Friday, 27 May 2011

The Malaysian Solution: confusing Church teaching with opinion

I really do think Catholics should certainly protest the immorality of Government policies in the area of refugees.

But in making the case in policy areas such as this, I do think care needs to be taken not to overstate the case in terms of what is and isn't catholic teaching.

An article on Cath Blog today by Father Maurizio Pettena CS of the Director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office in my view crosses the line in this respect, in its critique of the Government's deal with Malaysia to send boat arrivees to Malaysia, while we take some of their refugees in return.

And, as I've previously argued, such overstatements by Church officials are, in my view, extremely unhelpful to the cause of  fidelity to the teaching of the Magisterium.  So let's take a look at some of Fr Maurizio's claims.

Does Catholic teaching require us to support migration as a 'good thing'?

Fr Maurizio seems to suggest that Catholic teaching requires us to support migration on any scale:

"Of fundamental importance in any policy dealing with forced migration is the dignity of human life. As Catholics, we believe that a commitment to respect and empower people from all nations, migration on a global scale – whether voluntary or compelled – can be successfully managed and be beneficial for all..."

Really?  This seems more like a highly contestible set of policy conclusions rather than an actual proposition of Church teaching to me.  It is true that the Church teaches that we are all one family, all entitled to a fair share of the goods of the earth.  And it is true that managing migration flows must be undertaken with respect to human dignity.   But the Church also teaches that nations have a right to regulate migration. 

Pope Benedict XVI's 2011 Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees actually stated that:

"...States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty to integrate into the host Country, respecting its laws and its national identity."

The Malaysian deal

Fr Maurizio goes on:

And all of this leads us to consider the Malaysia deal. What will it mean for people? Why does Australia persist in denying people their fundamental rights? [What rights in particular are we talking about here?]  Why do we still consider ourselves to be “swamped” by boat arrivals?

Australia has one of the most successful resettlement programs in the world [probably true, though it has had some notable failures] and it is appropriate that the number of refugees under this program be increased [This is entirely a policy judgment, personal opinion, not Church teaching.  The reality is that Australia's formal resettlement program is one of very few and already one of the largest in the world.  We don't really know that it could be readily expanded even if there was a case for doing so].  Australia is better placed than other countries in the region to resettle refugees due to the economic success underpinning our Nation.[There are factors that are important here apart from economics.  Culture for one - Muslims in particular, might more readily integrate into a country like Malaysia than Australia.

"The Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office acknowledges the policy of sending the next 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia might be a deterrent for further boat arrivals. We cannot condone this policy; as essentially swapping human life goes against the moral teachings of the Church." This is surely, on the face of it at least, utter nonsense.  We are not sending people off to die, merely sending them to another country to resettle.  Deals between countries and countries and international agencies like this happen quietly under the UN resettlement and other programs all the time.  And what about the benefits to those Malaysia sends to us?

ACMRO has grave concerns for the welfare of the potential 800 candidates that may be sent to Malaysia due to the already heavy burden that Malaysia carries. While Malaysia appears willing to uphold the key aspect of the Refugee Convention to not return asylum seekers to the origin of danger; this alone does not afford asylum seekers the opportunity of a sustainable lifeLet me suggest that the life they have there will be a great deal more sustainable than being locked up indefinitely in a migration centre, whether in Australia or worse, on some tinpot island like Nauru!  And a great deal more sustainable, for that matter, than life in the country they fled from in the first place, which should be the real point of comparison here.

"The burden of irregular migration flows is one which needs to be shared more equally between countries based on their capacity to care for asylum seekers."  Again, a policy proposition.  And there are ways of achieving this without necessarily accepting more refugees - approaches that Australia already contributes to, such as through financial aid to affected countries, financial support for international agencies set up to deal with refugees, and by working to stabilise conditions in the country the refugees fled from in the first place!

The negotiations between Australia and Malaysia represent a bilateral agreement and a step towards a regional framework for managing and protecting forced migrants. Any regional framework is likely to include countries that are not signatory to the Refugee Convention. I'm not convinced that being a signatory is any guarantee of treating refugees with respect - witness France's atrocious policies -  or that failure to sign up means that refugees will be treated badly.

So, in that light and with that knowledge, we say at this point that it is not appropriate then, to send people to any place where their dignity may be eroded any more than it has been in the journey thus far. The case has not been made, in my view, that sending refugees aiming at Australia to Malaysia or other third countries will necessarily erode their dignity.  It may erode their anticipated lifestyle, but that is an entirely different issue to the protection from persecution that the Refugee Convention was set up to provide!

So what position should we take on the Malaysian deal?

I agree that the Malaysian deal as currently known is yet another example of political-appeasement instead of actual leadership.  It is a case of serious overkill to tackle what is in reality a relatively small-scale problem.

I also agree that Australia could do more to support refugees around the world, financially and otherwise.

But the concept behind the Malaysian deal isn't a totally silly; the problem is more in what we know so far of its design.

Deterrence for boats; encouragement for formal resettlement programs

Though the number of boat arrivals to Australia remains small compared to the flows of illegal migrants faced by some European countries for example, they are becoming significant, and we do know that arrival numbers are responsive, at least to some degree, to policy settings. 

Far better for Australia to help the UN by taking some of the millions who have been formally processed as refugees but have no where to go, than to randomly encourage those who, often at the urging of some shonky businessman prepared to send an unsafe boat out to sea, just decide that Australia sounds like a nice place to live!


Secondly, managing racial tensions in Australia would be a lot easier, for example, if the resettlement program, including both those sent by the UN and those who arrive via boat, gave priority to Christians fleeing from persecution (for example from the Middle East so-called 'democratic' revolutions) for example.

Those who arrive here by boat or plane and that are likely to have problems with integrating might be better off in an overtly Islamic nation, and 'refugee swaps' to take account of such factors could be mutually beneficial.  Indeed, if the criterion is, as Fr Maurizio suggests, economic capacity, why not ask very rich countries indeed, like Saudi Arabia, to shoulder more of the burden...


Joshua said...

Bravo, Terra!

The problem is that these people have an utterly distorted doctrinal compass: they would believe as devoutly in their version of social justice as they would (one suspects) believe in women's ordination, or disbelieve in many dogmas of the Church (usually the apparently harder ones, such as the existence of mortal sin and the need to confess the same).

It is the parallel Magisterium.

Such people believe firmly - but not what the Church teaches.

Hythloday said...

Your analysis didn't go where I expected it to go Kate!

Could you clarify for me? I would have thought that anyone against the Nauru policy would be against the Malaysia policy.

Kate said...

Hythloday - First my main point is that much of this ground is a matter of opinion, we can come to different conclusions and still stay consistent with Church teaching.

Secondly, as to the difference, Nauru was about locking people up. On an island constantly on the verge of bankrupcy (or past it) but for Australian Government 'aid'. Where food and water supplies were utterly unreliable, and where support services non-existent. It was about denying refugees any legal rights whatsoever, and keeping them away from Australia as long as possible. At an enormous cost to the Australian taxpayer.

By contrast in Malaysia refugees could be living in the community in a country with a reasonably dynamic economy and well developed infrastructure. True, quite a different culture to Australia, but probably one closer to that many refugees are coming from in any case. Moreover the Malaysians have undertaken not to return them to the countries they fled from, so Convention obligations will be met.

I'm not saying I'm wildly enthusiastic about the Malaysian deal - I'd really prefer some leadership from our pollies to fundamentally shift the terms of the debate.

But in the absence of that, as I said it is not necessarily morally wrong, or altogether silly either.