Asylum Seekers and People Smugglers

by on 14 September, 2011

IMG_7667 Dr. Michael Keane argues that people smugger's aren't the real villians: 

It goes without saying that there is no easy answer to the asylum seeker issue. However many try to have it both ways. In order to avoid what would otherwise be a logically incoherent position many people end up using the “people-smugglers” as a scapegoat. But are the smugglers evil dealers in human misery who take advantage of desperate refugees, or are they in fact noble enablers helping desperate refugee avoid persecution and torture? Of course there is no right answer.

Was Nancy Wake (who helped Jews flee the Nazis) an evil people-smuggler, or was she a hero? How people conceptualize the people who facilitate the movement of refugees to Australia (the people smugglers) must be logically consistent with their position on the relative need to accommodate asylum seekers. If people are really arriving as asylum seekers in Australia to avoid torture and persecution, then the people who “smuggle” them are helping people avoid being tortured; how can that be considered bad? If, on the other hand you define the activities of the people smugglers as bad/evil/negative then you must believe that what they did was not necessary; that is, it could not be reasonably considered that the refugees were in imminent threat from staying in Indonesia.

People often invoke the concept that the people-smugglers take “advantage” of “desperate” refugees.  It would be instructive to examine other societal norms as so far as where people are considered to be taken “advantage of” versus people taking responsibility for choices that they actively make. There are examples of similar ethical and moral quandaries in health and the legal system. What is desperate? What are they desperate for? There is no question that the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving by boat are refugees from their homeland; there is no dispute about that. But that is not the question that many in Australia feel needs to be answered in order to make sense of the asylum seeker issue. What is their situation in Indonesia? What parallels are there in our society to determine whether refugees “desperation” to come to Australia meets our collective standard of compassion? Are the people who decide to pay to come on a boat in a worse situation than those who decide to abide by the legal process or are they just more willing to flaunt the rules?

Yes, the “people-movement-facilitators” get paid for their services. But if the service they provide is really helping people to escape torture or imminent threats to life, then being paid for that service does not render their role as being criminal. The over arching argument then becomes: receiving payment for an otherwise noble, morally courageous act (helping people escape torture and death) then defines that act as being criminal. Similarly, if the receipt of payment identifies the service as being a predatory act in which the people-smugglers take advantage of asylum-seekers, then that defines the service as non-necessary and then one must assume that the refugees don’t need to arrive in Australia to seek asylum.

Australians have always been fair and, in general, are some of the most fair, reasonable and non-racist people in the world. Let’s be fair, but fair-dinkum.

There are no right answers, but activists, politicians and opinion makers must be consistent in their position. Blaming people-smugglers is merely a way to try to have it both ways.

Dr. Michael Keane is an anaesthetist and researcher with interests in illicit drug use and drug policy, bioethics and public health. He is also a lecturer in public health at Monash University, and a member of the Liberal Democratic Party. 

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