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Stop the boats? Thinking about refugee policy and human rights

By Jack Maxwell - posted Monday, 24 March 2014

Suppose that, as a consequence of a past foreign invasion, contemporary Australia is riddled with land mines. Scattered across both urban and regional areas, these mines inflict grievous injury on hundreds of Australians every month. Despite the government’s best efforts, the technological sophistication of these mines places them largely beyond existing methods of detection.

Australia’s already overworked and under-resourced healthcare system is stretched to breaking point by those injured by the mines. This scourge has seen the growth of a back-alley medical industry, which provides treatment for those desperate people unable to find a hospital bed. Surgery is performed by amateurs, for extortionate prices, in unhygienic conditions. Many die from botched operations or subsequent infections, creating a further social problem.

The government decides that swift action must be taken to stop the growth of this exploitative industry. To ‘break the business model’ of these amateurs, the Prime Minister adopts a deterrent strategy: any man, woman or child found using these services will be imprisoned for a minimum of three years.


Can we imagine a world in which such a strategy would be even remotely acceptable?

The government might increase investment in research and development, to improve its capacity to detect and defuse the mines. It might pump money into the health system, to make care available for those in need. It might devote its efforts to finding and punishing those responsible for this shadowy industry. But would our society ever countenance the mandatory imprisonment of victims seeking aid as a morally permissible alternative? No. Even if better enforcement or more hospital beds failed to eliminate these back-alley surgeries, detention would not feature in the solution space.


‘Stop the boats’. Tony Abbott made the phrase his own after ascending to the Liberal leadership in 2009. It evoked John Howard’s infamous ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ It reinforced that refugee policy was an issue of border security: we need to reclaim control of our borders, by preventing outsiders from reaching safety in Australia. This rationale was evident in Abbott’s announcement (as Opposition Leader) of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’:

This is a national emergency. When you’ve had almost 50,000 illegal arrivals by boat, you have a crisis on your borders; and in the end, the first responsibility of government is national security. If you don't control your borders, to that extent, you are losing sovereignty over your own nation.

Abbott’s slogan has taken on a dualistic quality, however, especially since Labor’s embrace of a similarly hard-line approach in 2013. Given the increasing number of deaths at sea, ‘stopping the boats’ is now a humanitarian imperative. Mandatory detention is justified as a necessary evil. As Malcolm Turnbull argued on ‘QandA’:


[T]he status quo under Labor was incredibly cruel. People were dying at sea. What we're doing is a harsh policy, I grant you that, but it is a lot better than hundreds of people drowning in the ocean.

This equivocation has contributed to the present bipartisan commitment to merciless deterrence. It is also reflected in popular opinion. It’s difficult to believe, but 60 per cent of Australians want the government to increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers. Now, the (ostensibly) compassionate have joined the xenophobic under the banner of ‘stopping the boats’ at all costs.


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About the Author

Jack Maxwell is a second-year law student at the University of Melbourne. In 2012, he completed an honours degree in Philosophy, also at Melbourne University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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