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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Moral status of refugees

Some comments from Scott Stephens a couple of weeks ago on refugee policy resonate powerfully for me:


The real problem with asylum seekers is that their claim is an irreducibly moral claim; both their desperation and their dignity are inseparable from their bodily existence. As such, their claim cannot be comprehended by either a merely proceduralist or a political response: their presence demands recognition, humility and even joy. This is why the Christian conviction about thesacramental character of the refugee remains so potent, especially when the dehumanising logic of deterrence is the only game in town. As the Catholic Church's document on the care of migrants, Erga migrantes caritas Christi, beautifully puts it: "In the foreigner a Christian sees not simply a neighbour, but the face of Christ Himself, who was born in a manger and fled into Egypt ... Welcoming the stranger is thus intrinsic to the nature of the Church itself and bears witness to its fidelity to the gospel."
I am not, of course, claiming that the State is required to bear the same ethical yoke as that placed upon the Church. But Labor's moral bankruptcy and the humanitarian exhaustion now everywhere apparent in the West are ample demonstrations that politics is running out of moral resources on which to draw. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II anticipated that the undeniable reality of the plight of others would increasingly impose itself on the consciousness of the developed world:
"The fact that men and women in various parts of the world feel personally affected by the injustices and violations of human rights committed in distant countries, countries which perhaps they will never visit, is a further sign of a reality transformed into awareness, thus acquiring a moral connotation. It is above all a question of interdependence ..."
He believed that the unavoidable temptation would be to limit our response to the suffering of others to "a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far." But, the pope insisted, what would be required is authentic solidarity - that:
"firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual ... [It is] a commitment to the good of one's neighbour with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to 'lose oneself' for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to 'serve him' instead of oppressing him for one's own advantage."
Grappling with the problem of asylum seekers has always been politically costly. But to defer that cost onto those least able to pay it is to deny that politics is capable of serving any higher end than its own advantage. One suspects that, under Julia Gillard, Labor has already resigned itself to this base reality. If so, then so be it. But then the least they can do is abandon the pretence of occupying the moral high-ground, especially on asylum seeker policy.

The politics of asylum: Thuggery in humanitarian drag

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