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The problematic 'saving lives at sea' argument

  • 28 July 2015

When those advocating on behalf of refugees criticise clearly bad policies such as temporary protection visas, turning back boats or processing in Nauru or Manus Island, they are confronted with claims that such policies are necessary for saving lives at sea.

Such a justification has dominated the debate to the extent that any policy which further restricts refugee rights becomes justifiable on this ground.

A problem with the saving lives at sea argument is that you can save lives at sea with the rescue operation like Italy conducted with Mare Nostram.

There is no need to further penalise people who are prepared to take high risks to achieve safety, yet that is what we continually do.

Imagine if it were proposed to ban cars because there were too many people killed and injured on the roads. The compromise might be to only drive at 20 km/h on all roads.

Also, whilst we can try to prevent deaths in our waters, we seem unconcerned if these desperate refugees take risks in waters outside our zone. Simply stopping the boats does not address the need for further international and regional efforts at local integration or resettlement. The only solution proposed by the Coalition is that everyone should adopt their hard-line policies. The obvious fallacy with this is that where do the refugees go if everyone just keeps bouncing them away?

Now we have Labor leader Bill Shorten saying we should accept the turn back policy as an option, and as a political sweetener we can double the refugee intake and spend more on the UNHCR. Shorten claims that turning back the boats is a necessary compromise to avoid scare tactics of the Coalition. The tragedy is that taking more refugees and spending more on the UNHCR is not offered without the need for punitive policies against refugees.

UNHCR has expressed serious concern with the policy the ALP National Conference has endorsed.

UNHCR considers that actions to intercept and turn back boats carrying asylum-seekers are contrary to the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the practice of turning back boats carrying potential asylum seekers sets a negative precedent for other countries that are hosting large numbers of asylum-seekers and who do not have legal frameworks and safeguards in place and may seek to emulate Australia’s practices and policies. This may have serious consequences for the international system of protection that relies on the sharing, not shifting of responsibilities.

For refugees, there has