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Lesser Evils and Stopping the Boats

by Anthony N. Castle

Refugee Image

The boats have stopped. Good.

At least that’s the general sentiment. Last year, when the Government’s former Immigration Minister sat down at a human rights inquiry to answer questions regarding the abuses suffered by children in our immigration detention centres, it was maintained that the results spoke for themselves. The policy of mandatory detention, boat turnbacks and handovers has reportedly worked. The number of boat arrivals has dropped, asylum seekers are not drowning near Australian waters and no refugees are being resettled here. The Opposition is utterly compliant. Several editors and columnists at our national broadsheet have described this policy as effective. Some have even called it good.

The issue might seem resolved for the Government, but for those who deal in the continuing realities of the global refugee crisis, describing the current policy as good is naïve at best and malevolent at worst. In reality, there are almost more asylum seekers than ever. The UNHCR reported on last year’s World Refugee Day that the number of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people worldwide has exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II. This is particularly evident in the Mediterranean where thousands fleeing conflict in Libya tragically died in the waters near Italy (prompting Italy’s humanitarian response that rescued more than 140,000 asylum seekers from the water). Recently, up to 8000 Muslim Rohingyas have been stranded on boats in the Andaman sea. Australians might think that the boats have been stopped, but thousands upon thousands of asylum seekers on the oceans suggest otherwise.

The good policy

For many, the policy of stopping the boats is nonetheless a good one. While there is no denying that asylum seekers have been diverted and discouraged from arriving on Australian shores, a commander of Operation Sovereign Borders recently confirmed that 18 boats have been intercepted over the last 20 months. Rather than stop the boats, the Government has simply turned them around without reporting it to the public. As for those asylum seekers who are intercepted, the policy of stopping the boats means that they face mandatory immigration detention, resettlement overseas or return to their place of departure. Many argue this is preferable to the number of lives that were lost at sea, reportedly 900 from 2008 to 2013, under the former government’s immigration policies. Fact checking) has found that comparatively the number of asylum seeker deaths under the former Coalition government, from 2000 to 2007, is estimated at 746, demonstrating that failure and tragedy has no partisan bias. The devil, as always, is in the detail and it is upon closer examination that the goodness of the current policy quickly falters.

Return to sender

For instance, consider the asylum seeker that the Government returned to Afghanistan last October who was reportedly abducted and tortured by the Taliban. Similarly, the Tamil Refugee Council reported that at least 11 of the Tamils the Australian navy handed back to the Sri Lankan government last year have been tortured by intelligence services. Others handed over to the Sri Lankan government last year were arrested and now face prison terms. As for those who are to be resettled on Nauru, there is a considerable risk of assault also. A 23 year-old asylum seeker told the media that she was raped and beaten while on day release from the Nauru detention centre. One 16 year-old Afghan boy claimed to be beaten and hospitalised by locals there also. For those returned, handed over or resettled under this Government’s policy, torture, imprisonment and abuse can be the result.

Mandatory detention

As for our immigration detention centres, The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, found that aspects of Australia’s asylum seeker policies violate the Convention Against Torture. An independent review, conducted by former integrity commissioner Philip Moss, found evidence of rape, and sexual assault of minors on Nauru. As for the much ignored findings of The Forgotten Children report, the Human Right Commission revealed that from January 2013 to March 2014, children in immigration detention were involved in 128 incidents of actual self-harm, 33 reports of sexual assault and 27 cases of voluntarily starvation. There is no shortage of data to conclude that mandatory detention exposes asylum seekers to abuse, mental illness, sexual assault and torture.

The lesser evil

While we have evidence that our policies result in human rights abuses, there is still no evidence that stopping the boats actually saves lives at sea. Just because we do not see people drowning near Australian waters does not mean that they are not still at risk, or dead, elsewhere. Ultimately, no one wants asylum seekers making a perilous journey across the sea or for people smugglers to profit from suffering. There is no doubt that both push and pull factors are always involved in the numbers of arrivals and some will always argue that stopping the boats, by whatever dark means, is preferable to seeing lives lost at sea. In that sense, stopping the boats is something of a lesser evil. Even for those who argue this sincerely, it is a false dichotomy. Anyone who seriously suggests that the only alternative to seeing deaths at sea is to facilitate human rights abuses are likely to be opportunistic, disinterested or intellectually ill-equipped for this debate. Lesser evils remain evils nonetheless.

The solution

What then, many have begun to ask, might be a good solution to this problem? Who knows? Perhaps it involves a humanitarian program that can close the ocean routes used by people smugglers? Perhaps it involves a regional agreement regarding the safe transferral of maritime arrivals? Perhaps it requires transparent community processing, increased adherence to the Refugee Convention in the region and appropriate resettlement of asylum seekers? This is all, of course, a complex best-case scenario that would require long-term diplomacy, investment and a process of implementation that is devoid of political point scoring. Given the current climate, none of this seems likely. Worse yet, there may be no solution as long as the asylum seekers themselves are seen as the problem.

We know that to stop the boats is to abuse human rights, expose children to mental illness and sexual assault and to dabble in refoulement and torture. This is a matter of fact. While there are no easy answers, there will probably not be any real solution to the asylum seeker issue until we admit that people seeking safety are not the problem. Protecting asylum seekers is our humanitarian challenge, not a political problem to solve with lesser evils.

The boats may appear to have stopped but goodness has little to do with it.


Anthony N. Castle is a writer based in Adelaide. He writes for The Salvation Army and elsewhere on the crossroads of social justice and pop culture narratives.


For resources on this issue and Refugee Week, and to help exorcise the devil from the policy details, check out the Just Salvos resource page.