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The political and geographical limits of morality

AAP/Stefan Postles

The Abbott government’s asylum seeker policy is heartless, selfish, non-transparent, possibly in breech of international law, certainly a violation of progressive international norms – but it seems to be working. For a government that was elected in large part because it promised to ‘stop the boats’, this marks something of a triumph, albeit one that it might feel slightly queasy bragging about.

Whatever you think about the Abbott government, Labor’s policies in this area in particular were poorly conceived, ineffective and contributed mightily to its electoral downfall. Labor had many other failings, no doubt, but the inability to implement effective policies to deal with the ‘refugee problem’ became synonymous with failure and ultimately political desperation as the Rudd government sought any solution to limit the damage.

If the Coalition’s policies are brutal and self-serving and Labor’s are incompetent and ineffective then what, we might ask, is the alternative? This question is already of profound practical and moral importance. It will inevitably become more so. The Economist recently reported that the number of people forcibly displaced by violence and armed conflict had reached 50 million.

This figure takes no account of two things that are likely to make this number larger and much more problematic in the future. First, climate change is affecting the poorest parts of the world more directly and immediately than it is the rich world – which caused many of the problems in the first place, of course.

Second, the populations of some of the world’s poorest countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, continue to expand rapidly, placing even more pressure on already stressed natural environment.

The Economist

Any rational person facing a situation of conflict, environmental degradation and hopeless poverty would clearly be well advised to leave. Who would not want escape violence and provide a better life for their children? In an ideal world this is an ambition and perhaps a right that we might all applaud.

It hardly needs saying that we don’t inhabit such a world. As the numbers of the displaced and the desperate continue to swell, the pressures on the ‘international community’ and those states and peoples fortunate enough to enjoy something approximating the good life continues to increase.

The growing numbers of Latin American child migrants in the US, and the rapid influx of desperate would-be migrants from Africa trying to enter Europe, are but the most visible manifestation of a growing problem.

What should Australia do when faced with such an accelerating humanitarian crisis? There are some who argue we have an obligation to all these people simply on the basis of our shared humanity and their desperate circumstances. Perhaps. But even if this is true, how many should a country like Australia take? The sad reality is that unless we say we will take anyone that wishes to come, we have to discriminate and we have to reject.

Not even Sarah Hanson-Young is suggesting we accept 50 million would be migrants, one assumes.

This is not a flippant or unimportant point. If the basis of acceptance was simply turning up with a plausible case for protection, it is not unreasonable to suppose that refugees would soon outnumber the existing population in this country. This is plainly not politically or practically feasible no matter how normatively agreeable it may be. It wouldn’t do much for ‘our’ natural environment either.

Not only is there a reluctance to face up to the reality and necessity of a discriminatory policy, but there is often an unwillingness to ensure the welfare of those that are accepted. If migrants are to integrate into Australian society successfully it is likely many of them will need extensive – and expensive – help with language skills, training and an inculcation into the political traditions and social practices that actually make this such an attractive and sane place.

This highlights another issue that doesn’t always get the attention it merits. Some of those most deserving of our help on humanitarian grounds are stuck in refugee camps in Africa. Very few of them are likely to escape such hell holes by patiently waiting in a queue that is already 50 million long and growing. The alternative, of course, is to avoid the queue altogether.

From an entirely selfish, national interest perspective such self-selecting asylum seekers are probably just the sort of highly motivated, relatively well-off (they can pay the people smugglers, after all), educated people that would make a valuable contribution when they arrive. But where’s the justice and what’s the principle other than pragmatism?

In a world divided by arbitrary political boundaries that determine our life chances, those of us fortunate to live inside oases of stability and prosperity should count our blessings. Deciding who should share in our good fortune will be one of the defining public policy questions for Australia and the rest of the rich world for the foreseeable future.

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