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Beyond deterrence: reframing the asylum seeker debate

13 Oct 2014

It’s time to fundamentally rethink Australia’s approach to asylum seekers, free of narrow assumptions about what’s politically feasible

CURRENT policies to prevent and deter asylum seekers from reaching Australia by boat are justified by the assertion that these policies save lives. Yet forced and irregular migration is a global phenomenon, so tighter controls along some borders tend to increase the level of migration along other routes and across other frontiers. The humanitarian success claimed for Operation Sovereign Borders is therefore misleading: instead of trying to reach Australia by boat, those facing unacceptable risks of serious harm in their home countries will resort to alternative, no less dangerous routes to other countries that seem able and willing to offer them protection. If all borders are closed to them, they will continue to suffer the harm from which they would flee if they could.

So, should Australia simply ignore the loss of life at sea and accept people-smuggling to our shores as inevitable? No. That would amount to applying a survival-of-the-fittest filter to refugee protection – prioritising those who manage to raise the money for a perilous journey and then survive it. Such acceptance would also ignore the potential pull factor that successful journeys to Australia can create.

But nor should we accept the application of systematic cruelty to unauthorised arrivals in order to “send a message” to deter others from making a similar journey. This is ethically indefensible. It is to use people as means, rather than to treat them as ends. It is also rank hypocrisy to claim to care for the wellbeing of asylum seekers, while inflicting extreme suffering on those who actually come within our effective control…

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