Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

Realism and Refugees


By Emma Larking*

Centre for International Governance and Justice, ANU

Refugee protest, Nauru Detention Centre. Image: Sydney Morning Herald

Refugee protest, Nauru Detention Centre. Image: Sydney Morning Herald

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen recently defended the warehousing of people on Nauru and Manus Island by saying the government has an ‘overriding moral and humanitarian obligation’ to stop asylum seekers drowning at sea.  ‘Stopping the boats’, and thereby the deaths of people at sea, is now said to be the Labor government’s primary policy goal in the refugee arena.  There is a very straightforward means of preventing the deaths of asylum seekers at sea without spending billions [1] to incarcerate them off-shore. Australia could abandon its current strategy of impounding or destroying asylum boats on arrival, and it could stop prosecuting boat crews. If it did so, the people who make arrangements for asylum seekers to travel by sea to Australia would be prepared to provide seaworthy craft, and enough people competent to crew them safely.

The trade-off would be an increase in the number of people seeking asylum in Australia. Among the advantages of this trade-off, where it is combined with the rejection of mandatory detention and of the punitive conditions attached to bridging visas, would be the restoration of genuine moral decency in this policy arena. Another advantage would be the destruction of the much maligned ‘business model’ employed by people smugglers. Criminal networks engaged in smuggling, exploiting, and endangering people would be replaced with lawful transport operations.

Over the years to come, the numbers of people globally in need of asylum will fluctuate in response to the levels of persecution in various regions, and as violent conflicts ignite or are resolved, but climate refugees are likely to contribute to an overall increase in involuntary migration. The current approach to this issue for destination countries like Australia is to fortify their borders and to make an example of anyone desperate enough to try and breach the fortifications. We should be clear about the moral cost of such policies. The philosopher Hannah Arendt, who was herself a refugee of Nazi Germany, worried that totalitarianism might well survive the defeat of totalitarian regimes

in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social or economic misery in a manner worthy of man. [2]

Her point was that having once pursued a certain line of thinking, or made use of certain political instruments, humans can’t regain their ignorance or their innocence. The best they can do is be aware of the danger, and recognise the temptations when they arise.

It’s notable in this context that familiarity with certain modes of thought, and certain tactics, engenders comfort and complacency. What shocked us once (the Pacific Solution, Mark 1) no longer seems so shocking. Tied up with our capacity to accept the unacceptable is that many of us begin to profit from it. [3] Others who might initially have had moral qualms about their involvement get caught up in the day to day messiness of it, and become inured to what they’re doing.

In the current debate, those who advocate in support of a humane system involving the on-shore processing of all protection applications are accused of being removed from the hard realities of judicious policy-making in the national interest. But it’s a troubling form of realism that locates our national interest in enriching multinational security firms through contracts to incarcerate and manage people who have sought our protection. This is the realism that tells us nothing can be done about those who go crazy in the camps, the people who sew their lips, who hang themselves, who starve themselves to death. It’s the realism that allows for some tinkering when particularly shocking details are exposed – a playground might be built for the children when word gets out about the twelve year old who has stopped talking and rocks silently in a corner. It’s the realism alongside which we sought to humanise the Howard-era camps. And it’s the realism that supplied the underlying logic for those camps – a logic which we did not challenge, with the result that we are back where we were. This is the realism that will see the camps expanded, and the system of border fortifications intensified.

It’s telling that the right to seek asylum is both the quintessential human right and the human right least reliably secured by international law. It appears in the hortatory Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  but in neither of the International Covenants which were designed to recognise in binding form the rights set out in the Universal Declaration.  It’s a right that can only be claimed on the basis of one’s humanity – by definition the person who seeks asylum is an outsider who cannot make a rights claim based on citizenship or membership. The asylum seeker appears in a state other than her own without political rights or the protection of her state, with her humanity the sole basis for her claim upon us. There are those of us who would like to think of ourselves as defenders of human rights, and of Australia as a country that upholds human rights. Until we recognise the right to seek asylum though, our claim to be a rights recognising country is a contemptible and dangerous form of self-delusion. Blindly, we believe ourselves to be honourable people forced to do some harm for the greater good. Until we recognise the camps are unconscionable and cannot be justified on any terms, we allow their brutal logic to dictate the kind of society we are, and even worse, the kind of society we will become.

*Emma is the author of Refugees and the Myth of Human Rights: Life Outside the Pale of the Law (Ashgate). Read the introduction here.

[1] The Pacific Solution Phase 1 is estimated to have cost over AUD1.2 billion for the years 2001-2007 (Bem, 2007. A Price too High: The Cost of Australia’s Approach to Asylum Seekers, Australia: A Just Australia & Oxfam Australia, p.29). The cost of the current regime is projected to be almost AUD3 billion for the years 2012-2016 (ABC Radio, 14 August 2012, ‘Australian Parliament to Vote on Pacific Solution’)

[2] 1968 [1951]. The Origins of Totalitarianism, USA: Harcourt Inc., p.459.

[3] The millions and ultimately billions of dollars of public money being spent to establish and run the camps on Nauru and Manus Island represent revenue for a number of companies and organisations, including private security firm G4S, health services provider, International Health & Medical Services (IHMS), and the Salvation Army.

[4] Article 14(1) ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’.

3 thoughts on “Realism and Refugees

  1. Could you be more specific in regards to what services that the Salvation Army provides and at what cost to the Commonwealth? There are a number of students at Macquarie University: Philosophy, Morality and Society; who are writing papers on Justice and the Australia’s response to asylum seekers and refugees.


    Daniel De Angelo.

    • I have been unable to find out how much the Commonwealth is paying for the Salvation Army’s services. According to this ABC report:

      the Government paid $24.5 million to Transfield for ‘catering, cleaning, security, transport and facilities’ on Nauru and Manus Island during the first six months of the detention centres’ operation. International Health and Medical Services was paid $22 million for the provision of ‘health care’ during the same six month period, while The Salvation Army was contracted to provide ‘social services’ (no detail provided regarding the cost of the SA’s services).

      If any of your fellow students have been able to track down further details, it would be great if they could post them!

  2. Hi again Daniel,

    I’m not sure if you saw the recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Deborah Snow, ‘300 jobs lost as Salvos lose contract on Manus, Nauru’ (Dec 14-15). Ironically it is only in the context of an announcement of the withdrawal of services that we learn the value of the Salvation Army’s annual contract (which will not be continued) to supply ‘humanitarian services’ on Manus and Nauru – $74 million.

    The Snow article also reports a ‘blow out’ of $1.2 billion in the cost of ‘off-shore processing’ (more accurately, off-shore incarceration). Surely this money could be better spent housing and processing asylum seekers in Australia, and assisting refugees to integrate into our community.

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