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Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Doing evil to achieve good?Reflections on the moral calculus of the Australian Government’s policy on asylum seekers, or should the Government get into the business of taking hostages?

Christians seeking to find their moral compass in a time of fear created by both major political parties in their race to the bottom as to who can devise the “toughest”, translation “cruellest” policy, need to return to the teaching of Jesus to get oriented. Reflection on the Parable of the Good Samaritan will provide a bracing and challenging point of departure to guide us in our approach to current debates over the treatment of asylum seekers. If we wish to dismiss it on the grounds that it is not “practical” then we should reconsider our decision to describe ourselves as followers of Jesus. In the longer term it may be the most “practical” approach there is. But that’s an argument for another time.

The recent announcements by the Australian Government on the treatment of asylum seekers and has been accompanied by much hand wringing over the moral difficulty of needing to be “tough” to save lives and prevent people from risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys and to send a “signal” to people arranging the boat travel, a group otherwise referred to, as “people smugglers”.

The Government policy seems to be directed almost exclusively at the “people smugglers” if you listened to the exchanges on a recent episode of Q &A. If the “people smugglers” would only go away the suggestion is that the “problem” would be solved. And perhaps as viewed by the political parties it would. The continued arrival of refugees is a reminder that there is a world out there that we in Australia are part of. Indeed they remind us, should anyone care to think about it, that Australia is deeply implicated through its involvement in warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan as an ally of the United States in the creation of the circumstances that is the source of much of the flow of refugees. 

Out of sight, out of mind seems to be our motto, and so we can continue the path of denial of responsibility as long as those pesky refugees don’t keep turning up to disturb our bubble of comfort. As Jack Waterford from the Canberra Times observed: What shames me most, I guess, is that a good many of these refugees have fled to places such as Australia only because of the miseries we Australians have heaped upon their countries in the name of liberating them from tyranny.

Leaving aside the reality that policy debate has focussed on a symptom, “people smuggling” rather than the central issue of the humane and effective handling of asylum seekers throughout South-East Asia, the moral assessments of the policy changes need more analysis than they have so far received.

Let me see if I can unpack the government’s logic of deterrence: 400 people seeking refugee status are held on Nauru in detention, that is by coercion, not because they have done anything wrong, but to try and influence the behaviour of people unknown, to try prevent them undertaking an activity that is grounded in international la, seeking asylum. Holding people under duress to try and influence the behaviour of other actors normally falls within the category of an activity that we would normally label hostage taking.

What the Government is saying in its policy of deterrence is that we are going to cause cruelty to people, to try and save the lives of others. So what are the harms that the Government will cause by this policy, and what are the evils that they wish to prevent?

The evil they wish to prevent are the deaths of some unknown proportion of people who take a risky and dangerous voyage to Australia to seek asylum from persecution.

So on the one side of the ledger we have if the policy is successful, a reduced number of deaths in transit. But notice something interesting here; the choice taken by people who risk their lives is their choice, presumably taken with some knowledge of the risks. The Government without knowledge of their specific circumstances is seeking to substitute its judgement as to the balance between the risks of loss of their lives and the risks that they face if they do not take the boat journey. The government is essentially saying, we know better than you how much risk you should take. The government policy is based on a presumption that nothing bad will happen to them if they do not take the risk of the sea voyage. The judgement from an air-conditioned office in Canberra as to what that calculation looks like may be very different from the point of view of a refugee.

On the other side of the ledger we have some information based on experience in recent years as to the harms that will be done by the Government’s policy. We can expect a number of suicides, attempted suicides and mental health problems for those detained on Nauru and Manus Island, that will affect many individuals and their families for the rest of their lives. The inability to work for those on the Australian mainland while waiting for the granting of protection will have similar affects on self esteem and self confidence as well as creating an alienated economically deprived group within Australia over the longer term.

To knowingly cause mental health problems that may lead to suicide and self harm, and to actively prevent by force of law people from exercising their human vocation to work and to contribute to family livelihood and to the community welfare as well as to actively maintain people in abject poverty are all outcomes which are evil. The Government and opposition are both committed to these outcomes as a matter of policy. How do these weigh in the balance against the objective of saving people’s lives? What we are saying to asylum seekers who come is that you must pay the price in your bodies and family lives to try and prevent other people making a choice that might result in the loss of their life.

On its own terms, that is a somewhat doubtful moral position, in that we are putting in the balance certain harm to some people against an uncertain number of deaths that are prevented if the policy is successful in its goals. But what if the policy does not succeed in preventing people from taking the risk? In that case we will have succeeded in being cruel for no possible, even vaguely arguable moral gain. We will not have stopped the deaths of those in transit, and the admitted cruelty to those refugees will have been undertaken without any arguable moral benefit.

What is the evidence to suggest that the policy will be successful? The only study that I can find was undertaken back in 2009 suggested that push factors tended to override pull factors in driving people seeking asylum by boat. The Pacific solution did not stop the boats from coming. The author explains that … it diddled the stats by redefinition. Boats still made the attempt to enter Australia – which is a point worth noting as many of the proponents of Pull Factors cite reducing the risk of death from reducing the number of people attempting the voyage by boat, as one of their key rationales. Yet we know that SIEV(s) 5,7,11 and 12 in 2002 attempted to make the journey and were returned to Indonesia while SIEV(s) 4,6 and 10 actually sank. That was in very late 2001 through late 2002. In 2003 we know that boats were still attempting to make the voyage such as SIEV 14, but were again towed back from whence they came.
The UNHCR estimates that 1600 people were diverted throughout the time of the Pacific Solution, but hard numbers are difficult to come by.

In summary, the policy is an attempt to use a form of hostage taking and causing a range of cruelty and harms to people with the intention of trying to discourage people from making a choice that involves the risk of death in pursuit of asylum. If the policy works we have a situation in which the most vulnerable have borne the burden of the Government’s achievement of its policy goals. If the policy doesn’t work and the odds are against it, then the Government will have caused substantial harm to a vulnerable group of people for no outcome at all. Evil will have been done for no good at all. On any moral calculus you like that is a big risk to take.

In the meantime the implications for Christians of the Parable of the Good Samaritan are pretty clear. We need to get involved in those community groups that will do what they can to act as neigbours to the vulnerable strangers in our midst. We can also begin to conduct a guerrilla warfare of polite, respectful correspondence with our local members and political leaders on the moral and policy incoherence of the policy.

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