention has not helped but has led to an even greater number of those seeking asylum. The vast majority of Australians have come from other countries , we should be first to empathise and make them welcome. Putting refugees behind fences leads to an enormous amount of mental illness and even those finally accepted for settlement here are less likely to be able to contribute to our nation than if we quickly processed their appeals for asylum and welcomed them among us.

Patricia Ryan | 07 October 2013  

Well yes. Maybe I'm living somewhere else, but I can't recall a political argument based on ethics for some time. Nor does it seem possible to engage a conscience in so many pollies who claim to be Christians.

Michael D. Breen | 07 October 2013  

There are no smugglers? who are you kidding? They are criminal gangs sending people to their death on leaky boats for exorbitant amounts of money

angeal | 07 October 2013  

We boast ourselves as being an advanced nation?Our white Australia Policy is alive and well.Our history shows here is a disturbing gap between law and ethics. Now we assume a moral high ground??Unlawful=unethical??The unlawful smuggling refugees on leaky fishing boats is something many refugees from Europe would be familiar with.Refugees without documentation have no alternative to being smuggled, and the truth,when revealed,shows these smugglers were very poor and many also refugees.Shameful?Another ridiculous "fact": Australians (Media) see UNARMED refugees as threatening an invasion! Italy's National Day of Mourning for refugees should remind us of our humanity and the ETHICAL values and beliefs our laws are founded on.We are no better than white South African apartheid. Shameful. Perhaps we will find trade embargoes will change our attitudes.

Catherine | 08 October 2013  

I can relate to Pam's comments that the space to express human generosity in times of adversity are being legislated out. The heroic and Herculean degrees of strength we hear people can gather when pushed to the limits when someone's life is at risk is now a part of the myth of history thanks to OHS laws. Saving an obese elderly person in a fire situation - without the adequate stretcher and perfect staff to client ratio - would now require dragging the person down the fight escape stairs prostate backwards by the ankles as their head hits each step. I guess there's a similar way of looking after asylum seekers now - don't touch them, wait and see approach (ie let them drown)

AURELIUS | 08 October 2013  

There are no criminals sending anyone on leaky boats, the boats generally arrive very safely, something never mentioned, there is no Bermuda triangle out there swallowing them up and as it is a legal right to come by sea there is no smuggling. Why are people in this country so brainwashed and dense they can't be bothered gathering facts instead of spouting lies invented by Ruddock and repeated endlessly until they become "facts""?

Marilyn | 10 October 2013  

What is there so unique about Australia and the "illegal" boat people, when there are so many countries contiguous to each other where it is only a matter of stepping over an inch of border to enter the neighbouring country. Somehow we are more outraged because they are making the dangerous journey by boat. This outrage is evidence of how much compassion is leaving Australians. It is even more disappointing to recognize this in " good' Catholics The big problem therefore is not the mechanics of stopping the boats but restoring Christian compassion in Australia

Bede Daniel Hickey | 11 October 2013  

Accuracy is needed. Precisely what is our fear. I don't think we are afraid of 99% of refugees. Only Jihad and Sharia Law. The effect of 9-11 was so great. Could it possibly work to ask arriving Moslems to sign document saying they will not practice jihad/Sharia in Australia with penalty being deportment. I really want Australia to be kind to the largest number of refugees but Aussies want serious reassurance.

Michael warner | 20 October 2013  

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