On Asylum Seekers, Justification and Morality

I’m going to talk about refugees. I’m not going to talk about boats, I’m not going to talk about detention centres, and I’m not going to talk about human rights, international conventions or the United Nations. In reality, as much as we claim to care about these issues, they bare little reality to what actually concerns and motivates the half of the population that opposes successive governments’ policies towards asylum seekers. When people quote statistics, recall dates and use legalistic language, they seek to justify an argument that they have already aligned with. To tell you the truth, most of the time when people use figures in written arguments I tend to suspect that they insert them into pre-written articles.

I don’t really want to talk about all of this, because up until six months ago, like most people in Australia, I had never met an asylum seeker. Incidentally, it was at the same event that I also first met an Indigenous person. I want to stress this, because we must never at any point forget this: physically, economically and politically, what happens to asylum seekers lies out of almost all of our lives that we cannot begin to claim to be affected by it. I met an asylum seeker, who was an interesting person; I ate, drank and went to bed. My life wasn’t changed at all. Why pretend it does?

I feel that many arguments made about how important this issue is tend to exaggerate our own individual importance, as if there’s some kind of debate that we need to win, using legal opinions from international agencies and even Treasury statistics. These arguments can’t be made in anything but bad faith: these issues just don’t affect us in this way. There’s no reason for us to care for the reasons that are stated. It’s a waste of money, sure, but it’s not that much money. It annoys our international allies, yes, but it doesn’t annoy them that much. It distracts from the other business of government, yes, but it doesn’t distract from it that much. Even the mainstream media occasionally lets slip of the fact that this issue is a relatively minor one. To argue strongly from these bases is misguided at best.

Yet it is obvious that we care. There is something about this issue that is so visceral: it could never have otherwise been so politically important if a significant majority of the population didn’t care. The fact that 40-50% of the population abhors it is likely what aids the conviction of the 50-60% in its necessity. It is a proven election winner and government toppler. And all over an issue which less than 1% of the population experience in their day-to-day lives.

For realistically, the only experience any of us have ever had with this issue is through television and newspapers. I recall a moment in 2009 in which ‘boat people’ had once again become a political issue. I recall with great sadness, the utter despair that rang deep within my soul at the prospect of facing this issue once more. I had thought we were well and truly beyond it. And little did I know how far down the rabbit hole we were still to go.

It is this moral dimension which is what we choose to never explore. There’s a very profound emotional violence which occurs when one is the unwitting conduit of violence. Sometimes it’s more direct: we as Australians have directly benefitted from imperialism by the very land on which we build our mega-houses. Yet at other times it has less meaning. Somehow even the barbaric nature of imperialism is at least comforting in the sense that it provides some form of narrative. But how does one oppose the violence of (for example) the My Lai massacre with any degree of articulation? There of course was a meta-narrative: America and its allies (including us, of course) were opposing Asian peoples’ self-determination, and they more or less succeeded with regard to Vietnam. Yet nothing truly explains what transcendent violence occurred that day. It’s raw, it’s ugly, and any attempt at justification – good or bad – belies the extreme moral truth of the situation.

It tries to make sense where there just isn’t any. When we knowingly deport people to certain torture and death, when we jail children for years, when we turn blind eyes to our instigation of riots, there is certainly some governmental reason behind this, certainly. In terms of achieving policy outcomes, it makes sense to implement these decisions, primarily through demeaning ‘boat people’ and acting as some form of ‘deterrent’. Yet behind this? What reason is there to do this? What threat do these people offer, what meaning do their lives have vis-à-vis ours? There lies nothing. No reason. No argument. Just a policy.

Yet this is precisely the opposite of what we see in the arguments of Labor, refugee advocates, human rights lawyers and even the Greens. They give this policy a reason, if a negative one. The Coalition’s policy (formerly Labor’s) is bad because it ‘alienates Australia in our international relations’. It ‘diminishes our credibility’. It ‘doesn’t meet our obligations’. It ‘costs us money we can’t afford’. We are against it because. Every time we use this word ‘because’ we cowardly shirk the honest truth, one which we’re incapable of expressing: we are against this because we don’t want to live in a country which does this. We are against this because it is moral suicide. We are against it because it is ethically unjustifiable. We are against it because it feels bad and we want it to stop. We’re against this because we are. We just are.

Every system of ethics starts from some absolutes, but damn near all of them include the idea that torture and murder are wrong. There is no because. There just is.

At the end of the day there is little we can really do ‘for’ refugees. They’re just people like the rest of us. Is there that much you can really do ‘for’ any other stranger? At any rate, they don’t need things done for them, they need things done against them to stop. We need to do less, not do more. These are capable people, not wards of the state, at least not until they’re wound down and deliberately manufactured to be, courtesy of our corporate partners at Serco and Transfield (and everybody’s favourite mob at G4S). How can we even begin to contemplate the idea of raising our children in a world in which such monstrosities are not only permitted, but actively condoned?

Unfortunately what has been proven is that simply being angry and upset by this issue won’t change very much. There’s a profound impotence at foot, when we march in the streets. I don’t wish to attribute any causal reasons for this, but perhaps we could begin by at least properly understanding why it is that we want to do something in the first place. We should at least recognise as sickening is the need to consult statistics and international bodies to distort our very basic sentiment that what’s going on is fucked up and I want it to end. I don’t want to get up in the morning and read about the fifty people who drowned at sea and the hundred that we’re going to lock up. I don’t want to watch a riot on TV. I don’t want to hear about the deteriorating mental health, the self-harm, the suicides and the deported torture and murder. Enough.

 [I’ll write about Moral Debt another time. For now, enjoy some Martin Luther King.]


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