To deter is inhuman

The Coalition’s strategy to stop the boats is both flawed and morally reprehensible, writes Ed Miller.


To date, 31 asylum seekers have died in Australian detention centres. 12 of those people killed themselves.

While in our custody and our care, people have jumped off balconies and hung themselves from basketball hoops. Reza Berati had his head beaten in two weeks ago, in circumstances we don’t yet understand. He was my age.

These weren’t unforeseeable tragedies. They were the product of calculated, systemic brutality. Our processing facilities were designed by our government to act as an unmistakable deterrent for future arrivals. And in light of the 877 who have died at sea since 2008, the recent halt in arrivals has been claimed as a moral victory.

But deterrence itself is a morally flawed policy objective.

For a start, it is contrary to the basic tenets of liberalism that the current government claims to hold dear. Liberal philosophy emphasises the equal moral worth of each individual human life – human beings are to be treated as ends themselves, not as instruments of some broader state or social agenda. When we allow asylum seekers in our custody to be sacrificed in the name of deterrence, their deaths aren’t human tragedies, but tools for our own ends.

Often, they’re also reduced to tools for the baby front-bench aspirants who love to circlejerk their way across my newsfeed. “Congratulations to Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott on stopping the boats… only the Coalition has the resolve, compassion and focus to fix the problem.”

The perverted sense of compassion that these air-headed ideologues claim is actually a cold utilitarian calculus – one most Australians would firmly reject. The number of deaths is important, but also important is how directly we are involved in those deaths.

Let’s say a doctor has five patients each with a potentially fatal organ failure, and a healthy patient who is in for a simple check-up. Would the doctor be morally justified in anaesthetising the healthy patient and harvesting their organs to save five lives? Would the answer change if she could save 100 lives?

The case of asylum seekers is even more clear-cut: when we brutalise those who inconveniently make it into our sphere of moral concern, we don’t save others. If refugees are successfully deterred from boarding fishing boats to Australia they are left languishing as aliens in Indonesia, a country that has not signed the Refugee Convention. An even worse prospect is that they decide to remain under the threat of persecution and death in their country of origin.

As commentators such as Waleed Aly have noted, if we really wanted to deter people from risking their lives at sea, it would be far more humane to charter some QANTAS flights to Indonesia to collect those who have been waiting for years. Given the steep price tag of $500,000 per year for each asylum seeker we tyrannise on Manus Island, it’d be cheaper too.

But there’s the rub. Despite the protestations of our leaders, there’s something more sinister cloaked in the rationale of deterrence. Whether or not our current approach to deter asylum seekers is effective, it isn’t just.

The refugees who die under our care have done nothing wrong. 93.5 per cent of them have their applications accepted. The Refugee Convention sees onshore arrival as normal and complementary to UN resettlement, and Australia is under an obligation not to discriminate.

The wheedling and politicised contrition of our leaders absolves neither them nor us. Australia cannot know what it stands for until it decides what it will tolerate. I hope we will not tolerate this.