Reflections on the problem of justice for asylum seekers

There was a very moving scene at the state funeral of Malcolm Fraser in March last year, when Vietnamese Australians thronged outside the church carrying placards which read: “You are forever in our hearts: farewell to our true champion of humanity: Malcolm Fraser.”

I honour Fraser, but not because he opened our borders to fleeing boat people coming in their tens of thousands. He didn’t. He secured the borders, and then he led the nation in opening “our arms and hearts to tens of thousands of refugees” as the novelist Tim Winton put it in his Palm Sunday address in Perth last year.

Winton was wrong to claim that Fraser welcomed the boats.

Winton was right to proclaim: “I was proud of my country, then, proud of the man who made it happen, Malcolm Fraser, whose greatness shames those who’ve followed him in the job. Those were the days when a leader drew the people up and asked the best of them and despite their misgivings, Australians rose to the challenge. And I want to honour his memory today.”

Seeking the right balance between compassion and realism, between the human rights of asylum seekers and the national interest of a rich democratic country, we might find as much guidance from the memory of the last generation of refugees in their honouring of the last generation of political leaders who tried to forge a solution compassionate and fair to the many who were seeking asylum and acceptable to the voting public.

I have concluded that stopping the boats is a precondition to finding a politically acceptable, compassionate and fair solution. It is time to quarantine the question of the morality of those stopping the boats, accepting the political imperative of stopping the boats if they can practically be stopped. Continue reading

  • Father Frank Brennan, S.J. is Professor of Law at the Australian Catholic University.
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