Handling the boat people issue (letter)by Dr Michael BarrNews Weekly
, June 15, 2002
I am grateful to Guy Caruana. His letter (News Weekly
, June 1) is the first attempt in News Weekly's
pages to begin articulating a reasoned position on the current refugee crisis.
I also agree with him that the first step must be to establish priorities, and that the "children overboard" affair is not the main show - though I should add that it was News Weekly'
s original report (April 6) that generated this focus, not me.
Yet I find myself disagreeing with Mr Caruana on two points. First, he is very concerned about matters of legality, yet his main assertion is that the "Government is entitled to do whatever it deems necessary to destroy the [people] smuggling networks".
Since legality is his primary criteria of judgement, then surely he means that the Government can do whatever is legal to destroy the smuggling networks, but is not free to engage in illegal activities.
Furthermore I would be surprised if he did not also believe that the Government is entitled to do only what is morally permissible to achieve its end.
Certainly I for one reject the notion that the Government is entitled to act immorally to achieve a worthy end for instance persecuting, slandering or deliberately creating hardship for one group of innocent people so as to create a deterrent for others.
Second, Mr Caruana has stated correctly that people-smugglers act illegally but he then implies that this makes the asylum seekers' applications in some way illegitimate.
This is not the case.
Regardless of the desperate lengths to which the asylum seekers have gone to reach Australia, once in our waters or on our naval vessels they are entitled to apply for asylum - and if appropriate, for rescue - under a combination of Australian law, the law of the sea, and international agreements to which Australia freely entered half a century ago.
It is in fact the Australian Government's actions that have trodden the edges (at least) of Australian law and the law of the sea, most notably in its treatment of the Tampa
(which acted legally at all times), and its attacks on and intimidation of refugee boats in both international and Australian waters.
I completely agree with Mr Caruana on his last point, however. Now we should start thinking about our own preferred position on refugees and asylum seekers.
The first step should be to separate the question of how to deal with people smuggling networks from the question of how to greet and treat asylum seekers. They are two separate issues and should not be conflated.
Even apart from matters of principle, this is a sensible step because there is no evidence that our Government's harsh treatment of asylum seekers has contributed in the slightest to the temporary break-up of people-smuggling networks or the downturn in the number of refugee boats arriving on our shores.Dr Michael Barr,