A Modest Proposal Concerning Refugees and Other Unfortunates Adrift

A Modest Proposal in Summary

 The Modest Proposal outlined below is by no means profound in conception.  Rather, it concerns the extension of the Vaguely Bipartisan Policy of Sending Asylum Seekers offshore in order to process their claim to refugee status.  The proposal is this: While Australia is sending potential refugees offshore, why not extend the policy to provide solutions to other problems involving the processing of other Displaced Unfortunates?  Costs as reported of offshore habitation and so forth are greatly inflated as a result of  high expectations as to amenities and quality of care, which can be – over time – adjusted.   Criminals, the elderly, the very ill, the irreperably insane could all be processed offshore, eventually a boon to cost effectiveness in Government, with inevitable productivity gains.

Once the precedent has been set, and the moral imperative removed, it occurs at once that this policy need not exist in isolation.  Here is its real potential.  Having opened the door on these sorts of efficiencies, there is little reason to prevent their implementation in other quarters of society.  Given Australia’s growing influence as a regional power, neighbours will likely acquiesce and concede a bit of rock and sand here and there, despite the rising tides.  And so all manner of dangerous elements might be processed elsewhere, with unanticipated dividends for Australian Society.

A Philosopher on the Refugee Solution

I sit down at the keyboard in order to present the musings that followed the reading, over lunch, of an excellent article that has appeared alongside opinion pieces in the usually drab publication, The Australian.  The author, a philosopher name of Tim Soutphommasane, sets out an ethical argument that proceeds in a convincing way from high ideal to practical reality, and invites the reader to follow this course in analysing the Offshore Solution for Would-be Refugees.

Failing to assume

Many are troubled by the moral quandary that presents itself in consideration of asylum seekers who occasionally transport themselves to our shores. What many of these people have experienced is beyond anything encountered in Australia.  They, surely, are deserving of respite from trouble in a land able to give it. As deserving, at least, as anyone else in the world.

Ideally, of course, this is right.  Help everyone if possible we would.  The principle that every human being deserves assistance to the limits of our ability is sound – from this point of view the right course is to exhaust ourselves and our resources if we can give shelter. But readers who persist in doubt about the argument presented here  may well have  failed to make certain important assumptions.

Ethical Reasoning about Humans

What Soutphommasane proposes, essentially, is that the absolute, idealist system that engenders a morality of limitless compassion is clearly problematic.  One reason is that our capacity to assist falls well short of limitless.  By extension, then, more alarmist conclusions: opening the floodgates to refugees may well mean we drown ourselves in a tide of uncouth humanity, etc.

One way of looking at this utilitarian shift in perspective, is as a devolution from a system of absolute truth to a system in which right and wrong are contingent, based not only on what is right but what is possible.

First, there is a system of absolute truth and falsity about moral choices, in which things are either Right or Wrong, Better or Worse. Sure, it’s wrong to ignore the plight of people who have fled half a world from trouble.  It’s wrong to warehouse them in poorly furnished corrugated iron shacks, etc. etc. The arguments are familiar.

This rigorous and unforgiving system for deriving moralities can be replaced, as suggested, by one in which the idealistic notion, the right thing to do, is made dependent on another modality, specifically what is possible, or probable.  (In technical terms, an alethic modality supplements a deontic one).  What is better or worse is conditioned by what is possible. This is where assumptions may be inserted.

At first blush, defining what is the best thing to do given what’s possible means excluding what is not.  So, for example, it is not possible to process asylum seekers onshore.  Reasons x,y,z may be given. These need have nothing to do with any ethical frame of reference or moral standpoint, because these are constraints on that frame of reference.  We cannot process asylum seekers in Australia because it will cause social unrest.  Or because it will cost a government votes.

The after-thought, though – one which came to me while downing chicken and salad sandwiches at lunchtime – is to stop thinking about this policy in terms of what is not possible and think instead on what is possible, not only in the policy area of immigration, but well beyond.

Extending the Policy

The effect of this advice from an Esteemed Man of Letters cannot be underestimated.  Having read with voracity the sage words of  The Australian’s resident philosopher, I was myself struck with one idea after another, so that I entered into a kind of utopian fugue, in which formerly complex competing and equally valid differing sets claims about Right and Wrong resolved into dichotomies of crystal clarity. That which had been uncertain now appeared a matter of absolute finality of Truth.

The simple proposition here is that once the moral imperative to be seen to be humane is removed, a liberating rush of possibilities present themselves for curing various of the social ills that plague society today, and not only the problem of Displaced Unfortunates.

As indicated at the outset, what seems unlikely is that this policy, once conceived, will only be applied to asylum seekers, and not to other disparate groups that foment social unrest and generate a general sense of disquiet.

Here is where the efficient brilliance of Soutphommasane’s argument can be brought to bear to encompass other areas of policy.  The idealist’s ethical stance is not beyond the bounds of reason, it is merely untempered by reasonable assumptions and constraints that must also be taken into account.  History is shaped by these important, adult compromises.

The Incarcerated

One obvious example, again directly from history, is that prisoners might be housed more cheaply and effectively in the Island Satrapies surrounding the Australian continent.

The prospect of a dingy cockroach-ridden lean-to in the midst of steamy rainforest or on a tropical sand-bar may additionally prove a deterrent to the modern urban criminal, accustomed to savoir faire.

The Elderly and The Ill

The Housing of the Elderly, and some of those who are irreperably Ill, has long been a necessary burden.  Now, though, this burden may be Contingent.   Where the alternative is Social Unrest, economic ruin, or poor voter response the purely moral stance may no longer be tenable.  If it then the financial burden of maintaining these less productive human beings can be assuaged, it should be.  The outsourcing of care for some or all of these groups at the earliest opportunity appears to be recommended.  Perhaps the less fragile souls at first, then others as amenities come online.


It is not proposed – of course – that the mechanism so widely supported for the offshore processing of asylum seekers be allowed to be extended Willy-nilly to, say, the political opponents of an incumbent Government.  Naturally, this sort of abuse must be carefully mitigated against, with Checks and Balances of the most stringent sort.

Nonetheless, Temporary Expurgation Visas (we could call them – TEVs) for the very worst subversives or unrepentant teens is another possibility that presents itself with respect to offshore processing.  As stated, the policy is good for so much more than handling refugees.  Once conceived, and there is precedent, it can hardly be discounted as an option with broader application for the future.

Ethical analysis

The initial sense of relief that at last, here, some Progress can be made. may be tempered when it is remembered Responsibilities arise as a result of our Magnanimous Signing of Treaties on Human Rights. Of course, there is no Complaint about our being party to these excellent documents that uphold so fiercely the ethical standards set in recent times.

This sort of thinking, though, ties people and policies in knots.  It leads to a combination of cruelty and guilt that itself becomes a reason to despair.  Under these circumstances an Ethical Analysis may be useful for clearing mind and heart of doubt.

Theoretical reasoning of the ethical kind  permits the application of ethical systems of differing strength. As indicated, the question as to ‘what to do about refugees’ can be answered in a context of absolute right and wrong.  Probably the average thinking human can come up with some answers of this unconstrained variety: they must be helped, noone calling themselves a humane creature could turn them away.

But go back, for a moment, to the context of absolute right and wrong mentioned half-way through the last paragraph.  Consider, in and of themselves, the concepts of absolute right and wrong. What is absolutely wrong?  Murder? Well.. aren’t there always caveats?  What’s really absolutely right?

If the right effect has been achieved, it should now be possible to move away from those absolute principles of right and wrong to notions of a more utilitarian kind.

Remember, real world conditions determine what is possible.  Sometimes, unfortunately, they render the very best and most principled options untenable.  This constraint on purely moral action is therefore required to guide policy decisions from Government.  Absolute principles all very well, but they should be constrained in practice.

As long as the shift from a high moral ground to much lower one is made in this way in a purely abstract realm, the move has a kind of clinical feel about it.

When we return to the real world to apply the new ethical standards to refugees, asylum seekers, the elderly and infirm, malcontents, and so on, the new, weaker, conditional set of ethical axioms can be applied as though nothing much happened while we were gone. It is by this method of ethical analysis that we may arrive in a legitimate and comforting way at a different set of ethical standards for our actions, while barely breaking a sweat.


Amoral and ethical arguments on asylum seekers put by spokesmouths of both major political parties have peppered the political discourse in recent months.  The difficult moral questions surrounding the issue may intrude and create an impression that the rational speaker is cold or inhumane.  One means of preventing disturbing thoughts of this kind is via a serious effort to euphemise and sanitise language about the relocation of humans to countries other than our own. ‘Processing’ is the best example of administration-speak that fosters distance between policy-maker, voter, and processee.

But even ‘offshore’ is a euphemistic turn in lieu of ‘somebody else’s country.  It allows one to forego consideration of the one-sided set of power relations that permit the consideration of an Offshore Solution in the first place.  If People who believe in looking after them and theirs are being fair, they must recognise that people in other countries are concerned about them and theirs. Why, then, do they want to warehouse Australia’s offcasts?

The uncomfortable answer is the paying of tribute in return for favour from a greater power.  Australia is at the centre of a web of influence – of economic, military, and cultural power, extending far beyond her borders, matched by no other nation in the region as far afield as China and Japan. It is easy to make it hard for the tributary nation states of the Pacific to say no.

Other Linguistic Turns have eased Australia’s transition from a country wracked with crippling guilt and compassion for those less fortunate and adrift into one that deals in a decisive and constructive way with the problems that may present. The invention of language such as ‘Migration Zone’ has helped to build a corpus of sensible sounding legal and political talk that contributes towards the validation of a conditional morality on the refugee matter.

Australia’s Migration Zone obviously has no literal meaning, and did not exist even as a psychological device  before it was ingeniously written into legislation by the Conservative Government of the tiny, gnome-like then PM John Howard.

Considerable effort has gone into deploying language in interesting ways in the Matter of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in order to make all of this more palatable. And it may be argued, given the potential for the various applications of the Offshore Solution in a number of policy areas, that the taxpayer monies devoted to constructing this language has been money well spent.


Euphemism and talk in terms of boats or numbers can only do so much to dull the debilitating possibility of media-fuelled empathy for other human beings. There will be Talk, it should be conceded, of the Irony that may be seen in a Nation that began as a Penal Colony establishing colonies of its own offshore, for prisoners, the elderly, and other social jetsam.  But History is Littered with ironies of this sort.  And while we may wonder at their implication, there is little  in the way of Material Benefit that may be derived from this sort of cogitative Indulgence.


I only regret that I cannot demonstrate my conviction with regards this Scheme by offering up some malcontent among the ranks of my own family. However, I cannot,  as my family immigrated to Australia in a lawful way by air in 1990, my grandparents have already passed away, my parents are still of working age or recently retired and both able to function in capacity of worker and consumer respectively to further the prosperity of the nation.  I am, further, without subversive offspring of my own who would otherwise certainly benefit from a formative spell in a detention camp on Nauru.

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