Asylum seekers: does end justify the means?

IT MAY be going too far to say that offshore detention can never be justified, but it is surely beyond question that Australia’s current approach is indefensibly cruel.

The debate about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has been long and angry.

Justtice mattersMany people who argue against the policy of ‘stopping the boats’ and all that goes with it have relied partly on the precept that the end – even if it is one as honourable as preventing deaths at sea – can never justify intrinsically immoral means.

Those who support stopping the boats have relied on basically the same precept. As they see it, not stopping the boats leaves asylum seekers at the mercy of people smugglers who have no regard for the safety and wellbeing of their passengers. It is, therefore, a sin of omission that puts lives at risk.

Are we, therefore, faced with a stark choice between intrinsically evil courses of action? How do we find an answer that is both ethical and practical?

It doesn’t work to say that asylum seekers have a moral right to our compassion, and that’s that. Encouraging people to risk their lives in unsafe boats on the high seas isn’t very compassionate.

By the same token, it is hard to accept that stopping the boats is unambiguously good just because it saves lives. It also does terrible harm.

What should we do? Tens of millions of displaced people across many regions of the world have moral claims to support from us, but we cannot meet every need. We must, therefore, decide how many we can assist and the criteria for choosing them. By implication this means excluding others. There is no way of avoiding this unless we take everyone.

How do we treat those who fall outside the entry criteria? Australia’s response has depended in part on how they reach Australia in the first place. Those who come by boat are placed in offshore detention, and that has been the focal point for much of the public controversy.

It is hard to describe conditions in Australia’s offshore places of detention as anything but cruel and unusual punishment. Is that moral? If it’s not, can it be justified as the lesser evil?

It would surely be better if the posturing stopped and constructive, practical solutions were found. This is not saying that expediency should be our only guide – the solutions must have a moral base – but it is saying that no one can claim exclusive ownership of morality.

Where might we start? Perhaps we can agree that no solution is practical that does not include measures to protect Australia’s borders – even if the underlying morality of this proposition is not beyond debate.

At the same time, we can surely see now that the way we treat people in detention cannot be credibly
defended. It is damaging hundreds, perhaps thousands, of already traumatised people. It is creating conditions in which abuses of detainees – not only by staff but also by other detainees – are an ever-present risk.

We can also acknowledge that stopping the boats is defensible insofar as it prevents deaths at sea. It does not, however, need the whole apparatus of secrecy and deterrence that is in place now, with all the suffering it brings in its wake.

We can take steps now towards a more humane approach. For the time being Australia is not likely to discontinue the policy of turning back the boats, but we must ensure that the claims of asylum seekers to refugee status are properly tested before anyone is returned to their country of origin. We should also press for closure of the detention centre on Nauru as well as that on Manus Island, with resettlement in Australia being offered to those who are refugees – this will not reopen the floodgates if turning back the boats continues.

There are other measures Australia can take. We can increase Australia’s humanitarian intake (see the August 2012 Houston Report expert panel on asylum seekers, 3.8 et al). We can restart the conversation with other countries on a regional solution.

We may not be able to implement an ideal set of changes immediately, but we can move forward. We are not tied forever to the way things are.