Both major parties now routinely argue that off-shore processing is morally justified on the basis of the need to create disincentives for asylum seekers risking death at sea.
Others argue that it should be up to asylum seekers themselves to decide whether the risks of sea travel with people smugglers outweigh the risks, of staying put, either in their original country, or the third country in which they have arrived.
Under the first approach government aims to determine the outcome. The argument is that it is better to prevent deaths at sea than to leave the choice to make the dangerous sea journey up to individual asylum seekers who are likely to be misinformed by people smugglers about the risks associated with the journey.
The second approach emphasizes individual liberty. Whether or not they are misinformed about risks, asylum seekers themselves are best still best placed to decide their own best course of action. Indeed in most areas of life, western liberal democracies applaud individuals for taking responsibility for their own decisions and for taking risks to improve their life circumstances or chances of survival.
But even if there are strong arguments on both sides of this ethical debate, a modicum of consistency in ethical approach is required. It is hypercritical to support the need to preserve life in one context and then switch to supporting individual liberty, in a context where the risks are virtually the same. Yet this is precisely the position of the Australian Government which recently returned a refugee to Syria who decided that he would rather risk returning there, than to languish in the conditions of detention that prevail on Manus Island.
Emma Alberici exposed the contradiction at the heart of the Government’s policy on ‘Lateline’ on 5 October in this exchange with Minister Dutton:
“EMMA ALBERICI: Are you proud of the fact that you’re presiding over a system where people in offshore detention feel such despair they’d rather go back into a warzone than to be stuck in an Australian-run detention centre for one day longer…Isn’t there a fundamental contradiction at the heart of your government’s position here. On the one hand you say your asylum seeker policy saves lives by preventing deaths at sea.
PETER DUTTON: Yes.
EMMA ALBERICI: How can you then return people to an almost certain death at home?
PETER DUTTON: If people make a decision that they want to return to their place of birth, their place of birth origin, their place of residence, that is an issue for them, Emma.”
What then is the explanation for this morally contradictory approach? How can Government, on the one hand, adopt the moral high ground by promoting harsh policies on the basis that they prevent asylum dying at sea and then rely upon individual liberties when it comes to returning asylum seekers to a war zone where the risk of death is such that it is creating millions of refugees?
The most obvious explanation must be that the Government’s underlying motivations do not relate to preventing deaths at sea as much as they relate to domestic political considerations, namely, the appeasement of those voters who are hostile to refugees seeking asylum in Australia.