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Walking the asylum seeker advocacy tightrope


Redeeming the Past by Michael LapsleyAnglican priest Michael Lapsley recently visited Australia to promote his challenging story of his ministry in South Africa and his courageous resistance to apartheid and support of the ANC. This led to his losing an eye and both his hands to a letter bomb sent by the South African security forces, and to his becoming a champion of reconciliation and healing in the Mandela era.

In the background of his book lie questions of how white South Africans responded to what was being done in their name, of how the few who reached out to Black Africans and pleaded their cause kept their spirits in the face of the opprobrium and ridicule they received, and of how we ourselves would have behaved.

The answers seem to lie in a strong and unwavering ethical framework and the conviction that what mattered in all their dealings with South African institutions was the human dignity of the black people whom they served.

After the passing of the recent legislation condemning refugees to indefinite detention on Nauru or Manus Island many people working with asylum seekers are asking the same questions.

The Australian situation is clearly different from South Africa of the apartheid era, but the same challenge exists to maintain morale and a moral compass when their convictions are clearly out of sympathy with the majority of their compatriots and when they are regarded as naïve or irresponsible. And they face the same perplexity in trying to act compassionately and with integrity in the new situation.

The experience of South African activists is instructive, and perhaps we have much to learn about the necessity for a strong and principled ethical framework and for a single minded focus on the human dignity of the asylum seekers themselves.

The ethical principle in play is that we may not do evil in order to achieve a good end. The end does not justify the means. In this case asylum seekers are being treated in a way that will cause them harm in order to realise goals variously described as stopping boats, protecting borders, preventing people smugglers or saving the lives of other asylum seekers. These goals may be unexceptionable, but they may not be achieved by evil means.

To inflict on other people serious harm that is unmerited, predictable and avoidable is as morally unjustifiable. The harm that the asylum seekers sent to Nauru and Manus Island will suffer is predictable and inescapable. They will be unable to move on with their lives or reunite with their spouses and families, placed in high risk of lasting mental illness, and probably restricted in their movement.

It is also avoidable. It is a choice, not a necessity.

And it is unjustifiable. It does not follow from fault or crime but is to achieve goals that have nothing to do with those sent to Nauru or Manus Island. They suffer because of the calculation that these goals will be achieved through the abuse of their human dignity.

The ethical rock on which those who serve asylum seekers must build is the conviction that the new policy in an unjustifiable abuse of the human dignity of asylum seekers and refugees. At the same time those committed to their welfare we must try to ameliorate the effects of their mistreatment. This may mean cooperating with the government to provide services that will improve the lot of people and to develop a just regional policy.

Most workers have had experience of cooperating with the government under the detention regime. It is demanding, requiring them to enunciate a clear ethical position on the policy and to avoid being coopted into its direct administration. The UNHCR has rightly refused to have any direct part in the scheme which might suggest its approval or sponsorship.

But the dignity of those suffering under the policy demands that good people provide education, foster connection with the island communities and so on and, if it can be done by Australians, alleviate some of the psychological damage caused by the indefinite sentence to languish on Nauru and Manus Island.

Lapsely's experience suggests how hard it was in South Africa to maintain a steady moral compass and so to avoid being made complicit in an unjust government policy, while reaching out to the people whose dignity was diminished by apartheid.

Australians working with asylum seekers under the new policy will face these challenges, and the even larger task of representing the claim of humanity to an Australian public opinion that has grown callous.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Apartheid, South Africa, Michael Lapsley, Asylum Seekers, Manus Island, Nauru



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew. Please try to get this article into the mainstream press!

Kate Maclurcan | 29 August 2012  

There's some words I like from English poet Samuel Johnson: "Happiness is not found in self-contemplation; it is perceived only when it is reflected from another." Whatever our concept of 'happiness' may be, there is a often a tension between our values and our behaviour. I think this is what is happening in the asylum seeker issue. Australians may view themselves as egalitarian and are generally responsive in giving of their time and money in helping those less fortunate. But our behaviour in the asylum seeker issue is one of fear and, if not loathing, then something like indifference. Last year for some months I tutored an African refugee. Her family spent a number of years in a camp before being sponsored by our town's refugee group and many people in our community helped and I think that was because they could relate to the family as people worthy of our attention. But we don't seem to see asylum seekers in the same light. I wonder why?

Pam | 29 August 2012  

Whoa! Talk about drawing long bows. The two - the fight against apartheid (of which I was a part) and acceptance of assylum seekers/refugees who come by boat - are two totally different things in every way. This is a real stretch into the emotions - could even turn most thinking people off, it is so long a stretch, so naive, and such an attempt to draw connecting webs between every struggle on earth. I mean, really!

Barry L | 29 August 2012  

Thanks, Andrew and Pam. Regrettably, in order to address the concerns of fearful and timid Australians and our Government, some strategy is needed to stop refugees drowning and diminish boat arrivals to placate those who are fearful. Working to persuade Government to release those in detention centres into the community after assessment may be all that can be achieved in the short term and there is some support for that position and from an economic perspective it may make sense to the fearful. Then we can offer some real hope to those in detention. We Australians are looking a bit like dogs in mangers and I fear when my grandchildren's representatives make an apology to these refugees' descendants my generation will seem tarnished. When we sing Advance Australia Fair we are referring to its beauty not justice.

Kim Chen | 29 August 2012  

Well done again Andrew. I note the mixed messages coming through in order to make Labor's moves sound different from the blatantly terrorist steps John Howard took - subjecting asylum seeekers them to as much pain as galvanised roofs under desert sun and razor wire isolation can inflict in order to deter others from coming. On the one hand the original statement by Gillard and Bowen threatened that asylum seekers wouold rot on Nauru for as long as they would have rotted in an Aasian refugee camp - that sort of terror should stop them! But now there's talk about their being processed on Nauru and Manus as quickly as possible. Which is it? I used to trust Labor politicians.

Joe Castley | 29 August 2012  

Dear Barry L, while I understand your point, my understanding of the article is that many, including me, find it difficult to maintain our bearings when the tide of public opinion is running against what we believe, namely, what is crucial, the dignity of each human creature. Others adopt a utilitarian approach and see it is OK to maginalise others whether they be aboriginals, refugees or coloured people in South Africa. I hope a sympathetic re-reading may lead to an appreciation of how the examples are juxtaposed.

Kim Chen | 29 August 2012  

Thanks Kim, I agree with your interpretation.

Tim Collier | 29 August 2012  

wonderful article, andrew. i hope it inspires good people to take up the cause again to do what they can to help the people who will be victims on nauru. i would only add that the whole policy is based on the falsehoods that if boats continue to come, people will continue to die at sea, and the only ethical way to stop the deaths is to stop the boats: so these people on nauru must suffer in order to be deterrent examples to save other people's lives. That chsin of logic is factually false, because people have actually died at sea as a result of negligent, tardy and arguably downright illegal responses by australian border protection and rescue authorities to distress calls they have received from people on boats. my book 'reluctant rescuers', backed up now by the houston report's attachment 3 on australia's rescue at sea responsibilities, set out the evidence for this.

tony kevin | 29 August 2012  

Excellent. This kind of comment deserves wide dissemination.

Fr David Barry | 29 August 2012  

Barry L has plainly NOT made a close reading of this article or he would have seen that its author in fact qualifies his comparisons between South Africa and the current Australian situation quite explicitly. As usual, Andrew is delineating an argument, a framework for discussion, in order to get a perspective on a moral dilemma. The examples come from different contexts, the framework itself is valid and speaks to the present situation.

CLOSE READING | 29 August 2012  

@Tony Kevin, I have not read your book. In it do you address the moral culpability of the people-smugglers? Are they in anyway to blame for the deaths of the people who drown? Or is it not their fault that they put desperate people on to boats that are obviously not made to get dozens of people across the seas from Indonesia to Australia?

Andrew Plunkett | 29 August 2012  

It makes me feel like kicking the bejesus out of arrogant little twerps like Bowen
Last night we saw on Go Back Somali's fleeing to Ethiopia. Many got carts to travel on so they had a massive advantage over those who didn't but I didn't see anyone suggest the people who could get carts should be punished.

Marilyn | 30 August 2012  

As there are legally no people smugglers Andrew Plunkett, why would we blame them for when it is our authorities waiting for days to rescue people. If we treat asylum seekers like criminals, refuse to allow them visas to enter the country and demonise them why is that the fault of anyone but our politicians? The so-called smugglers are doing what the refugees demand, not the other way around. only in this country do we suffer the delusion the people are running around war zones holding refugees at gun point and demanding they leave. How we got to this can equally be blamed on our media.

Marilyn | 30 August 2012  

I agree with Barry L. The fight against apartheid and acceptance of asylum seekers/refugees who mainly come originally from the Middle East, travelling by air through many friendly countries with their passport and land in Indonesia. Then they make contact with people smuglers, which is not hard to find, and pay large sum of money to get on a boat, destination Australia. Before facing Australian custom officers, they discard passports and any identification card. "Are two totally different things". It is understandable that the task of representing the claim of humanity to an Australian (labor and Liberal) public opinion that has grown callous. Most Australians are compassionate and recognize the difference between genuine refugees and illegal immigrants. Australia is one of the most generous countries to resettle refugees. Displaced persons from Europe, after world war two, after the capitulation of South Vietnam, from East Timor, Lebanon, Southern Sudan. Nobody can accuse Australia of being racist.

Ron Cini | 30 August 2012  

Ron,it makes no difference to a refugee claim how people get here or who they pay or how much they pay to anyone.

Marilyn | 30 August 2012  

To Ron Cini - Why is someone who pays an airline to fly them into Australia and then seeks asylum a 'genuine refugee', while someone who pays a boat owner to ferry them to Australia and then seeks asylum an 'illegal immigrant'? What's the difference?

Ginger Meggs | 30 August 2012  

We need to distinguish between short-term solutions, long-term solutions, and ideal solutions. The ideal will come when the lion will lay down with the lamb, and all will be peace and beauty. The long-term solution willcome when all nations co-operate to take steps to address the problems causing refugees to flee in terror from their home countries. This is verging on the ideal, but efforts in this direction are badly needed to solve what are really global problems. In the short term, Australians need to de-politicalise their view-points and recognise that we have perhaps the greatest per-capita capacity of any country in the world of territory and wealth to extend at least temporary protection visas to many more desperate refugees, even if it does cause a slight dip in our generally self-indulgent life style.

Robert Liddy | 30 August 2012  

@ Marilyn. You appear to want to point the finger of blame and direct your ire only at Australians, whether they be politicians, the media or the general public. When I watched various episodes of "Go Back" I experienced both anger and amazement at what some humans had done to their fellow humans. I felt rage at the government in Burundi who had tortured a member of the opposition. I wished I could have strung up the murdering, child-raping soldiers who had torn families apart. I hoped that the suicide bomber who blew up 70 men, women and children in Afghanistan burns in hell for his atrocity. What do you mean that we are deluded about what is going on in these war zones? These people had to flee for fear of rape, torture and murder. That had a lot to do with people running around with guns. Further, I hope that the providers of leaky boats, because of which hundreds of people have drowned, are brought to justice. By what logic are the owners of the boats exonerated of any guilt just because they are doing what refugees demand? Oh that's right, it's our fault because we don't have ships constantly on station in a vast sea to pick up all those whose boats sink.

Andrew Plunkett | 30 August 2012  

Hear, hear! Ron Cini. You have put it much more precisely, pragmatically, realistically and eloquently than I ever could. Thanks for your honesty and the reality of your vision. People should also be reminded, it was actually only a few hundred who came to Australia by boat from Vietnam. The rest were processed through the proper channels. I find it hard to see why millions of African refugees, for example, must suffer while others use their material means - albeit risking their lives - to come by boat. People in much worse conditions have been waiting far longer. Thanks again, Ron, for saying it how it is.

Barry L | 30 August 2012  

BARRY L and Ron Cini seem to be able to sympathise with the validity of the anti-apartheid movement, but not with the dignified treatment of asylum-seeking boat people. Aren't human rights a universal thing? He could have also validly mentioned the Indonesian treatment of West Papuan or Chinese supression of Tibetans. They are all human too. But for some reason if you arrive by boat you don't deserve to be treated as a human being. You lose your rights to dignity, without even having committed a crime. The term "illegal" arrivals is a misnomer. International convention allows for this in exceptional circumstances when people have cause to flee. It is not Ron Cini's or Barry L's prerogative to judge if boat people have just cause to flee. And until they are judged are judged by our government's "processing" system, Australia has no right to imprison these people offshore. This is not an emotional matter - it's plain and simple human rights.

AURELIUS | 30 August 2012  

Brought to justice for what Andrew? If the refugees can't get any tranport they die anyway.

And the hundreds that have drowned could have been saved but we refused to do it.

With a few hundred dead and 17,000 not dead but jailed, tortured and abused by us why is everyone else culpable but us?

We could let refugees fly here but won't, we jail and torture them for years in places like Indonesia, we have them jailed in Pakistan and Malaysia and all over the neighbourhood for daring to want to be safe.

If I had a 98% chance of surviving a pretty short sea trip and a 100% chance of dying in a war I know which I would take.

Why not blame the murderers and those who refuse to help the victims.

Marilyn | 31 August 2012  

We should be grateful that most Australians are not as narrow minded and cold blooded as the Greens and their narrow minded puppets. So much tragedy would have been avoided if the Greens and other extremists would not have played politics with the lives of desperate people. The Greens have cause much pain to too many families!

Beat Odermatt | 31 August 2012  

Beat, The Greens think we should uphold the law, protect the rule of law, human rights, the constitution and the separation of powers while the two major parties want to throw all of the above in the bin to pander to lies.

They don't care if people drown or get blown up or suffer horrific abuse, they just don't want anyone here.

Pakistan started withdrawing protection in May, just about the time we started letting them drown on the way here.

Marilyn | 01 September 2012  

Didn't Jesus say,'Whatever you do to the least of my little ones, that you do unto me'? Are we content to let desperate refugees waste away in refugee camps in Indonesia, Africa, Nauru, Manus Island, or elsewhere? Surely this is not the Christian response! Quentin Bryce, our Governor General, was recently brought to tears at seeing 25 000 Syrian refugees, many of them children, camped in the Jordanian desert. Jordan and many other countries accept many times more refugees than we do. We need to put pressure on our Government to accept far more refugees than we are doing, to facilitate their getting here by safe means, and to work with neighbouring countries to give them decent treatment as they wait for resettlement. I suggest that people read Frank Brennan's article on this website - 'There is an ethical way to stop the boats.' Finally, if your are prepared to welcome a refugee family into your home, in the name of Jesus, you could always email the Prime Minister or Minister Bowen to that effect. Politicians aren't going to welcome more refugees unless we, the voters, are going to welcome them too.

Grant Allen | 02 September 2012  

Thank you Andy. It is a struggle to face living in a country where the majority view seems so at odds with ones own deeply held beliefs. The apartheid analogy is so apt. I wonder if Australia will descend to pariah status in the world community before we redeem ourselves.

pamela | 06 September 2012  

Listen to former PM Malcolm Fraser's views on this in his interview on the ABC's One To One program. Watching this on the weekend, I was encouraged that not all Australians have lost the plot - and that there are still intelligent, reasonable and humane leaders out there (alas retired). If Malcolm Fraser can have the gumption to speak out against current negative political tactics from both boths, why do armchair observers with no power at all (apart from their one vote) feel the need to go along with the party line just to support the Liberals or Labor?

AURELIUS | 09 September 2012  

Thanks Andrew for such clarity about keeping our moral compass as we respond to this needy situation for the asylum seekers.

marie o'connor sgs | 19 September 2012  

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