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The end of humanitarianism?

Asylum seekers on a vessel off the coast of Indonesia that later sank with the loss of nearly 60 lives in 2013. AAP/SBS Dateline/supplied by Hussein Khoder

Being responsible for asylum seeker policy would be personally and practically challenging at the best of times. At the moment it is frankly nightmarish. No amount of money or career advancement could persuade me to do it. But given that someone has to and will, in a democracy the rest of us bear some of the responsibility. Unfortunately, there are only less awful options available to even the best-intentioned ministers.

One alternative, of course, is sanctimonious grandstanding. Those of us fortunate enough not to have to get our hands dirty can strike morally superior attitudes knowing that our ideas will not be tested by the demands of implementation. We may feel better about ourselves claiming that all human beings deserve the right to be protected from persecution, but the reality is becoming politically and practically impossible.

No country’s leaders can make an open-ended commitment to accept anyone and everyone simply on the basis of need. Demography, environmental degradation and widespread state failure in Asia and especially Africa mean that there is a potential pool of tens of millions of would-be migrants and asylum seekers who undoubtedly deserve our sympathy, protection and assistance. The brutal reality is that it is simply not possible to help or accommodate them all.

It is not often I find myself in agreement with The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, but on this issue, at least, he has been consistently clear-eyed. Yet what is striking about his postion is that he, like his close friend Tony Abbot, is also a prominent Christian.

At least the non-believers amongst us only have to wrestle with the worldly implications of our views. Quite how the religiously-inspired manage to compartmentalise their ideas about the secular and the divine is an interesting question, and one that highlights the extreme nature of the current problem. However much we may dislike the policies themselves, however, there is no doubt the Abbott government has ‘stopped the boats.’

One assumes that even Sarah Hanson-Young is not suggesting that Australia accommodates everyone who qualifies as persecuted or in need. Not only would it be impossible to support adequately hundreds of thousands of arrivals who may not speak English and who may be unemployable, but it would, of course, be politically unthinkable.

Rightly or wrongly, asylum seekers are a touchstone political issue and no government could contemplate much less implement a policy that tried to rapidly accommodate hundreds of thousands of new arrivals. The key questions the Greens need to answer are firstly, is there an upper limit to the number of people they would accept? If so – and there must be, surely – what is it and how is to determined? What do we say to those we discriminate against and reject?

These are precisely the challenges confronting Europe at present. The prospect of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of prospective migrants quite literally washing up on their shores has galvanised Europe’s leaders into action, albeit belatedly and with little prospect of success. It is simply unclear what a practical or a moral response to this very human crisis actually looks like.

If Europe’s leaders with all their wealth, expertise and resources cannot adequately and humanely address this problem, why should we be surprised that the countries of Southeast Asia are struggling to cope? The reality is that ASEAN as an institution is notoriously ineffective at the best of times and united by little other than a preoccupation with internal security and a paranoia about external threats. When confronted with an existential crisis that emanates from within, effective regional cooperation is the last thing we are likely to see.

The idea that Australia could or should play a regional leadership role as suggested by Senator Hanson-Young is simply unrealistic wishful thinking. Even if there was the political will in this country to play such a role, which plainly there isn’t, such a move would be deeply resented by our Southeast Asian neighbors. The ASEAN states don’t like being lectured by us at the best of times; given that we pioneered the policy they have recently embraced it would be somewhat hypocritical to pontificate on this issue.

If this sounds like a counsel of despair that’s because it is. My fear is that either the desire to escape persecution or simply the not unreasonable pursuit of a better, more secure and prosperous life will be an irresolvable, unending feature of future international relations. Where it is ‘resolved’ it will be by the sort of brutal, inhuman policies that are currently being enacted with the some success by the likes of Australia - if that’s the way to describe a policy that is based on making migration as dangerous as possible.

As someone who arrived by boat in this country under very different, infinitely more welcoming circumstances, I am painfully conscious of the hypocrisy of my own position. Life really is the most dreadful lottery in which the stakes could not be higher. Quite how we come to terms with that existential reality personally, politically and practically is likely to be the defining feature of this century. The humanitarian principles which we have developed with such difficulty and which are one of our greatest collective achievements may be another victim of the new international order.

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