The Ethics Of… Seeking Asylum

People reading this article from overseas may well be wondering what this topic is doing here. Seeking asylum? How is that an ethical issue? Virtually every nation, including Australia, is signed up to the UN’s Convention on Refugees which allows people fleeing persecution in their own country (based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion) to seek protection in other nations.

How could that be any more simple ethically? Ever since the world discovered the incredible toll of the Holocaust, you’d think that everyone would agree that people fleeing terrible and unjust persecution should be welcomed with open arms anywhere they went!

And they are. Well, everywhere but Australia.

Thanks to a persistent undercurrent of racism and xenophobia we just can’t seem to shake off, governments from both sides of politics have found asylum seekers arriving by boat (or ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘boat people’ as they prefer to describe them) a useful way of winning votes. Not only do they get to appeal to the disturbingly large number of xenophobes in Australia, they also get to do so under the highly popular banners of ‘tough on crime’ and ‘national defence’:

We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

– Prime Minister John Howard, 2001.

And so we’ve had solution after solution implemented in an effort to control the threat that aquatic refugees apparently pose our fair nation.

First we detained them and put them through rigorous screening processes to make sure they were, indeed, legitimate refugees.

Then we put them into detention camps (without charge or trial) to see if we could deter more people from coming – yeah that’s right, we attempted to put off refugees by making conditions too terrible for them to think it was worth it.

Then we implemented offshore processing, preventing refugees from even claiming asylum since they never actually touched Australian soil.

And most recently, we’ve taken the gloves off and simply declared that anyone arriving by boat will never be settled in Australia – even if their claims for asylum are found to be legitimate. Just this week, a boatload of Tamil refugees were turned around… and handed to the government they are seeking protection from. This is literally the equivalent of sending a boatload of Jews back to the Nazis, to discourage more Jews from fleeing here.

The asylum seeker issue is such a powerful one in Australian politics that our current government has point-blank refused to tell us when new boats arrive, or what happens to them if they do. Such basic and essential transparency might threaten the claim that they “Stopped the boats!”, you see, and that’s something they’re exceptionally proud of.

So in summary: the Australian government, elected in part on their promise to treat asylum seekers so poorly that it just wasn’t worth it, has just facilitated the persecution of a group of people – and they are very proud of this fact.

The numbers

Laid out like that, the situation looks totally bizarre – why do we have such a problem with refugees in Australia? Is it because we get so many of them?

Nope, we get substantially less than most other developed nations, and significantly less than many undeveloped ones:

Asylum seekers comparison

Even on a per-capita basis, Australia received sweet bugger all new arrivals each year:Asylum seekers statistics

Is it because the claims for asylum are fraudulent? People just trying to get into Australia for our standard of living, rather than a genuine fear for their safety?

Nope, over 95% of all boat arrivals are found to be legitimate asylum seekers – by the government that’s trying to get rid of them in fact.

And before anyone brings up the idea that terrorists might be sneaking in as refugees, not one single asylum seeker has ever been found to be part of a terrorist group, nor has any ever gone on to attack, or even plot to attack, Australians. And seriously, can you think of a worse way for a terrorist to try and sneak into Australia than one that requires thorough background checks on literally everyone?

So if none of these practical issues are a problem, then why are we so opposed to asylum seekers? Well there are a few reasons worth considering:

Illegal immigration

The most common of these is they arrive illegally – turning up on the border rather than going through the legal proper process. The comparison to straight-up illegal immigration is inevitable, and a nation does have the right to control who does and does not cross its borders. It’s basically what defines it as a nation.

But this argument ignores (ignorantly or wilfully) the fact that Australia is a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention. Under this convention, participation in which is protected by the High Court until we un-sign it, seeking asylum in Australia is absolutely, definitely legal. So the legal argument goes right out the window.

Charity begins at home

Then you have the numerous people that argue that we should be looking after Australians first – charity begins at home. Why are we spending so much money bringing in refugees, housing them, processing them and allowing them into Australia when we still have citizens who need help?

But as anyone who puts even the slightest thought into that (or who wants to put the slightest thought into it) can tell you, helping asylum seekers and domestic charity are not things we need to choose between. Why not both? In fact, you’d think that people in favour of helping the less fortunate in Australia would also be enthusiastic about helping asylum seekers too – oddly this is often not the case.

Naturally you can argue that we don’t have enough money to help Australians and foreigners, but given Australia is one of the richest nations in the world, the argument sounds a tad hollow. Not to mention that the current costs of processing refugees are largely due to the mandatory detention policy itself – so being less brutal would actually be the good economic option as well.

Queue jumpers and people smugglers

A far more persuasive argument than both of these is the argument that people who arrive by boat are jumping the queue – paying huge volumes of money to people smugglers to get to Australia faster, at the expense of other refugees that can’t afford the trip. Why should these people be given preference just because they’re rich? And if they’re rich enough to buy the trip (often costing several thousand Australian dollars) then are they really refugees at all? Why don’t they just stop and settle in one of the countries they pass through to get to Australia?

On the face of it this is a pretty good point. $10,000 goes a long way in Malaysia or Indonesia – why not stop there? Doesn’t the fact these people continue on to Australia demonstrate they’re really after our quality of life, rather than safety?

This is almost certainly true, but also misses the fact that most of the nations refugees pass though before getting to Australia, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, are not signatories to the Refugee Convention. This means you can’t claim asylum there, meaning you’re effectively a criminal until you leave. And while $10G might last you a while, you’re going to go through it pretty fast when you can’t find work. So you sit in a slum until the authorities burn it down, die of dysentery, or can escape somewhere else.

Rich bastards

But so what? Those are exactly the same terrible circumstances that the refugees that couldn’t afford the trip have to put up with. Why should some feel entitled to better treatment just because they have cash? Surely Australia should focus on taking more refugees directly from trouble-spots, not those who make it to our doorstep.

But hang on a sec – what’s exactly wrong with those with the means trying to get here faster? If a person is found to be a legitimate refugee (again, by the government that is trying to keep them away), then what does it matter who they are, how much money they have or how they got here? Surely we’re not discriminating against the rich just for being rich? That’d be class warfare…

In fact, if you want to be brutally pragmatic about it all, if a legitimate refugee manages to get themselves all the way from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka to Australia, doesn’t that show initiative? More so than the people still back in the camps?

Ridiculous contrast

But even if you’re unconvinced by all this and still think that asylum seekers shouldn’t be allowed here, and that the government has got the right idea, there is still the issue of the planes.

You see, all the deterants and processing efforts I described above – the ones that can detain people without trial for several hundred days in some cases – only apply to boat arrivals. And when more than three times the number of asylum seekers arrive by plane and are not detained on arrival, you have to ask yourself what the flying fuck is going on here.

The flying fuckiness only intensifies when you consider that only 70% of asylum seekers arriving by plane are found legitimate (compared to 95% of boat arrivals), that these people are also clearly richer given they could afford a plane flight, and are also apparently safe enough to process free in the community, without even a tracking bracelet to keep tabs on them.

This one, simple fact blows this entire debate clear out the water and turns it from a plausible issue of national security/border sovereignty into a total farce. A farce that causes massive human suffering FOR ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING REASON.

Oh wait, there is one reason:

Deeply concerned for your safety at sea

See in recent years it’s turned out that stopping the boats wasn’t about xenophobia, queue jumpers, protecting our borders or any of that – it was about the safety of the refugees! One of their boats sank you see, wrecked on rocks off Christmas Island with many of the passengers drowning tragically.

And suddenly the narrative changed. Suddenly the government was detaining, deterring and deporting asylum seekers for their own good. They can’t escape persecution here you see, because it’s unsafe! So if they do make it here safely, we should send them to other developing nations (that haven’t signed the Refugee Convention), or even hand them back to the government they were escaping, because you see, that’s safer for them.

I have only one response to this putrid, ignorant, backwards, apologist line of argument:

Safety at seaIt’s amazing how caring some people can be when it justifies them not having to care.

Asylum justified?

But, even standing here among the shattered husks of the anti-asylum arguments, this topic is not yet done. It’s all very well to point out the flaws in an opinion, but that does not necessarily justify your own. So the question must be asked: is seeking asylum ethically justified?

From a deontological perspective, most definitely – both the law and the international precedent are quite clear that allowing people to seek asylum is the Right Thing To Do. But deontological approaches are too simplistic for my taste. Better to weigh the costs, benefits and alternatives of the topic through utilitarianism.

So, do the benefits of the Refugee Convention outweigh the costs? For the moment the answer is quite clearly yes; the unjust suffering this process prevents is massive, preventing those who are persecuted from being even further persecuted, all at relatively little cost to a nation.

Certainly if the number of refugees increased too far the burden on the host nation could threaten the wellbeing of their citizens – this is a serious problem and not lightly dismissed. But Australia is currently so far from this it simply isn’t a factor.

Are there superior alternatives to the Refugee Convention? The may well be. Preventing conflict in the first place, refusing to fund or arm combatants, and, you know, not destabilising foreign nations for profit all come to mind.

But you know what isn’t a superior alternative? What Australia is doing right now. It hurts the vulnerable and puts them into danger. It costs more. And it’s utterly hypocritical given how totally fine we are with asylum seekers arriving by plane.

Worst of all it turns us into bastards. Far, far too many people not only accept the injustices our government is foisting on the world’s least fortunate, but eagerly embrace it. And far too many people use this popularity as a justification for the brutality.

This is the sort of policy that nations look back on in shame. This is the sort of blind, incredible idiocy that makes future generations shake their heads in disbelief, and wonder how human beings could ever have been so cruel, so ignorant, so fucking stupid.

One day this blight on Australian history will end. But it will never be forgotten. And it will most definitely never be forgiven.

11 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Seeking Asylum

  1. Very impassioned post. Once again the parallels between the U.S. and Australia are amazing (and not in a good way). I don’t know if you’ve read recently about the 50,000 thousand or so children who have come from Central American countries to escape poverty and corrupt governments. There are literally ignorant idiots who are standing on our side of the border yelling at them and telling them to get lost and go home. You can read about the situation a bit here. But yes people are actually trying to argue that Obama is trying to bring all these children here so they can vote for the Democratic party. It’s insane.

    Personally I think that the reason people are fine with them arriving by plane and not by boat is actually because they think they are richer or more sophisticated or something. And that’s the sort of person people want to come to their country. Not someone who is so desperately destitute by the time they arrive that we have to take care of them. Here in the U.S. and it’s probably true in Australia there is the attitude that if you’re poor you’re lazy. You don’t work as hard as “normal people”, you don’t make smart decisions with your money and that basically being poor is your own fault. People say, well if you’re poor you shouldn’t have a TV, a smart phone (even though you can get them free with a phone plan), some go as far as complaining about the fact that they have refrigerators if you can believe it. So if you make any decision with your money as a poor person that they perceive as not directly related apparently to the basics of survival, being poor is all your fault. I think this is the different between your plane asylum seekers and your boat ones. The boat ones had all this money to come here, but they are so stupid with their money that they came here instead, and because they are so stupid with their money, they are just going to be stupid with their money here and we’ll be supporting them for the rest of their lives. It’s all ballocks of course. Every immigrant I’ve known worked twice as hard as any citizen born here and usually for less money. And of course a good majority of the people in this country work harder than I do as a professor, make less, and struggle to raise themselves out of poverty.

    And forgot about the hypocrisy of the fact that this nation was literally taken from it’s original inhabitants by a bunch of people escaping persecution in their own country. I think that bothers me the most that instead of paying it forward to the next wave of immigrants who need help it’s like we only pay the persecution forward, forgetting what it felt like to be treated like scum at the bottom of the barrel. It would be nice for once if we could actually break that nasty chain and be welcoming.

  2. Hi Swarn, thanks for the insightful comment as always!

    Agreed, there is a strong element of classism in the way we’re fine with asylum seekers arriving by plane. Another is the fact that plane arrivals can’t be so easily singled out as an ‘issue’ by politicians – boats can be intercepted with a good chance of everyone being asylum seekers, or at least from developing nations who pose us no political worries. As such the boats can be stopped, turned around, and/or the entire crew imprisoned. Can you imagine them doing them with a plane? Too many wealthy people and people from important nations to risk it. And since ‘stopping the planes’ would equal an economic death sentence for Australia, I can’t see the slogan catching on.

    That is a very interesting situation with the 50,000 children crossing the border recently! Once I would have argued it was a much clearer case of illegal immigration, rather than genuine attempts to claim refuge – but then I read about what the War on Drugs has effectively done to half of South America. Raises an interesting question; if Nation A’s foreign policy seriously damages Nation B, do not citizens of Nation B now have a claim on Nation A?

    I’ve heard it suggested that, given the impact the impact of internal USA politics on the rest of the world (GFC, War on Terror and Drugs, the current face-off with Russia, and half a million economic initiatives) non-US citizens should really get a vote in US elections.

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