Sunday, February 20, 2011

The lives of others

Ask any parent or teacher what values they wish to pass on to their children and you’re likely to get a list that includes: telling the truth, keeping your word, treating people fairly, not harming anyone, helping others in a crisis, sharing what you’ve got, thinking for yourself and assuming responsibility for your own words and deeds.

These are some of the moral values we continually appeal to when judging the rightness or wrongness of our conduct. They limit the manner and extent to which we are entitled to pursue our self-interests. They are the basis of our claim that the end does not justify the means. Indeed, our values judge not only the means but also the ends themselves: both have to be decent to avoid moral censure.

The origin of our most basic moral values may be open to argument: whether imposed by God, or inherent in the nature of our being human, or socially and culturally constructed. But for all practical purposes their authority depends on our ongoing commitment to them and the seriousness of our moral concern.

This is reflected in the importance we place in our lives on such values as truth, compassion for the suffering of others and respect for the inherent dignity and preciousness of human life. Such values have universal application.

In this regard, the greatest moral challenge of our time is to afford the same concern and respect for the lives of ‘others’ as we do for ‘our own’. It requires a heightened moral imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of strangers beyond our shores. To do so would dramatically affect the way we think about such things as our commitment to foreign aid, our continuing involvement in the war in Afghanistan and our treatment of asylum seekers.

However, we all know that when morality comes into conflict with national, political or self interests, these latter interests will usually prevail.

Thus the call from some of our politicians, following the recent floods, to slash the pitifully small foreign aid budget and use the money to help ‘our own’. While we should give priority to caring for our own, we can well afford to do both.

Then there is the justification for our involvement in Afghanistan based on the US alliance. Deep down, we know that it is not OK to sacrifice the lives of others simply to allay our general feelings of anxiety about potential terrorist threats and to keep our allies happy in the hope of future security and economic benefits.

Our treatment of asylum seekers is another example of this kind of conflict and its resolution. Our moral instinct is to come to the rescue of genuine refugees. However our selfishness imposes the limits: it must not be to the detriment of our own interests. So we rescue asylum seekers but do not welcome them. We incarcerate them as a deterrent to others, out of our sight and out of mind.

Indeed, our treatment of ‘boat people’ brings all of our most basic values into sharp focus. First, there are the lies - Tampa being the most blatant. Then there is the failure to keep our word – when we signed up to the Convention we promised to provide a safe haven for all genuine asylum-seekers irrespective of their method of arrival. We treat boat people both unfairly and cruelly through mandatory detention. Rather than accept responsibility for our own appalling response to the plight of refugees, we blame the victims.

On this issue we all have opinions but very few people think things through for themselves. Most opinions are based on prejudice, stereotypes, parroting of others and media manipulation. Regrettably, many people accept, without reflection, assertions that we have lost control of our borders and are being ‘invaded’, that boat people are potential terrorists and a threat to our security, that they are rorting our welfare system, etc. Such public opinion is often as vehement and unshakeable as it is irrational and contrary to the evidence.

In these and many other examples we have a choice: to give priority to the values we profess to live by or to betray our values in order to allay our irrational fears and to advance our personal or political interests. With regard to boat people, we have chosen the latter course, to our great shame.

Two things remain abundantly clear: the policies of both major parties are morally reprehensible and there is little prospect of them changing in the foreseeable future. What is now required from concerned citizens are alternative approaches that address not only the moral concerns but also the anxieties expressed by our fellow Australians.

Any realistic solution to this problem has to deal with both. The moral imperative is to ensure that we continue to provide a safe haven for asylum-seekers fleeing their country of origin and provide for the resettlement of genuine refugees. The political imperative is to stop the boats, put the people smugglers out of business and restore an orderly process, where people arriving on our shores gain no advantage over those waiting in refugee camps.

No policy in the foreseeable future is likely to be ideal. Instead we will have to accept responsibility for a compromise. We need to honestly face the above realities of life in Australia, however unpalatable. Our efforts should be directed at looking for compromises that are more morally defensible and politically workable than the ones we have been living with for the past decade.

In that spirit, I offer the following proposals for discussion. 
  • Asylum-seekers who originate from countries in our immediate neighbourhood and arrive at our borders should have their applications processed in our community, after the necessary health and security checks. The same should apply to all those currently held in detention. There should be no ongoing mandatory detention.
  • We should make it clear, through all possible means, that no future asylum seekers from countries beyond our immediate neighbourhood who present at our borders will be settled in Australia, irrespective of their status.They must go through the same channels as the others we accept whose applications for refugee status are processed overseas.Such arrivals will be detained and deported without delay to countries with whom we reach agreements for this purpose.
  • We should dramatically increase our baseline overall annual refugee/humanitarian intake to 0.125% of our total population, doubling our current commitment to about 27,500.Furthermore, we should agree to take an additional 5,000 refugees per annum from any country with whom we are involved in warfare, like Afghanistan.The above increases to our refugee intake would not affect the overall number of immigrants. It merely affects the mix.We should welcome them with open arms, because all the evidence suggests they are likely to make a significant contribution to our community.
  • We must significantly boost our processing activities in UNHCR centres in the most appropriate countries (Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia) where people can apply for refugee status, under a clear process with minimum delays to reach our quotas. 
  • We will need to negotiate multi-lateral agreements with other countries to take the few asylum-seekers who will continue to arrive from other than neighbouring countries once our new policy becomes known. We could contribute to their resettlement or agree that for every one asylum-seeker they accept we will accept three refugees in return.
Although not ideal, the above reform package tries to make the best of our present moral and political malaise. It meets our primary obligation under the Refugee Convention to accept those fleeing persecution from neighbouring countries. It shows our compassion and commitment to alleviating the wider escalating world refugee problem by doubling our intake of people in need, providing they come through appropriate channels. It eliminates the preferential treatment of refugees who have the means to ‘queue jump’. It minimises the risk of unsafe boat travel and eliminates the market for people smuggling, by sending a clear message about its futility and by facilitating access to speedier processing elsewhere. It ends the evils of mandatory detention.

One challenge will be convincing the UNHCR that, although Australia will remain in breach of its obligations under the Convention, this is a preferable option to the present unsatisfactory regime.

There will be legal problems to overcome. It may also be difficult to persuade others to take responsibility for our ‘irregular’ arrivals when we should be accepting full responsibility for them ourselves.

If successful, however, such a policy might go some way to restore order and confidence in the process, take the heat out of the public debate and reduce the political opportunism that has resulted in policies that have so shamed our nation.

And we just might arrive a little sooner at a point where those qualities of compassion, generosity and hospitality, so admirably shown to the victims of our bushfires and floods, are also extended to our treatment of asylum-seekers, who are in an even more perilous state.