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Politics Explainer: the debate around refugees

November 6, 2018

Last week we published an explainer on what exactly refugees are in the context of Australian politics. Now, here's a quick rundown of the debate surrounding that very controversial issue. 

The Debate


TOPIC: This house believes that any refugee is entitled to seek and receive asylum in Australia.



Affirmative (for):


1.      The moral imperative: to fulfil a promise + to preserve human life


Perhaps the most compelling argument of this whole debate is the moral obligation to help another human being. The affirmative understanding maintains that Australia is both geographically and economically expansive enough to home much more refugees than we already do. Thus, many would suggest that John Howard’s Pacific Solution is cruel by the nature of its redundancy: there is no real ‘need’ to send asylum seekers back to their war torn countries or detain them indefinitely - so why on earth would we deny them their rights by doing so?


Speaking of ‘rights’, Australia promised to uphold two very important ones (relating to refugees) that, under the status quo, are being neglected.


Firstly, under international covenant, it is a violation of human rights to detain anyone indefinitely. It is illegal.


In 2016, the Guardian confirmed: ‘Australia’s indefinite detention of refugees on secret security grounds is arbitrary and illegal, the UN has ruled, in the latest of 51 cases – the most of any country – before the human rights committee.’


Secondly, all refugees have a right to ‘non-refoulement.’ It is illegal for any country to refuse asylum to refugees, or send them back to their country of origin. Since 2013, the Australian Government has proudly exercised: ‘Operation Sovereign Borders.’ A program that indefinitely detains, or literally ‘turns back’, refugees arriving at Australia’s front door by boat.


2. The economic incentive: socioeconomic benefits of multiculturalism


Refugees are a primary source of multiculturalism. The social and economic benefits of said multiculturalism are seen within Australia’s quintessential example of an ‘open door policy’.


Following the Vietnam War, the Whitlam Government saw the arrival of approximately 80,000 Vietnamese immigrants (many of which refugees.) This policy epitomised a triumph of moral principle over pragmatic interest. Indeed, the words of Australia’s National anthem: For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share, clearly meant something to the government of the time. Furthermore, not only did the morally (and legally) correct action consolidate Australia’s ethos of a ‘fair go’, but its consequence enriched the culture in which it thrives. A new work force, a new cuisine, a new way of conducting business all culminated as a socioeconomic connection between Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.


Thus, the proper treatment of refugees is indeed a reciprocal relationship, one that satisfies moral and legal imperatives, but also benefits nations. This sentiment was foreshadowed by the Chifley Government’s earlier policy: ‘Populate or Perish’: a post-WWII policy that revitalised the dwindling national workforce and saw the construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme - a monumental testament to the tangible benefits of granting refugees asylum.


3. The detriment to our national reputation: the debate’s cost to Australia’s foreign policy/international relations


In 2001, a Norwegian freighter called the ‘Tampa’ rescued 433 shipwrecked ‘asylum seekers’ that were fleeing Afghanistan. These ‘asylum seekers’ became fatally ill. The captain, Arne Rinnan, headed towards the shores of Australia.


The John Howard Government denied the vessel asylum. Having no means of caring for the sick refugees, Rinnan continued into Australian waters.


On the 29th of August, SAS soldiers penetrated the boat. Later in the week, Howard’s Pacific Solution was formed: ‘boat people’ could be arbitrarily directed to Christmas Island, Nauru Island, or simply, sent back to where they came from.


This became known as the Tampa Crisis. The UN described it as ‘inhuman and contravening international law’.


Negative (against):


1.      The moral imperative: to serve the Australian public above and before any other actor


This is the primary defence against the affirmative principle: it is morally wrong of the Australian Government to help refugees at the expense of the people (Australian citizens) that they are meant to serve in the first place. Indeed, the Scott Morrison government seems to see granting more refugees asylum and protecting the Australian people as mutually exclusive.


Independents such as Hanson’s One Nation and the Katter Australia Party also support an unequivocally ‘Australia first’ sentiment.



However, critical thinkers see two issues with this current policy. Firstly, a more inclusive (and moral) refugee initiative won’t necessarily compromise Australia’s culture, safety or economy. This is a fact.


Secondly, countries around the world who have better economies (and more harmonious) societies already take in more refugees than us. This is a fact.


2. The detriment to refugees (i.e. human trafficking/governmental abuse etc.)


This is indeed the main ‘incentive’ that Aussie governments have used to justify their refugee policies. Abbot’s ‘turn back the boats’ campaign was integral to his overall election in 2013. This campaign was a promise to both the Australian people and refugees around the world; essentially, Australia turned back ‘boat people’ to their war-torn countries of origin in order to undermine the people-smuggling trade that still continues to see numerous deaths at sea.


3. Dangers of global interdependence (i.e. National identity/treating the problem not the cause/breakdown in sovereignty/loss of heritage on behalf of Australia and the refugees etc.)


The issue of ‘multiculturalism’ always seems to arise when Australia engages in any kind of immigration crisis.


Following the 1970s wave of immigration that resulted from the Vietnam War, the increasing domestic residence towards refugees positioned the government to consider the effects these new people might have on Australian culture and lifestyle. Governmental policies of ‘assimilation’ and ‘integration’ encouraged new refugees and immigrants to try and fit as neatly into Australia’s monoethnic culture as possible. Naturally, this was difficult for all parties involved.


The issue of global interdependence also arises from today’s Refugee Crisis and Australia’s role within it. Governments have cited the impact of a ‘diluted population’ on their ability to exercise their sovereignty throughout this debate's history. The basic premise is this: with increasingly multicultural nations, once culturally-distinguishable countries will begin to resemble each other, and with this global ‘cultural connection’, it becomes increasingly difficult for governments to maintain sovereignty over their nation states: their power will be defined geographically, not socially, and many would say that this will see a detrimental breakdown in the ‘power pie’.



What’s the consequence of not drawing a conclusion?


1. 62.5 million men, women and children do not have a home. This is because nations like Australia refuse to open their door, even though they have a house with ‘boundless plains to share’.


2. People continue to be detained indefinitely on Nauru Island with little to no access to basic amenities. This is a violation of their rights under international law. Australia is thus responsible for the decay of these people’s futures.


3. No Australian can truly tell themselves that they come from a land that believes in the ‘fair go’.


  - the Australian government



To conclude...


This whole negotiation relies on a collision between pragmatism and principle, but, as discussed, they aren’t mutually exclusive (as the 1970s showed us.) Thus, we are conducting a pointless argument to the ultimate detriment of each party involved.


Therefore, this isn’t a debate, because no one can win. This is a crisis... and the only way to resolve a crisis is to make a decision. Let’s hope we make the right one.












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