PREVIOUSLY we have discussed the impossibility of solving global problems such as climate change when governments are only willing to act in their short-term national interest. The asylum seeker dilemma provides another example of this tension between the global and the national interest. If national governments only consider a narrow range of consequences, for example, the short-term impact on the federal budget, or a desire to win elections, then without constructive intervention human catastrophe inevitably continues.
The ethic required to solve global humanitarian problems must focus on alleviating the suffering of those affected, and it must be collaborative; that is the specific nations involved in the crisis must collectively find and implement the solution.
Australia's immigration policy has changed significantly (and not always for the better) from the shameful years of White Australia. On June 19 the ABC's PM program featured the story of 99 Vietnamese refugees who escaped to Australia in 1981 and who are all now productive and successful Australian citizens.
"When South Vietnam finally fell to the communist North in 1975, more than a million people fled the country. The only escape route lay across the unforgiving expanse of the South China Sea. On the evening of June 21, 1981, 99 men, women and children aboard a small, overcrowded boat were waiting to die. Their leaking boat was disintegrating under the blows of a tropical storm."
The 99 refugees were rescued by the Australian Navy. There was no detention, no turning the boats back, no offshore processing, just a warm welcome from Australian sailors and their commander John Ingram.
Much has changed since 1981. Some of the statements made by our senior politicians over the past few weeks are puzzling and misleading. Here are some examples:
"…there are no moral solutions here; the goal of government policy is to destroy the people smugglers' business model; all options are undesirable and we are forced to choose the least bad option."
As one insightful reader noted last week in his letter to The Echo, by committing to stop the boats, our major political parties have focused on the wrong problem. The idea of destroying the people smugglers' business model is economically irrational. For as long as Australia remains a desirable destination, the market for people moving will continue. An ethical policy must recognise the freedom of endangered persons to flee their desperate circumstances as a fundamental human right.
Given the number of refugees arriving by boat in Australia is small by any measure; given most are found to have legitimate claims and are granted asylum in Australia; given the numerous success stories where former refugees have made genuine economic contributions and added to the vibrant diversity of cultures we enjoy in this country; and given there is no evidence that these people represent a security, health or flight risk, it seems there is no need to send them offshore or lock them up in detention.
Offshore processing is designed to deny refugees their legitimate legal rights (and the potential cost to the Australian taxpayer) if they land on Australian soil. It is not a deterrent to someone facing death by persecution or poverty. Our laws reflect our beliefs, our values and our prevailing morality and their application should be non negotiable. Whilst attempting to evade the rule of law for our own short-term financial benefit, we are causing increased suffering to the vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Given our position of privilege and wealth relative to our neighbours, the economic reality is that Australia must bear a larger burden of the regional cooperative arrangements which are essential to finding a solution. Increasing the humanitarian intake of refugees providing a safer route to Australia is one constructive step.
The refugee crisis appears intractable because our decision makers are engaged in trench warfare, driven by personal ambition and the lure of political power, which renders them incapable of engaging in constructive dialogue with transit countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia to determine what resources, additional policing and humanitarian policies are needed.
While we continue to deny the injustice of long-term detention of innocent people, the brutality of our policies of exclusion, the inhumanity of turning around boats which are barely seaworthy, and the legal deception of offshore processing, we suspend the values which define our nation, and we can never be the virtuous society we should aspire to be.