Tag Archives: Peter Singer

Literally refusing to rescue drowning people: your taxpayer funds at work, putting immigrants to death

Open borders advocates on occasion borrow philosopher Peter Singer’s metaphor of the drowning child:

Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes – in fact, most people think that would be monstrous. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!

The analogy is somewhat obvious: many of the people prevented from moving by our immigration laws are fleeing a disaster of some kind that puts their life in serious danger. Those who want to prevent them from moving cannot use the excuse that it might be economically costly to us if we allow them to flee; otherwise, we are literally saying we value an expensive pair of shoes over the life of another human being.

However, open borders advocates are quick to caution that inasmuch as this is a thought trigger, this is not a true reflection of the state of things. Migration is actually rather different: most migrants seeking to move don’t require us to even lift a finger, let alone ruin an expensive pair of shoes. Many of the migrants we exclude, even the weary refugees, are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves. They can afford to pay for their journey to a land safe from political persecution, economic disaster, cholera, or whatever plague ails their native country; they can afford to rescue themselves. All our governments need to do is get out of their way, and allow them to pay for their own fare. The very reason that so many pay expensive fees to smugglers is because our own laws banned them from buying a regular ticket at the market fare in the first place!

Distancing the analogy even further, many migrants are not in any sort of life-threatening bind: they are capable individuals simply seeking to author their own life stories. That many prospective migrants simply want to and are fully capable of authoring their own better life makes it all the more galling that we regularly characterise the migrant as some sort of criminal burdensome leech. The “but my expensive shoes!” sort of excuse doesn’t even hold water when there’s nobody drowning — not when it’s just somebody trying to marry their spouse, pursue an education, or see the city lights, and is perfectly able to do this without troubling any of us in the least.

This is why I rarely refer to Singer’s analogy; it isn’t a very good portrayal of the true situation. If you want a better analogy, the situation is more like a well-dressed person trying to go somewhere, and us standing in the road complaining that if we let him go somewhere, he’ll step on our expensive shoes, and that’s why we need to build a giant electrified fence to keep him from ever coming anywhere near us. Our complaints are unfounded, and the gentleman requires nothing more from us than to move on and go about our own business.

But in another sense, immigration restrictions are far worse than refusing to rescue a drowning child. Most migrants may not face any life-threatening danger — but there are still millions forced to live in countries where they could be tortured or killed, and millions more forced to live in countries where there are no jobs for them outside the sweatshop. When our laws ban these people from moving to a society that won’t literally kill them, we are not just refusing to help a drowning person; this amounts to actively drowning the victim.

In these cases, the drowning person is perfectly capable of swimming to safety; they can buy their own ticket on a plane. The only thing keeping them from saving themselves is our own laws that ban them from doing this. We have prevented the drowning person from swimming to safety; we have become complicit in the death, if not murder, of a human being. When we ban people from fleeing death and suffering, we are complicit in the consequent dangers that befall them.

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African migrants banned from buying a regular ferry ticket await rescue on their disabled, overcrowded vessel in the Mediterranean. Photo credit: AFP/CNN.

Mind you, it is already the case that our laws give no reasonable avenue for bona fide refugees to safely travel in search of safety on aeroplanes or boats like the rest of us. Many people stay in their home countries resigned to lives of poverty or persecution because they have no legal avenue to leave for a society that allows them to flourish. But it only gets worse.

Those who do strike up the gumption to leave are punished even more harshly and actively in our name, at our own expense. Our own law enforcement agencies treat penniless unarmed people as though they are an invading army. And so our governments wind up literally killing people — not merely in silence by banning them from pursuing safety, but vocally and actively, by putting them to death.

Take the case of Australia. It is no secret that Australia pursues “pushbacks” or “towbacks” of migrants seeking asylum; there is video evidence showing it, and eyewitness testimony confirming it. The Australian procedure appears to be:

  1. Send the Navy or Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats;
  2. Transfer migrants from their potentially unseaworthy boats to lifeboats (literally, lifeboats manufactured for use only in dire circumstances when one has to abandon ship)
  3. Tow these lifeboats to Indonesian waters;
  4. Cut these lifeboats adrift; they’re now Indonesia’s problem.

This entire procedure is both legally and morally suspect. Migrants generally set sail in rickety and unsafe boats because they are banned by immigration law from purchasing passage on safer, legal vessels. Then, when they do get close to the country they want to settle in peace — a country not riven by war or sweatshop slavery — they are captured, placed on a slightly less unsafe boat, and cut adrift on the open sea. The Australian government surely gives them some provisions and a presumably slightly better vessel, but the fact remains: the government is setting these people at sea, in reckless disregard of their human lives. To quote one media account,

Indonesian sources have told the ABC those on board came from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The youngest aboard was 18 months old.

They also said the asylum seekers were fed and medically treated by Australian authorities, but claimed to have run out of food 48 hours before landing in Java.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says it is concerning that children were on board the lifeboat.

“I’m very concerned that there are reports that there were children as young as 18 months old, toddlers on board this boat,” she said.

“It is never safe to turn back a boat, push a boat back to the high seas with children that young on board.”

But hey, nobody’s died yet from these pushbacks, so maybe it’s ok to leave babies as young as 18 months afloat on a tiny vessel, days away from any shore, and have them fend for themselves — right? This is surely extremely morally dubious. And as it turns out, legally dubious too, if Ben Saul, Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney is to be believed:

Australia cannot turn back boats if it would expose a person to return to persecution contrary to the [UN] refugee convention. That includes sending people back to countries which do not offer effective refugee protection. Those can include transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia where there is no refugee protection status given to people who are there to claim refugee status.

The second consideration is under the law of the sea. It is not legal to turn back a boat which is unseaworthy and on which the lives of passengers are in danger or at risk.

[Towbacks] would ultimately require the safety of the vessel to be ensured, so Australia presumably would then need to tow it right back to an Indonesian port. It couldn’t just then leave the boat stranded without a motor on the edge of the Indonesian territorial sea, for example.

Australia’s brazen disregard for ethics and the law is hardly unusual. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights sanctioned Italy for performing near-identical pushbacks. The only substantive difference? Rather than putting migrants into new lifeboats, Italy transported migrants on its own boats back to Libya, where the Gaddafi regime promptly imprisoned many of them. Some of the people who were pushed back were even later granted asylum by the Italian government, a tacit acknowledgement that their initial towback was wrong.

Consider the above interview with some of the migrants immorally and unlawfully sent back to Libya. Does it morally matter whether these people were put in harms way by setting them afloat on a tiny vessel at sea, by returning them to a tyrant’s jail, or by settling them literally in the Sahara Desert? Whether you die of thirst, exposure, or tyrannical murder, whatever the case may be, if you were sent to your death by the Italian government, was your death not effected at the hands of the Italian taxpayer?

This 2012 decision did not seem to affect the Greek government, which has reportedly sent masked commandos to effect near-identical pushbacks of migrants fleeing the mass murder of Bashar Assad and the Islamic State in Syria. And yes, Greece has drowned some of these poor people. About a year ago, the Greek coast guard was towing a refugee boat (survivors allege they were being taken to Turkey, while Greece claims it was towing them to a Greek island) when rough seas, poor handling, or a combination of the two caused the boat to sink, sending many — including children — to death by drowning.

Now, one could take a sympathetic view to the governments of rich countries. They are somewhere in between a rock and a hard place: people will complain no matter what they do. If they allow migrants in, people will circulate false claims of lavish government treatment for these poor people — while at the same time complaining that these people are also cluttering up the streets begging, and also stealing their jobs. If they don’t allow migrants in, they get some bad press, but it’s not their own citizens drowning in the sea or being tortured in some mass murderer’s jail, so nobody capable of holding them accountable will actually bother to do so. So these governments might as well get some blood on their hands; it’s easier than the alternative.

And facetious as I might sound, I do see some room to sympathise with the people effecting these pushbacks. It’s ultimately the citizenry and the institutions that are responsible for political outcomes, and so this political drowning of immigrants is not wholly the fault of, say, the Australian, Italian, or Greek governments. It is the fault of bigotry and the fault of institutions that allow bigotry to fester — that allow us to say our expensive shoes are worth more than human life.

The challenges governments face in handling the problems of migrants, especially the most destitute, are very real. Take for example one report of the Thai government pushing back Burmese Rohingya migrants (though from the description, it sounds like these are actually true deportations, as these migrants have already landed):

The 259 will be put back on boats and sent back to Myanmar, said Police Colonel Sanya Prakobphol, head of Kapoe district police.

“They are Muslims from Myanmar … They are illegal migrants,” Sanya told Reuters by telephone.

“If they come in then we must push them back … once they have crossed the sea border into Myanmar then that’s considered pushing them back. What they do next is their problem.”

Sanya hardly sounds like a sympathetic character. Much like Australia, he intends to set people adrift at sea — and in presumably worse conditions than an Australian lifeboat. But he is really between a rock and a hard place:

Sanya said the 259 people were currently being held at a community hall and that his team were “looking after them like relatives” but that they would soon be put back on boats.

“Who will feed them? I’m struggling day to day to feed them,” said Sanya.

If he were a rich country official, one might be tempted to play him the world’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin. But he is a developing country official with hardly any resources to effect an orderly resettlement of refugees. He can perhaps feed them for a while, but he cannot help them find homes or jobs. In his shoes, it’s hard to say we could do much different than deport these poor people back to persecution and suffering in Burma.

But this is only a problem because we continue to tolerate the bigotry that views deportation as an solution to poverty, and the bigotry that denies migrants the agency to run their own lives. The Rohingya fled for a reason: they would rather run the risk of starving in a hostile land than continuing to suffer in their own country. Pushbacks and deportations do not cleanse our hands of guilt.

If the Rohingya come to misfortune in our own countries because of their own failings, that is one thing. But if we send them back to the very suffering they toiled so hard to flee, we are directly complicit in all that may befall them — which, in the case of the Rohingya, often turns out to be slavery, summary execution, torture, or rape.

Who will feed them? Ideally, they should feed themselves. But irrespective of how they are fed, the answer to this question of feeding is not “Send them away to be enslaved, murdered, tortured, or raped.”

One would hope that the more “civilised” governments of the Western world would have a more elegant solution to this than Sanya’s “Send them back to the country that’s killing them, then it’s not my problem.” But unfortunately, besides elaborate commando gear and expensive lifeboats, there seems to be little that separates the rich world from poor in the matter of drowning migrants. Whichever the government may be, its callousness is galling.

People often take it to be a strawman when I say that defenders of the border status quo are in essence apologising for persecution and murder. But when governments are putting unarmed civilians adrift at sea, and don’t seem to care whether they live or die as a result, it surely behooves us to ask what on earth these people did wrong to merit such punishment, such endangerment. And when on occasion, someone does pose this question, as one British journalist did, we find the “protectors” of our borders proffering the following:

The British government’s position is that the rescues should stop, because they only encourage more migrants to attempt the crossing. All of the people I interviewed for this story made their first journey to Europe in a smuggler boat across the Mediterranean. Our government believes that, had any of them drowned, it would have been a useful deterrent to others.

We are drowning people for the crime of fleeing destitution and persecution. We are drowning people for seeking to preserve their own lives. We are drowning people to send a warning to anyone else who might dream of a life in a society where they can be free to pursue their ambitions and realise their potential. We are literally drowning innocent children.

I don’t claim to have all the answers for how we should implement immigration law, how we should deal with refugees, or how we should police our borders. But I do know that there is no satisfying rationale for why our governments drown people — metaphorically in the home countries they might want to leave, or literally in the seas surrounding our countries where they dream of being free from oppression and murder.

It is no strawman nor exaggeration to say that our closed borders kill people. Our border politics have led to our governments suggesting it would be quite literally better to let people drown.  And yet one of the most grating aspects of the status quo is that nobody even feels compelled to articulate a justification for so many parts of it that seem obviously wrong — like the fact that ostensibly civilised societies are condoning the drowning of innocent people.

Nobody feels pressured to justify the way we specifically treat immigrants. There are plenty of philosophical arguments for the state’s authority to “control” its borders, but none that specifically explain why throwing people into prison camps or literally refusing to rescue drowning people is a morally acceptable or required method of doing so.

The drowning children are real, and yet we don’t have to do anything to rescue them; they can swim just fine on their own. All we have to do is allow them to save themselves. Yet we would rather use our own ships and our own taxes to prevent them from saving themselves, and watch them drown. Why do we do that? How can we justify it? Maybe you can tell me.

The image featured at the top of this post is an Australian government advertisement warning prospective immigrants and refugees that they are not welcome in Australia.

Related reading

You might be interested in all our blog posts tagged refugees.

Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you. Some of these are also linked inline from the post:

The expanding circle and open borders

The well-known bioethicist Peter Singer mooted the concept of the “expanding circle” in 1981 with his book The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (the link also has an embedded Bloggingheads conversation between Singer and Robert Wright discussing the book and the idea). Although the term “expanding circle” hasn’t exactly become a household term (it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article yet) the idea does seem to have gained a lot of currency and is expressed in different forms. Possibly, many people have rediscovered the idea without even being aware of Singer’s original formulation. In this blog post, I’m going to address the idea as it appears in many common discussions, and not necessarily Singer’s original formulation. (To be honest, I haven’t read Singer’s book, so I couldn’t critique Singer’s original formulation accurately anyway).

Expanding circle book cover
Book cover of The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Princeton University Press

The “expanding circle” idea relates three things:

  1. The changes in people’s circle of moral concern over time.
  2. A notion of larger versus smaller circles of moral concern, i.e., a way of meaningfully saying that a certain circle of moral concern is larger than another.
  3. The normative ethics of whether larger or smaller circles of moral concern are better.

The strong version of the “expanding circle” idea makes three claims:

  • Relating (1) and (2) (empirical): People’s circle of moral concern has expanded over time, and this trend is likely to continue
  • Relating (2) and (3) (normative): Expanded circles of moral concern are generally better.
  • Relating (1) and (3) (normative): In general, people’s morality improves over time.

To some extent, if we believe in two of these three claims, the third automatically follows.

It’s tempting for optimistic open borders advocates to make a case for open borders based on the expanding circle. The obvious idea is that open borders would be a lot more appealing to people whose circle of moral concern includes foreigners at nearly the same strength as natives. Restrictionists typically argue their case using a combination of citizenism and territorialism, which correspond to a narrower circle of moral concern (put differently, it puts a substantially higher weight on the interests and rights of one subset of humanity compared to another). Optimistic open borders advocates may therefore make three related claims:

  • Relating (1) and (2): Open borders advocates would like to argue that people’s circle of moral concern will grow to include non-citizens and those who live far away.
  • Relating (2) and (3): Open borders advocates would like to argue that, generally speaking, an expanded circle of moral concern, that does not weigh the interests and rights of citizens/native residents too much higher than the interests and rights of non-citizens/non-residents, is objectively better.
  • Relating (1) and (3): Open borders advocates would like to argue that the future will be more favorable to open borders than the present is.

The three claims are linked (and any two imply the third, to an extent). My co-blogger John Lee’s first blog post borrowed its title from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” and is a fine example of the expanding circle argument.

A pessimistic open borders advocate may still view (2) and (3) as related, but be pessimistic about whether the trajectory of moral progress will move the world closer to open borders. An empirically agnostic open borders advocates may also view (2) and (3) as related but be agnostic about what the future has in store.

More on the circles and their applicability to open borders

A distinction can be made between two kinds of circles of moral concern: people (or more generally, sentient beings) to whom you feel an obligation of non-aggression (i.e., beings that are perceived to have moral rights) and people to whom you feel positive obligations to directly help. This distinction is very important for libertarians, who generally believe that most obligations to strangers are in the form of an obligation of non-aggression rather than an affirmative action. Thus, libertarians generally view the killing versus letting die (act/omission distinction) as morally significant. As Robin Hanson has pointed out, libertarians may have narrower circles of people to whom they feel positive obligations, but larger circles of people to whom they feel an obligation of non-aggression.

There is an important intermediate case: who are the people for whom you feel you have a positive obligation to expend resources to stop others from violating their rights? With the language of “killing versus letting die” this comes in the “letting be killed” category — a category that seems to be intermediate (I’d like to thank Andy Hallman for raising this question). On a certain view, immigration restrictions involve the use of aggression and coercion, but to argue that individuals are morally obligated to advocate for open borders would require making an argument that they view foreigners as part of the sphere of moral concern that deserves a positive expenditure of resources towards a non-violation of rights.

Another circle that might be of interest is the circle of people, or sentient beings, towards whom we feel a requirement to be honest and contractually fair. Generally speaking, it is considered okay to use deceit or trickery against animals, even if actually torturing those same animals was considered wrong. However, in general, the use of deceit or tricks against humans is frowned upon, with possible exceptions being made for infants, people who are violent and unstable, and people with some special and severe cognitive problems.

All these circles are relevant in different ways to different framings of the case for open borders. Continue reading “The expanding circle and open borders” »