Sinking boats: a reason to reconsider compassion?

This article by Monash University law professor Sarah Joseph was written in January 2012 in the wake of the Christmas Island asylum seeker boat sinking there. The author doesn’t shy away from the moral and practical dilemmas of asylum seeker policy and (like me) entertains the possibility that the Malaysia Solution might be the best of a bad lot of temporary solutions, at least from the standpoint of deterring voyages that too often result in deaths.

The issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia has been massively politicised for over ten years.  The arguments in this debate are well set. On one side is the rhetoric of hoards of queue-jumping illegal immigrants breaching our border security.  On the other is the view that these are people to whom we owe international obligations, who are desperate and need our help, which we are more than capable of giving.  It won’t surprise anyone that I am in the latter camp.

However, in the last year, another argument has come to dominate the debate.  That is that we must stop these leaky unsafe boats to save the lives of those who would otherwise get on them.  Such an argument has of course been prompted by the horrific scenes of the Christmas Island accident of early December 2010, and the more recent sinkings off the Java coast, the second of which led to the drowning of 150-200 people.

I am somewhat sceptical that the “saving lives” argument is the main motivator of many arguing to send asylum seekers offshore.  I have little doubt that the traditional concerns regarding border protection, queue-jumping, and so on, lurk close below the surface.  If “saving lives” was the main factor for government policy, then policies should be adopted which encourage the use of safer refugee boats, or to help refugees get here in another way (like increasing the annual intake of refugees from our region, which is present ALP policy but only in conjunction with the Malaysia solution).

Nevertheless, the “saving lives” argument must not be ignored.  Indeed, it poses a significant challenge to those, such as myself, who favour the compassionate approach.  One must confront the question of whether that “compassion”, even though it has been only begrudgingly pursued by the Gillard government, is luring people to their deaths.

Keep reading at Castan Centre blog …

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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