Sunday, July 17, 2005

Axing detention?

First, a brief account of the Cornelia Rau saga for overseas readers.

Cornelia Rau grew up in Germany before her family moved to Australia and gained citizenship here. She developed psychiatric problems which led her to wander into a remote Australian town without any means of support. When questioned by local police she adopted a different name and persona, claiming to be a German national.

The Australian authorities attempted to repatriate her to Germany, but the Germans of course had no record of her and refused to accept her. So she ended up in a detention centre for illegal arrivals.

This was obviously a stuff up by the authorities, which is now being used by the left to attack the legitimacy of the whole policy of placing illegal arrivals in detention centres.

As it happens, Cornelia’s sister is a left-wing journalist, and she has led the charge in attacking the policy of mandatory detention. In an article in The Age, Christine Rau queries whether putting illegal arrivals in detention actually works as a deterrent and that we “have to take a long, hard look at our immigration detention policies and explore humane alternatives.”

Now, it’s easy to respond to a left-wing critic of mandatory detention like Christine Rau on matters of fact. It’s very clear that if you want to secure your borders you need a system of detention for illegal arrivals. As it happens, there have been reports recently from both Norway and Sweden which clearly indicate the problems you have without a system of detention.

In the case of Sweden, the Board of Migration has released data showing that 50% of those refused asylum simply go underground. In Norway, detention centres do exist, but they aren’t run as locked institutions – detainees are able to leave. What has been the result? Over 19,000 asylum seekers have disappeared over the past six years, including 7,000 in the year 2003 alone.

Do we really want such a situation in Australia, particularly after the London bombings? Do we really want a situation in which those people refused residency can simply disappear into the suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney? That is what will happen without a system of mandatory detention.

The problem is that people like Christine Rau will never be convinced by facts alone. For them, mandatory detention is wrong as a matter of morality, so they will oppose it no matter what the facts suggest. So we need to understand where their particular moral view comes from.

There is a hint to the answer in Christine Rau’s article. At one point in the article Christine Rau writes,

If we’re honest, her case resonated because she was white, blonde, attractive .... one of “us”. If she had been a swarthy man of Afghan descent ... would the case have so horrified us?

And she adds later, in terms of exploring alternatives to detention, “Surely this can be done without exploiting people’s fears of being overrun by hordes of ‘others’”.

This is typical liberal speak. For liberals it is the sense of an ethnic “us” which is morally suspect, so that we must prove ourselves to be entirely open to the “other”. A system of carefully controlling immigration represents a closure to the “other” for the liberal mind of Christine Rau.

Why would a liberal be so opposed to the thought of an ethnic “us”? Ultimately, the answer is that liberals believe we are human because we can use our individual will and reason to shape our own lives. So the liberal project is to make sure that individual wills remain both “free” and “equal”.

We can’t be “free” in the liberal sense if important aspects of our identity aren’t chosen by our own will. An ethnic identity is not chosen by individual will, but is something we’re simply born into, so it’s seen negatively by liberals as a limitation or restriction on the individual.

Nor can we have “equality of will” if there is “discrimination” on the grounds of race or ethnicity. Such discrimination would mean advantaging one will over another on the grounds of a quality which the individual himself cannot alter – a deep offense given the liberal starting point.

So we reach the extraordinary point at which liberals cannot accept something as natural as a feeling of ethnic kinship or ethnic loyalty.

Where do liberals go wrong? They are put off course right at the start: in the idea that our humanity depends on our being self-defined by individual reason.

There is no compelling reason to accept this assertion. If we really need to state what defines our humanity it would be better to either accept the traditional religious view, that we are invested with a human soul, or else look at the totality of human nature to discover the qualities which go to make up the human person.

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