The need to deter refugees from risking their lives on boats has been the argument used to justify the Malaysia refugee swap. Australia, the Government insists, simply must prevent anything like a recurrence of December’s horrifying shipwreck on Christmas Island. Far from being confirmed as yet another violation of asylum seekers’ rights, Malaysia is presented as nothing short of a humanitarian measure, which friends of refugees should welcome as a better option for asylum seekers themselves.
This reasoning has gained impressive traction. The "humanitarian" rationale for the Malaysia deterrent has been seized on by everyone who wants to stem the tiny trickle of irregular maritime arrivals to Australia, but is reluctant to commit to a full blown turn-back-the-boats agenda.
Even those mainly opposed to the arrangement have expressed approval of the plan’s supposed deterrent value. Whatever their other disagreements, letter writers, online comment posters and columnists regularly see eye to eye in thinking that the only good thing about Malaysia is that it may save lives. The ABC’s Annabel Crabb — no supporter of government refugee policies — tells us that this deterrent effect is the deal’s "redeeming feature" — every other aspect being "harsh" and "hypocritical". Crikey’s Bernard Keane uses similar reasoning to conclude that, subject to greatly increasing the number of refugees taken in exchange from Malaysia, the deal is justifiable:
"We can’t stand by, indifferent, to people dying outside our borders, especially when they are trying to reach us, if we can in any way stop them dying, even if it inconveniences or even harms some other people.
"From that point of view, the Malaysian Solution is indeed, in Chris Bowen’s words, ‘elegant’, even if there is a risk that asylum seekers sent by Australia to Malaysia will be harshly treated."
The idea that there is anything laudable in the Malaysia deal is mistaken. With their talk of saving lives, political and media apologists for the Government’s plan, along with reluctant part-apologists for its deterrence aspect, are endorsing an outcome that should be unconscionable: the effective deprivation of refugees’ right to take calculated risks about what is best for them.
This, not "saving lives", is the relevant description of the deal’s effect.
Denying people the opportunity to risk their lives also means denying them the opportunity to improve them. Since there is no "queue", refugees deterred from a boat trip are also effectively prevented from ever gaining resettlement in Australia. The notion that this could count as a humanitarian outcome is a powerful indication of how a decade of relentless anti-refugee propaganda has eroded our ability to assess both the dangers refugees are fleeing, and the precariousness of their existence in places like Malaysia or elsewhere in South East Asia.
Keane argues that the virtue of the Malaysia swap depends on how far it maximises "net welfare". If so, the fact that an indefinite number of asylum seekers will effectively be robbed of a chance of permanent protection in Australia shows clearly that the deal must be opposed without qualification, even on Keane’s own reasoning.
Keane says debate has been skewed by lack of representation of the views of those asylum seekers whose lives will be spared through the deal’s deterrent effect. As he puts it, "asylum seekers who will later drown have no one to speak for them". This is obviously true. His next point, however, is unwarranted: he takes it that those asylum seekers would support the Malaysia deal on the basis that it prevents them drowning.
This assumption is baseless and incredible. Everything suggests that the vast majority of asylum seekers consider the risk of a dangerous ocean crossing well worth taking. Indeed, the detention system is currently incarcerating a number of refugees who have come here, by boat, for the second time, having voluntarily returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban — before being forced to come here again after conditions at home deteriorated.
These second timers give the lie to any glib assumption that refugees themselves would welcome the deterrence of the Malaysia deal. If people have risked their lives on a smuggler’s boat twice, they know the risks and are prepared to assume them. Asylum seekers rarely if ever express regret at having made the boat trip, even when it proved to be far more dangerous than anticipated.
If saving lives was really the goal of the Malaysia plan, it would not be predicated on 800 people embarking on the very sea crossing that is supposed to be intolerably hazardous. If the plan was really about saving lives, it would not require those same 800 people to be condemned to indefinite danger in Malaysia, where they will have none of the rights or welfare safeguards that the Government has claimed (see the discussion here).
If the plan was really about saving lives, serious efforts would be made to boost our ocean surveillance so we could detect and help boats in trouble. If it was really about saving lives, the Government would, as Keane suggests, massively increase our refugee intake from Malaysia. It would also decriminalise people smuggling so that boats did not have to sneak into Australian waters in the first place, without any of the usual official notifications that could prevent many deaths at sea.
Only the most culpably uncritical analysis, then, could entertain the proposition that the Malaysia plan is about "saving lives". Nevertheless, a supporter of the government can insist that, whatever its real intent, the Malaysia plan still deters people from risking drowning.
There is no reason to accept that argument. Firstly, on the Government’s own admission, the deterrent value of the Malaysian deal is uncertain. As shown by the plans for Manus Island and the possibility of a second round of 800 deportations, no one imagines that the measure spells anything like the end of the boats.
Secondly, not all deterrents are morally equivalent. In particular, a deterrent that involves causing deep and abiding harm to innocent people should be acceptable to no one. Most people would judge it immoral to instrumentalise a single innocent individual, let alone 800, for deterrence purposes. We would clearly not, for example, consider it right for the government to mandate the addition into cigarettes of special chemical agents, causing smokers highly visible harm and trauma, on the grounds that this would deter others from taking up the habit. Yet this is precisely the logic of the Malaysia arrangement.
Not once in this debate has anyone stopped to seriously ask whether it is Australia’s role to take decisions about what constitutes a reasonable risk out of refugees’ hands. We do not have a responsibility to deter asylum seekers from risking their lives if they think the risk is justified: that decision is for them alone. We do not, after all, grant government the right to pre-empt life threatening decisions even for its own citizens. If it were a widely accepted principle of good policy that people should be prevented from taking calculated risks with their lives, then sky-diving, elective surgery and the Sydney to Hobart, along with any number of other activities, should be outlawed.
In deterring people from asking Australia for help, the Government has become complicit in their ongoing persecution. No one is under an obligation to find any redeeming features, or anything laudable or "elegant" in the Malaysia arrangement.
If Chris Bowen sees fit to promote the plan in the face of every rational and humane consideration to the contrary, no one else need follow him. Many policies are wholly bad; a few are wholly good; most are a mixture. The Malaysia deal is in the first category, and it is only by adopting a morally incoherent perspective that any benefit can be found in it.
With Gillard talking once again of her commitment to the "light on the hill" and similar humanitarian values, and with the plainest facts of the asylum seeker debate regularly distorted beyond all recognition — "queues", "illegals", "border protection" — it is essential to keep a clear view of the realities.
Ethical public debate depends on calling actions by their real names. The Malaysia deal does not promise to save lives, on even the most charitable interpretation; it is certain only to damage them further. The opposition to it should be clear-headed, absolute, and undistracted. It should not submit to any misguided urge to find a way to be balanced or even-handed over an unequivocally indefensible policy. In this case, no coherent balance or even-handedness is possible.