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Why no compromise on Manus and Nauru? Pt 2



In a previous article I discussed Robert Manne's exposition of the current state of Australian refugee policy and his advocacy for a realistic policy. This would accept that the government would never yield in its conviction that interdiction of boats and off-shore processing had halted the boats, and also the argument of its opponents that the treatment of people on Manus Island and Nauru is barbarous and evil.

Thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in coordiated, Australia-wide rallies, protesting the High Court's decision on 8 February 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. Among other protestors, an emotional man holds up a sign reading 'Stop being evil'. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)Accordingly it would seek only the gradual repatriation to Australia of all refugees sent to Nauru and Manus Island, leaving interdiction and the facilities for off-shore processing intact.

Manne implies that the coolness of refugee advocates to this proposal is based on moral and legal grounds, on the mistaken or dishonest denial that the interdiction and off-shore processing were responsible for stopping the boats, and on a desire not to alienate their supporters or to abandon the high moral ground. In my previous article I suggested that the coolness towards the proposal shown by groups working with refugees also reflected their experience. Today I shall ask whether they ought endorse such a policy.

I should begin by stating the common ground between Manne and the refugee agencies share. Both are outraged by the deliberate harsh treatment of people on Manus Island and Nauru and want them brought to Australia. Both would ideally like a more generous reception of people seeking asylum. The question at issue between natural allies is whether groups working with refugees should endorse a political policy that accepts as legitimate the interdiction of boats and off-shore processing.

Manne describes his own journey to this position as surrendering the high moral ground. The metaphor is suggestive. It implies that those holding the high moral ground stand at a distance from the daily reality of public life with its necessary compromises and messiness. They choose to live in a world of universal principles that allow them to judge securely. The metaphor also suggests that to hold the high moral ground entitles you to the admiration of the footsoldiers encamped below for your consistency and integrity. These connotations are reflected in the motives that Manne attributes to those who decline to support the policy: the fear of alienating the support base or of disapproval by international refugee bodies.

Community agencies working with refugees would not see themselves as occupying the moral high ground. For them principles are rather the rock on which they stand. They articulate the basic convictions that lead their members to work with refugees and which shape the way they respond to others and act in the challenges and dilemmas they meet. They state what matters, and are the ground on which they stand.

People will articulate, ground and summarise these convictions in different ways, but will be united in recognising that each human being is precious, including the most disadvantaged. Each person deserves respect, and none may be ill-treated as a means for another's ends. Individuals, communities and nations, too, have a shared responsibility to care for people who are disadvantaged.


"A diversity of approaches and initiatives at different levels is advantageous, and any success in relieving human suffering and stopping toxic enterprises should be welcomed."


These principles or orientations always press for an all-embracing view. If a refugee on Manus Island is precious, a refugee in Western Sydney and another in Italy will be seen as equally precious. A search for local solutions will lead to a search for national and universal solutions.

Seen from this perspective international law is important, not primarily because it is binding as law, but because it expresses the moral principles that undergird the respect owed to refugees as human beings. It enfleshes that respect in the treatment that refugees should receive from national governments. It rings a warning bell when it is not observed.

In a well-functioning organisation the decisions and responses of people will reflect consistently their basic orientations. If their relationships to one another, to the people for whom they work and with governments do not reflect them, the organisations are detached from their bedrock and fall apart.

The orientations I have described differ from the operative moral framework of the government, in which it is assumed that people may be treated as a means to a greater end, and so ultimately have only a functional and not an inherent value. This is clearly revealed in the treatment of people who seek protection and of those who plead their cause .

Because of these divergent value systems, the way in which community agencies working with refugees interact with government will inevitably be tense. The agencies will always ask more than governments believe they can give, but they will need to engage with governments to help the people whom they serve. They must insist that refugee policies respect the inalienable dignity of all people who seek asylum and draw on their experience to publicise the effects of the lack of respect shown, for example, on Manus Island.

At the same time they will need to advocate to government for particular asylum seekers or groups. They may have simultaneously to deplore the disrespect shown to people on bridging visas and be engaged in government programs in order to minimise the harm suffered by them.

These relationships are inevitably fraught because government refugee policy is founded on disrespect and it will naturally demand that those who cooperate with it participate in that disrespect. Refugee agencies will need to be reflective and adamantine in ensuring that they always act respectfully and are not trapped into being responsible for actions that are disrespectful. That would white ant their foundations.

On these grounds I would argue that community groups working with refugees should not endorse a political campaign that explicitly accepts those elements of a government refugee policy which are based on pushing back people who come by boat and excluding them from making a claim for protection in Australia. To do so would contradict the ethical orientation that led them to work with people who seek protection and inspires the way in which they carry it out.

This is not a matter of holding the moral high ground but of remaining grounded. They should certainly support campaigns to bring people to Australia from Nauru and Manus Island, but as part of a more universal and explicit commitment to respect people who seek asylum. Any political influence they have will flow from the match between their principled commitments and their public voice.

This is not to criticise Manne's proposal, still less his integrity in making it. As a public intellectual he has been a model for many of us for decades. My argument is limited to the role of community groups working directly with refugees. They are only a small part of the opposition to Australian refugee policy. People united in opposition to Australian refugee policy come from many different places and with different operative principles. A diversity of approaches and initiatives at different levels is advantageous, and any success in relieving human suffering and stopping toxic enterprises should be welcomed.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.




Main image: Thousands of Melbournians rallied on the steps of the state library in coordiated, Australia-wide rallies, protesting the High Court's decision on 8 February 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. Among other protestors, an emotional man holds up a sign reading 'Stop being evil'. (Photo by Chris Hopkins/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Robert Manne, refugees, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

I agree completely with all you say. I would just add, too, that non-refoulement (including the prohibition of boat turn backs) is not merely an affirmation of the humanity of all asylum seekers (whether in our hands or not) but also the cornerstone of the refugee protection regime - founded on the dignity of each person. If you once say that one life can be weighed against another and that some can be forced back to death/torture elsewhere, then the whole system of refugee protection becomes meaningless. You might as well pack the whole system of refugee protection up and go home. (This is why art. 33 is one of the few non-derogable provisions in the Convention). It is also why non-refoulement (a commitment which also appears in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Torture Convention) is generally seen as a peremptory norm - one of those provisions of law which are so important that even treaties must yield to them. As such, it is a good example of international law serving precisely the moral function which Andy describes so well - a warning bell indicating a line over which (for the sake of our common humanity) we should fear to tread.

Justin Glyn SJ | 04 October 2018  

The elephant in the room is ‘interdiction’. The trespassing camel is the dogma that interdiction is immoral. Yes, detention, whether offshore or on, owes its existence to a logic that asylum seekers may be divided into valid and invalid, and that it boils down to attempted mode of entry, whether freelancing it by boat or after being chosen by Australian immigration officials from a UN-recognised refugee camp overseas. “If a refugee on Manus Island is precious….” because of “the moral principles that undergird the respect owed to refugees as human beings”, so too must be a refugee in Indonesia waiting to embark, or who was turned back by Sovereign Borders. Intent is what defines a refugee, not a transient location. Yet, it is not complete to claim “the operative moral framework of the government [assumes] that people may be treated as a means to a greater end, and so ultimately have only a functional and not an inherent value” unless it is also shown how an interdiction-free policy will balance the inherent value of a refugee waiting in Indonesia to embark with the inherent value to a citizen to live in a country that isn’t swamped.

Roy Chen Yee | 05 October 2018  

I can't thank you enough, Andrew, for the deep intelligence and clarity of these two pieces.

Lorender Freeman | 05 October 2018  

Thank you Andrew Hamilton. Clear, concise and so well written. Remembering the instructions to public servants who were brought together to work on the birth of this punitive policy, to "leave their conscience at the door" (Dark Victory), I still continue to hope that a collective social conscience might one day prevail within our parliament and that all people will be treated with respect, compassion and kindness.

Joan Daniel | 10 October 2018  

Joan Daniel, whilst I agree with your aspiration unfortunately nothing will change while Dutton is in control of Home Affairs. Offshore detention is the cornerstone of his Parliamentary career. The hard man at the helm. Keeping Australians safe from people smugglers and screening out potential terrorists. Of course the cost to Ferrovial from the Australian taxpayer, roughly $1,146, 960,000 per annum, is a mere incidental stroke of his pen. For him its water off a duck's back.

Frank Armstrong | 10 October 2018  

The core of Andy’s argument countering Robert Manne’s proposal is that ‘community groups working with refugees should not endorse a political campaign that explicitly accepts those elements of a government refugee policy which are based on pushing back people who come by boat and excluding them from making a claim for protection in Australia. To do so would contradict the ethical orientation that led them to work with people who seek protection and inspires the way in which they carry it out.’

I am one Jesuit who has worked with refugees who has subscribed to Robert’s proposal - together with John Menadue and Tim Costello, and hopefully in good conscience. The four us of deliberately set out two years ago trying to break the impasse, furious that people’s lives on Nauru and Manus Island were being wasted without any prospect of the waste contributing to good policy outcomes (including the stopping of boats, the cessation of deaths at sea, and a more orderly refugee program), and despairing that asylum seekers who had made it to Australia were needlessly having their lives put on hold in punitive circumstances.

Ever since 1996, governments of both persuasions have maintained a nexus between the number of refugees onshore and the number of places available for refugees offshore. So for every refugee who successfully runs the gauntlet from Indonesia to Australia in a boat, there is one less place available for refugees offshore who have no access to a boat or other means of transport to Australia. Community groups working with refugees know that there is no chance of breaking this nexus.

I accept that Australian governments (whether Liberal/National or Labor) will through diplomatic, police, and military means continue to keep stopped boats from Indonesia which would be carrying asylum seekers from well outside our region and who are not fleeing persecution in Indonesia. Doing so, they will maintain the quota of refugee places to be allocated by government, choosing people from situations of despair across the globe. And with greater community acceptance of a migration program marked by secure borders, government is more likely to increase the annual quota of humanitarian places.

I insist that any person directly fleeing persecution in Indonesia would need to be offered adequate protection. But otherwise, I have come to accept that stopping boats not only saves lives at sea, but it also increases the prospects that Australia will extend the welcome mat to more, not fewer, refugees. All this can be done while at the same time resettling the proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island NOW and giving those onshore claimants decent living circumstances while their status is determined.

So I continue to lament that the grounded position of the community groups working with refugees (as admirably explained by Andy) results neither in a welcome mat for those coming by boat nor in a resolution of the plight of those on Manus Island and Nauru. I don’t doubt Andy’s integrity, moral nous, and political insight. But I continue to disagree, respectfully and fraternally. I continue to say, ‘All power to Robert Manne’s pen as he seeks a way other than the present standoff between our elected representatives and those community groups who work with refugees.’

Thanks Andy for continuing to prick our consciences, toughening our intellectual sinews for the tough battles of coherent, humane and deliverable public policy. I hope and pray that individuals like Robert and me can continue to espouse the policy solutions we do without contradicting the ethical orientation that has led us to work with people who seek protection, inspiring the way in which we carry it out.

No matter where any of us line up on this issue, we all need to accept that we as a nation are now responsible for having kept refugees including children in appalling offshore conditions for five years, and for nobody’s benefit. And so it will continue unless we can find a way to break the impasse.

Frank Brennan SJ | 10 October 2018  

Thanks for your cogent, eirenic and attractive endorsement of Robert Manne's argument, Frank. I hope that we can all work in both individual and concerted ways to have the people on Manus Island and Nauru brought to Australia, and to respect one another with all our differences. Personally, I suspect that the impasse will require a moral conversion to break down, probably on all sides, and that without that conversion policy proposals will fall on poisoned ground. But I hope I am unreasonably pessimistic.

Andy Hamilton | 10 October 2018  

Thanks to all contributors here. It renews and re-applies the convictions and from-the-trenches, hard won experiences in our work with those who came to Australia under the Indo China Orderly Departure Program in the late- 1970s to mid 1980s. Even allowing for major difference in government values, policy, bipartisan spirit, government - community partnership (twixt then and now), the grounded experience, courage, grace and resourcefulness of so many groups in local communities (church and other) was focused and unforgetable. In many areas of Melbourne, there were old blokes in suits and felt hats from the Vinnies, developing meaningful services and supports with teachers union lefties and mainstream Uniting Church yuppies. Only one thing in its favour - it worked. Testimony to that is borne out today by Vietnamese Australians in their late 'forties to mid sixties around Australia - they belong and contribute. My point? I'm with Andy in placing the grounded experience ahead of the upper ramparts. This is where I belong. But - how could I not value the Manne-Brennan-Costello-Burnside perspective. Horses for courses? Cruelty is mainly a lack of imagination in the case of resolving the tension between interdiction and humane treatment of asylum seekers. What tangible, sustained efforts have we seen from Australian governments of the past 18 years, towards the well resourced, multilateral arc of alternative settlement destination nations; fashioned with current relevance for refugee flows from the mid-east and southern Asia? Minister Dutton is my local member. He has no interest in this topic and has told me in person. Hmmmm.

Rev Dr Wayne Sanderson | 10 October 2018  

Two contrasting Jesuitical opinions that in their juxtaposition highlight the dilemma of what governmental responsibility and ethics demand in relation to refugee policy. The ethical dilemma struggles with the dictum that all men are created equal, in the Creator's image, and thus demand unqualified respect and dignified treatment in all matters human. This concept ignores the fact that not all human beings act in ways that reflect the image of the Creator. Indeed, if we are to accept the scriptures as the mirror of the Creator's approach to human behaviour, we have to accept that some behave in ways which incur the displeasure, even wrath, of the Creator and end up being cast out of the Creator's house and not necessarily being re-admitted. Do all human beings deserve respect, acceptance and dignified treatment? is a difficult question. Do we owe respect to the child abuser, the mass murderer, the violent abusive husband because God created him ? The answer is that if the creator can forgive and forget and invite the wrongdoer back into his house then so must we. Unfortunately, the Creator fell a tad short in his creation of the human being in that he left the God element out of the design. And therein lies our humanity and inability to respect all men without question.

john frawley | 11 October 2018  

Everyone has the right to seek asylum, that is the end of the story. Everything else is a worthless discussion which amounts to which crimes we will suffer being inflicted on others. I am for no crimes.

Marilyn | 15 October 2018  

My difficulty with Robert's argument is not the moral compromise involved - if that is even what it is. If a change in position by humanitarians would be more likely to lead to a better life for the forlorn folk on Manus and Nauru, and not impact (and possibly even benefit) others seeking asylum, I would be convinced. I have less political experience than Robert, Tim and Frank (and what an inspirational bunch they are!) but in the politically charged campaigns I have been involved in and those that I have studied in history, pragmatic political compromise is rarely made more likely by the campaigners moderating their position before a political settlement is reached. The problem is that once an issue becomes dominated by irrational forces exploiting fear, politicians cant afford to be seeing to simply caving in to those who seek change. Thus good people in the ALP seeking to have the refugees on Manus and Nauru returned to Australia will not be necessarily helped in their cause if refugee activist groups adopt the suggested pragmatic compromise now. Rather the implementation of such a policy under a Shorten Government (a not unlikely scenario) might actually be MORE likely if refugee activists hold their line now - so it doesn't look like the new Government is caving into demands but is remaining strong and resolute in finding a way through the impasse. In other words, the compassionate solution proposed here needs to be owned and formulated by the Labor Party (or the Liberals although that seems unlikely!) . It needs to be an outcome of the political process which necessarily has compromise at its centre. Thus, while there is powerful logic and ethical integrity in the argument being made, I think it is one that applies to those involved in the Labor Party who are still pushing for more radical reform, not community advocates whose best hope of change I think is (paradoxically) to just keep saying and doing what they believe to be right

james boyce | 15 October 2018  

I understand Andy's point, but is it not possible that there are two issues? Can the moral ground of rejecting refugees on how they arrive be separated from how they are treated once they have arrived? Those on Nauru and Manus are now Australia's responsibility whereas those who are marooned in Indonesia are not. A moral one, as all refugees are, but at present not 'national'. It is possible to separate the issues? I'm sorry if I am being naïve. I just want them to stop suffering.

thea Roche | 15 October 2018  

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