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Why saying no to asylum seekers is immoral

Hollenbach, David (ed.); Refugee Rights: Ethics, Advocacy and Africa. Washington DC, Georgetown University Press, 2008. RRP $26.95. ISBN 9781589012028

Refugee Rights: Ethics, Advocacy and Africa, by David Hollenbach Titles on the ethics of forced migration are surprisingly rare. There is a plethora of works defining operational guidelines and standards for agencies working with refugees, of which the Sphere Project is one of the more well known. Guy Goodwin-Gill and Jane McAdam's The Refugee in International Law leads a sizeable literature on refugees in relation to international human rights law. Among titles that approach the question of how to deal with forced migrants in an ethical manner, Matthew Gibney's The Ethics and Politics of Asylum is the stand out in a sparse field.

In Australia too, there is voluminous historical literature opposing the lamentable practices of succeeding governments and their deleterious effect on the most vulnerable people that seek the refuge of our shores. Frank Brennan's Tampering with Asylum and Klaus Neumann's Refuge Australia: Australia's Humanitarian Record provide essential background on the Australian stance towards asylum seekers. Only Brennan's book discusses the ethics in detail, however, looking to practice overseas in suggesting possible ways forward.

It is into this context that David Hollenbach's Refugee Rights, Advocacy and Africa arrives. The book's collected essays construct a comprehensive framework for effective advocacy and thinking around refugees in the African situation. In doing so, they create a narrative for a group of people who, by definition, are cut off from the mainstream narrative of nation-building. This creation of a 'narrative of the dispossessed' is the collection's strength and major contribution.

The opening essay grounds the work: Abebe Feyissa, an Ethiopian refugee, has spent over 15 years in refugee camps in Kenya. He elicits surprisingly refreshing insight from his experience, and gives them articulate expression (with the help of co-author Rebecca Horn). Emphasised is the denial of the right to freedom of movement of refugees and the dangers of prolonged encampment. In this nether world, people create their own mental landscape into which they increasingly escape. Absentmindedness, both laughable and sometimes with tragic consequences, is rife. Domestic violence is endemic, as small events prick the artificial thought-bubble and assume outlandish importance: as simple an occurrence as a late-served lunch can provide the spark needed to unleash violent forces within.

This first-hand narrative becomes the foundation on which all the other contributions rely. In a volume of strong contributions, O'Neill's and Hollenbach's are particularly insightful. O'Neill distinguishes between the creation of universal human rights frameworks and the mechanism by which they are conferred, the nation state. It is the people who, in his view, delegate the maintenance of their overall security to the state. What therefore happens when the state is neither able nor, in some cases, willing to carry this responsibility?

The denial of human rights becomes a question of application, as refugees are no longer part of any society that confers these rights. African communities have in their own make-up, however — the crucial resource that may find a way past this impasse, an access point to empathetic response:

For in African tradition ... the uniqueness of moral persons rests not in abstracting the individual from the ensemble of social relations, but precisely in the 'communitarian dimension of life'. The discourse of human rights must reflect the natural 'interdependence between the individual and society'. And it is just this inter-dependence in 'cosmopolitan solidarity' that lets us 'see' the morally tragic character of the victim's suffering.

Hollenbach's essay frames the question of refugee rights from the opposite end, in an historical analysis of the evolution of the sovereign state. The very values that gave rise to the predominance of this essentially social structure, particularly that of freedom of domination by others, now give rise to circumscription of the state's powers.

He argues against the hegemony of the state in favour of a 'cosmopolitan approach to international affairs'. Under certain conditions, a foreign state may not only have the right, but be positively obliged, to intervene in another state's internal affairs to uphold more universal human values. In addition there is 'a responsibility to develop institutional means within the transnational network that will make it possible to respond to crises in a timely and effective way'.

Reading these and other contributions, there appear clear parallels to the Australian situation. Often, refugees and asylum seekers survive insurmountable odds to reach Australia. At the same time, our national narrative is one of a people building a nation despite terrible hardship. One would think that the two narratives are perfectly matched. Yet one narrative is accepted, its parallel, with the associated human qualities of survival, hope, courage and suffering, we deny. Surely this must be to the cost of the entire community, not to mention the rights of those seeking asylum.

This collection takes the important step of linking the narrative of refugee Africans with our own. Overall this book is a rare attempt at considering ethical questions posed by forced migration from both practice and policy perspectives. One cannot help but be left with the sense of the massive scale of displacement described and the question this poses: how much human suffering does it take to elicit lasting social change in the international order? It is a sobering reminder of a question that much of humanity is forced to live with every day.

Refugee Rights: Ethics, Advocacy and Africa (GUP)

David Holdcroft SJDavid Holdcroft SJ is Executive Director, Jesuit Refugee Service Australia.

Topic tags: David Holdcroft SJ, Refugee Rights: Ethics, Advocacy and Africa, David Hollenbach, ISBN 9781589012028



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Existing comments

I totally agree with David. As humans, we should be all treated equally, no matter the circumstances of our situation.

Jaye Newland | 01 August 2008  

Being treated 'equally' is always going to be impossible to define; in most cases to give disadvantaged people a 'fair go' they will need to be given more help (treated unequally?) than those already blessed abundantly with nature's gifts.

Bill Connell | 01 August 2008  

I don't think we can fairly make someone applying to migrate to australia work through a temporary visa process taking 9 months, when applying from overseas, then allow another person (seeking asylum) a permanent visa for turning up here illegally with nothing to offer this Country. It just does not make sense.

Chris Kear | 30 August 2011  

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