Comment

Australians' pathological indifference to refugees' suffering

The Australian government is abusing asylum seekers. There are few other words to describe our policy of mandatory offshore detention, which is unsafe, unclean and unending. Assault, rape, murder, disease are just some of the dangers in our camps, alongside chronic hopelessness.

This is a bipartisan evil, with both major parties arguing that these threats and indignities are for the sake of the asylum seekers themselves – to avoid "deaths at sea". This is not a practical solution, since many refugees will come to harm elsewhere – at sea, in countries that are not signatories to the Refugee Convention, or in their homelands. There are more than 19 million refugees in the world: they need to flee somewhere. But even if it were practical, mandatory offshore detention would still be an unethical solution. It is punishing one group, ostensibly to deter another. The former have broken no laws by seeking asylum, yet they are penalised severely by our government and its proxies offshore.

Importantly, this brutality is not in question: it is, after all, the very point of deterrence. Humane treatment of asylum seekers who come by boat – most of whom are consistently found to be genuine refugees – is not our policy. Australian law promises maritime refugees "unnecessary suffering", as the UNHCR put it early last year.

Putting aside its utility for the political classes, ordinary Australians' acceptance of this policy is interesting. For all the swaggering talk of our "fair go" country, many are clearly comfortable with the abuse of innocents, as long as they arrive by sea. Almost six out of 10 support offshore detention, according to a Lowy Institute poll. The Scanlon Foundation's Mapping Social Cohesion reports that about a third of Australians are in favour of boat turn-backs, which risk refoulement. While the overwhelming majority of Australians say they themselves would use all their assets to escape persecution, a Red Cross survey found that almost seven out of 10 see boat arrivals as "illegal", giving moral weight to incarceration.

Even if adult asylum seekers were guilty of serious legal or ethical transgressions – again, there is no evidence of this – this would be no argument for the punishment of children. Yet many Australians accept what amounts to institutional abuse. They might lament the situation, saying that it's a shame to imprison kids indefinitely; that alleged sexual assault of minors is a terrible thing; that it is hardly ideal these children are "among the most traumatised" Australian paediatricians have seen. But they still support the system itself, the efficacy of which is prefaced on suffering.

In this, my fellow citizens are supporting evils. They are vicious, in the original sense: demonstrating vices.

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These vices might include cruelty, understood as a pathological indifference to others' suffering. The medical qualifier is vital here, as human flourishing requires some distance from other beings. There is so much pain in the world, even feeling a tiny quantum of its agony would cripple us. This becomes pathological when we not only accept suffering, but also endorse and encourage it. Not because we enjoy it – this is another vice – but because we somehow refuse to recognise it as an evil.

There are other possible vices, but the point is this: to support, in principle and by vote, the abuse of innocents requires unethical traits.

Note that this is not a sentimental cry for empathy. Those against offshore mandatory detention might not share the pain of the detained. They might simply believe that the torture of innocents is abhorrent, and oppose it out of quite consistent ethical principles: the Kantian maxim that refuses to treat humans as mere means to an end, for example. And those in favour of it might, with the "right kind" of people, demonstrate considerable fellow feeling.

Instead, I am arguing that it is impossible to support our treatment of asylum seekers and believe oneself to be wholly virtuous. To endorse the torture of innocents is to give up on notions like fairness and kindness.

This argument is unlikely to change minds, particularly given the partisan nature of the debate: asylum seekers line up conveniently on one side of the culture wars, alongside global warming. But it is important in these debates – such as they are – to bear witness. I add my name to the list of those who condemn Australia's policies on asylum seekers as grossly unethical.

It is comforting to cry "not in my name" at these junctures. But this government acts in my name, and this fact alone inspires violently treasonous thoughts.

Damon Young is a Melbourne philosopher and author. damonyoung.com.au

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