Boat People

Should we try to stop the boats?

I begin with Nuremberg Principle IV: The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility ...
broaden it to cover excuses like:-
- doing my job;
- defending my rights and
- obeying the law,
to end up with:
No matter how we rationalise our behaviour, we remain responsible for the consequences of our actions and of our failures to act.

Regarding those who arrive by boat, we're responsible for putting children behind razor-wire and for driving genuine refugees to despair, mental illness, self-harm & suicide. Self-serving rationalisations aside, our attitude boils down to: some other kids are coming; they're not like us and they might want to play with our toys.

The most cogent fact is that we've been conned. Of all asylum seekers, statistics show that few come by boat. Historically, the vast majority have arrived by air.

How did we come to this?

Mendacious politicians saw political advantage in preying on our fears. They were right.

In August 2001, Australian authorities sought assistance for an Indonesian boat in distress. MV Tampa answered the call and was led to the vessel by an Australian aircraft. The boat was disintegrating, so Tampa rescued its passengers and crew. Tampa, designed for 27 and now carrying 438, was severely overloaded; she proceeded to the nearest suitable port. Australia's response was an SASR boarding party.

The master and crew of MV Tampa subsequently received international acclaim. Australia didn't fare so well.

The incident was influential in the outcome of the following election. John Howard was right about us. The Tampa affair isn't the lowest he sank, but the electorate loved him.

Subsequent governments have not shown the moral fibre to confront the entrenched bigotry of the electorate. The fact that the bigotry is largely an artefact of political tactics may be at least part of the reason.

What can we do?

Short of establishing global peace, eliminating poverty and reducing the world's population to something sustainable, I see no solution to the refugee problem. The way we've been going doesn't address the issue, but it has won elections. I fear that the path we've been on leads inexorably to sinking the boats and leaving any survivors to their fate[1].

Refugees are a global issue. Countries like Australia, on the receiving end of refugee flows, are in no position to control them. History shows that the stated aim to break the people smuggler's business model cannot be achieved without at the same time "breaking" the people smuggled. As Sinclair Davidson said: "Breaking the people smuggler's business model means breaking the people; that is policy design, not some unintended consequence."

Nobody wants to see people take the risks inherent in the boat trip from Indonesia, but we aren't in a position to stop them. Not without doing unacceptable harm ourselves. I'd love to stop the boats, but I'm loath to become a monster in the attempt. We have been responsible for monstrous things.

It could be argued that we have a responsibility to discourage people from risking their lives taking dangerous voyages on unseaworthy vessels. History has shown that our attempts to do so have done more harm than good. In truth, our attempts have been based more on selfishness and intolerance than concern for the welfare of desperate people. Assertions of concern are no more than political spin and self-serving rationalisation. Responsibility in that field rests with nations upstream in the flow of refugees. It could best be argued that our responsibility is to support those nations in discharging their duties. For those nations, the responsibility lies in dealing with the smugglers not the people smuggled.

It is commonly asserted that making Australia more attractive (or less unattractive) encourages people to risk their lives trying to get here. That led me to ask; is death worse than what we've been doing to refugees? I'm reminded of the, probably apocryphal, story of an Australian patrol officer in New Guinea early in the second half of last century. He was talking, it's said, to the head man of a tribe which had recently been through its first contact by white people. One of the head man's duties was to execute felons. The process involved the felon being held down while the head man dropped a heavy rock on their head. The patrol officer countered that civilised Australia didn't execute people any more. The head man asked what we do with the worst criminals. When the Australian told him that we lock them up, sometimes for life, the putative savage was horrified. I guess it's a matter of perspective.

We can behave decently. Whatever we've been doing to date, it isn't that. Others have set out principles for reasonable solutions, not least in the open letter of 11 October 2011.

If we're really concerned about the welfare of refugees, then perhaps we could minimise their risk by sending our own ships. The idea started as a joke, but Jesters do oft prove prophets. It's worthy of serious consideration. Not necessarily bringing people all the way from the gulf states, but from near neighbours such as Indonesia.

The proposal has merits:

Unfortunately, it's unlikely to attract the bigot vote.

[1]I've spoken to people locally, expressing my fears about the path we've been on. Some seemed to quite like the idea of sinking the boats and leaving survivors to drown or worse. We have indeed been brought to a low place. Climbing out of it will take strong leadership.

Site Index

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Feedback: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it.