Mind the Ethical Gap: Australian refugee policy

Sara Davies[1]

What is it to be ethical in politics? We often talk about political action that is popular, legal, or indeed, legitimate.  But what if an act is popular and legal – but not ethical?  When should this omission concern the population in a democratic environment?

The issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat into Australian waters has been discussed in both parliament and election campaigns with much emotional rancour, even fear, since the Norwegian freighter Tampa rescued people at risk of drowning in international waters and attempted to bring them to port in Australian waters in 2001.  Even before this incident, Australian society, media and politics have a history of histrionics regarding boat arrivals.

Ethics – which is different from politics or legality – are something often called for but seldom honoured in political discussions concerning asylum seekers.  The introduction of the Abbott government’s Operation Sovereign Borders response to asylum seekers who arrive by boat (consisting of: no onshore processing, tow back into international waters if safe to do so, and no information released on arrivals, policy or interceptions to media).  The tragedy last week on Manus Island – long foretold and predicted – and in the last forty-eight hours, the Australian government’s request that the Cambodian government hosts asylum seekers intercepted from Australian shores have brought these issues to the fore once again.  Politicians discuss these events in terms of bureaucratic deterrence and efficiency, national security and legality. There is no doubt that politicians will attempt to message away these sorry events, but can they mind the ethical gap they expose?  Certainly, Australian politicians’ talking points on refugees have generally failed to silence other nation’s concerns regarding our policy and its regional ramifications.

Often when called by the media to comment on these stories, three questions commonly asked are: 1) what is Australia’s legal responsibility concerning situation X? 2) how will Indonesia/region respond to suggestion/situation X? and 3) will policy X work? I am increasingly concerned however with the question less asked: Is ‘suggestion/situation/policy X’ ethical?  What are our humanitarian obligations to people who request asylum, and what are the wider implications for Australia and the world of a policy that shows scant regard for our responsibility to protect asylum seekers, especially given our wealth, our political stability and history of peaceful migration?

Take, for example, the suggested Cambodian transfer scheme – even if the Australian government found a loophole to make this transfer legal, the Cambodian government proved to be a willing accomplice, and the policy deterred asylum seekers – would it be ethical? Is this how we should treat human beings, let alone one of our poorest neighbouring states?

Finally, is this the way in which Australia, a member of the United Nations Security Council for 2013 and 2014, wants to build its regional and international reputation?  In February 2013, Australia – sitting on the United Nations Security Council – agreed to a Presidential Statement in the Security Council that noted the Protection of Civilians is an obligation held by the international community.  In the statement it was specifically noted that the protection of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing situations of political instability, conflict and humanitarian crisis is an obligation shared by states and a burden that is relieved when all states fulfil their duties in this area.  When governments fulfil their duty to protect civilians who flee in fear of their lives through the provision of refuge the humanitarian burden in conflict situations is eased and the risk of wider regional instability reduced. Australia could have been an exemplary Security Council member – whose actions outside the Council could have been as commendable as its work at the table – had Canberra been prepared to meet the responsibilities it set for others in the Security Council chamber.

The Australian government has the capacity to protect Australia people and goods that seek to threaten and harm it. There is no legal remedy unavailable to our Australian government to protect Australian citizens from a person arriving by boat or plane should it be required.  Indeed, Australian citizens and travellers who arrive with a tourist visa – due to our large volume and relative ease upon entry – are more likely to be a security or health risk than those who arrive by boat seeking asylum.

Australia is safe and secure, and asylum seekers do not change these material realities.  It has a moral responsibility to do all it can to protect civilians fleeing humanitarian crises and human rights abuse.  Indeed, that is what Australia has agreed to when it voted in favour of Security Council resolutions saying as much.  When will politicians’ despair and horror for what civilians in Syria and Central African Republic currently endure extend to generosity to those who flee terror in these and other parts of the world?

Closer to home, what is the ethical legacy of our position regarding people who are trying to find a better life in our stable, wealthy democracy?  Events on Manus Island call upon us to ask deeper questions about our responsibility for the dangerous situations we place asylum seekers in to avoid caring for them.  GetUp’s LighttheDark events around Australia on 23 February 2014 showed that more and more people are concerned with both our main political parties failing to take an ethical stand on refugee policy. For those who think these questions do not matter should take heed of history. This year, on the 80th anniversary of the year that Adolf Hitler came to power, we should all reflect on the world’s failure to provide refuge to Germany’s Jews, thousands of whom were denied asylum by countries including Australia. It was the events that followed this monstrous moral failure that led to the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Yet we seem to continue to miss the important lesson.


[1] Yes, this is a word play on the London Tube’s Mind the Gap posters.  This blog reflects a personal opinion and should not be associated with any institution with which I am affiliated.

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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