Australia’s moral obligation to accept refugees

Australia’s immigration policy has been at the forefront of the nation’s political discourse since the revision of the White Australia Policy after the Second World War. Whether or not Australia has a moral obligation to accept refugees is a decisive issue with no simple answer, but it is my conviction that Australia does indeed have such a moral imperative. Apart from a small minority of nationalistic kooks, I do not believe those who believe differently are xenophobic or racist. It is a matter of what Teitelbaum calls, “a disagreement about which basic rights have precedence over others”. In this essay I will examine both sides of the literature and conclude that the only legitimate moral claim is admission for refugees. I will do so through a tripartite discussion of: (1) the need to stop undue suffering when possible, (2) the moral problem of international inequality and (3) the immorality of alternative options.

If it is in Australia’s power to prevent the suffering of refugees without sacrificing anything of equal moral importance, it is morally obliged to do so. This is based off of Singer’s (1972) moral principle, which declares that as long as a country is able to act without causing anything comparatively bad to happen, or doing something else wrong in the service of this action, it is morally obliged to do so. For example, if I am walking by a pool and see a toddler drowning in the shallows, I should dive in and save it. This will mean getting my clothes wet, but this pales in comparison to the toddler’s death. What if there are other people around, trying and failing to save the toddler. Should I do nothing? No, I am still obliged to save it.

A certain psychological detachment comes with increased scale, but whether it’s a toddler at the local pool, or the 438 Iraqi and Afghan asylum-seekers that were denied entry during the Tampa Affair, the principle stands. In August of 2001, a Norwegian ship, Tampa, requested entry to Australia after it rescued 438 Iraqi and Afghan refugees from a sinking vessel. Not only was Tampa denied entry, it was boarded by SAS troops, its captain was threatened with “prosecution for people smuggling” and the refugees were taken to Nauru for offshore processing (Saxton 2003, p.110). This reaction was cruel and unjust. It’s difficult to justify an argument that pretends that Australia would violate any comparable moral principle by allowing the refugees entry. Applying Singer’s moral principle, it is clear that by accepting Tampa onto Australian shores, the Australian Government could have prevented undue suffering without sacrificing anything of equal moral worth, meaning that it had a moral obligation to do so, which it failed to fulfil.

Those in favour of denying refugees say that on the contrary, as a sovereign nation, Australia is morally entitled to design and control its own immigration policies, even if those policies exclude refugees. A key element of being a legitimate state – defined by Copp as any nation that protects the human rights of its citizenry and respects the rights of others – is the right to freedom of association. In other words, just as the Parramatta Eels and Macquarie University are able to choose their members, so too should nations be able to choose who they allow across their borders. No one forces Macquarie University to accept every individual who applies, and one certainly doesn’t expect every student who steps onto campus with a pen to be admitted. There is an acceptance that as a reputable institution, Macquarie has the sovereign right to select its own students. One admission may not effect the university, but if it admits, say, 438 students it would have an enormous impact on the university.

Applying Wellman’s theory to my analogy, even if one believes that Macquarie University should indeed admit every student that applies, as long as the university continues to respect the human rights of its student body, and others, one must accept Macquarie’s sovereign right to select as it sees fit. As long as a nation is engaged in “adequate protection of, and respect for, human rights” it can do as it wishes. Accepting the tenants of Wellman’s theory, I would argue that Australia’s current refugee policy not only disregards the rights of non-Australians, as Maguire et. al conclude, “it is a crime against humanity”. Therefore, if legitimacy of state is handed out on the basis of respecting human rights, then Australia is not a legitimate state, and has no right to freedom of association, so it is morally obliged to accept refugees.

Having explained why Australia has a moral obligation to stop undue suffering, it is then the nation’s duty to assist with undeserved inequality. I speak in particular of the role of ‘luck’ or ‘fortune’ in one’s country of birth. To clarify what I mean, I turn to Joseph Carens (1987), who said that “citizenship in Western liberal democracies is the modern equivalent to feudal privilege – an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life chances”. As soon as I was born in Hornsby in 1994, I instantly benefited from Australia’s high-standard of living, healthcare, education, security and individual rights. It was only a matter of chance that I wasn’t born in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, or any other war-torn and unsafe nation where the world’s 25.4 million refugees (United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees [UNHCR] 2018) originate. Who is to say that if I could somehow trade places with a Syrian child, that that child wouldn’t be just as – if not more – valuable to Australian society as I am?

Everyone born in Australia is lucky (it’s nicknamed ‘The Lucky Country’). We cannot be blamed for our luck, but what it does mean is that those better off than others must recognise that we have done nothing to deserve our good fortune. People become refugees out of fear of unfair persecution, violence and death. It is a last resort, not a choice. As Harry Frankfurt famously argued, what is morally important is “not that everyone should have the same, but that each should have enough”. As an egalitarian country whose citizenship is fortunate enough to be born there, Australia has a moral duty to help provide enough to those struggling from undeserved inequality in poorer nations – that includes the refugees fleeing them.

A significant opposing view to a state’s moral obligation to assist undeserved inequality, is that distributive justice is better served by not admitting refugees. This argument agrees that people everywhere have the right to a good life, but fears that “equalising opportunity for the few may diminish opportunities for the many” (Miller 2005). When considering Miller’s point, it is important to note that just as Australians are lucky in comparison to refugees, refugees are lucky in comparison to the majority of men, women and children that are left behind in oppressive regimes. For Miller and likeminded scholars, a policy of refugee acceptance will do little to help those left in the countries of origin without sufficient resources to escape. By accepting refugees, host-countries are potentially depriving poor nations of those that could help develop them. But it is Wellman again, that succinctly summarises the harshness of this model: “wealthy countries can best help by exporting resources rather than importing needy people” (p.10).

To me, the argument that developed nations should offer aid – military, medical, educational and governmental – rather than accepting refugees is erring perilously close to an endorsement of neo-imperialism. Aren’t these the same practices that the United States of America have been lambasted for in their war in Afghanistan? That plan didn’t work. Afghanistan has the second-highest number of refugees in the world (UNHCR, 2018). While I agree that improving the conditions which lead to refugees is important, it does not negate the moral obligation of Australia to assist refugees.

The moral treatment of a refugee can only be met by taking them in. Their plight is urgent, unarguable and their position is clear: “if you don’t take me in, I shall be killed, persecuted, brutally oppressed by the rulers of my own country (Waltzer 2008). Waltzer argues that with such clear consequences, a nation’s moral obligation can only be fulfilled by admitting refugees. Any other reaction is inhumane – and Australia’s current resettlement and offshore processing system certainly is. In August of 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee issued a report finding 150 violations of international law in Australia’s treatment of refugees, finding that the indefinite nature of offshore processing and oppressive physical and psychological conditions were a “serious violation of international human rights law” (McAdam 2012). The horrific conditions continue 6 years later. Last month, a 12-year-old girl being held on Nauru attempted to set herself on fire, preferring death to further detention. A program that forces a young girl to attempt suicide is not a moral option and sending refugees back to their home country – back to death and persecution – is no option at all. The only option, the moral option, is for Australia to accept refugees.

In the face of what is an inarguable case of moral obligation above, nationalists claim that open acceptance of refugees will lead to a decay of ‘Australian’ culture. Such individuals hold the belief that “commonality is needed for shared liberal community, and that exclusion is in turn needed for this sort of commonality” (Blake 2014). For scholars who believe as Blake suggests (he himself does not), communities are undermined by the arrival of refugees. Based on this presupposition, if Australia identifies that refugees will destabilise local communities, it then has the moral right to exclude them. My response, aimed at those who agree with this theory, it that rather than refugees decaying Australian culture, it is the exclusion of refugees that threatens to decay the culture. The inclusion of refugees is at the centre of Australian culture.

A trip to Blacktown, or Lidcombe, or Harris Park is all it takes to see the harmonious co-existence of diverse individuals under the collective banner of Australia. Martin (2015) says such discourses are rooted in historical anxieties about the fear of Asian ‘invasion’, worry over multiculturalism and the perceived impact on Australia’s way of life. While I believe that these are legitimate concerns, I repeat again, the acceptance of immigrants is at the centre of Australian culture. This is backed up by the fact that 49 percent of Australians are either first or second-generation Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] 2017). In the face of such numbers, the argument that foreigners will lead to the decay of Australian culture is untenable.

This essay has been a thorough discussion of both sides of the literature surrounding the moral obligation of nations to accept refugees. Through including alternate arguments, I hope to have given the keen reader an opportunity to scrutinise their own moral standing in relation to the topic. I do not believe those who deny the moral obligation of nations to accept refugees are xenophobes or racists, indeed, I recognise the moral difficulty of the issue. Ultimately, though, I do believe that the only concrete moral obligation that a nation has in regards to refugees – in this case Australia – is to accept and admit refugees as they arrive. Any other option is morally indefensible. I argued for the moral necessity to prevent undue suffering, then moved on to examine Australia’s obligation to help those in undeserved states of inequality and concluded that the other options facing Australia – sending refugees home or to detention centres, are iniquitous.

Refugees do not choose their position. In a perfect world, people would not be fleeing their countries, terrified for their safety, looking for a home. But they are, and Australia should be fulfilling its moral obligation to help them.



Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2017, Census reveals a fast changing, culturally diverse nation, media release, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.

Blake, M., 2014. The right to exclude. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy17(5), pp.521-537.

Carens, J.H., 1987. Aliens and citizens: the case for open borders. The review of politics49(2), pp.251-273.

Copp, D., 1999. The idea of a legitimate state. Philosophy & Public Affairs28(1), pp.3-45.

Doherty, F 2018, ‘Nauru self-harm ‘contagion’ as 12-year-old refugee tries to set herself alight’, The Guardian, 23 August, viewed 17 September 2018,

Frankfurt, H., 1987. Equality as a moral ideal. Ethics98(1), pp.21-43.

Maguire, A., Bereicua, L., Fleming, A. and Freeman, O., 2015. Australia, asylum seekers and crimes against humanity?. Alternative Law Journal40(3), pp.185-189.

Martin, G., 2015. Stop the boats! Moral panic in Australia over asylum seekers. Continuum29(3), pp.304-322.

McAdam, J., 2013. Australia and asylum seekers.

Miller, D., 2005. Immigration: the case for limits.

Saxton, A., 2003. I certainly don’t want people like that here’: The discursive construction of ‘asylum seekers. Media International Australia incorporating culture and policy109(1), pp.109-120.

Singer, P., 1972. Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy & public affairs, pp.229-243.

Teitelbaum, M.S., 1980. Right versus right: immigration and refugee policy in the United States. Foreign Affairs59(1), pp.21-59.

Walzer, M., 2008. The Distribution of Membership, in T. Pogge and D. Moellendorf (eds) Global Justice: Seminal Essays. St Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Wellman, C.H. and Cole, P., 2011. Debating the ethics of immigration: Is there a right to exclude?. Oxford University Press.

United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 2017 In Review: Global Trends, forced displacement in 2017, organisation report, pp. 1-76, accessed 14 September 2018.


Author: Jack Delaney

23-year-old with the knees of an 83-year-old. Luckily I spend my time writing, reading and watching films. I'm in love with potato wedges.

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