The following is an excerpt from a recent book chapter by the author and should be cited in the following way:
Morriss C 2017 Forsaking Our Moral Compass? The Tragedy of Australia’s Offshore Detention Policy. In Migrations: a global welfare challenge. Policies, practices and contemporary vulnerabilities. Pattaro Amaral, F., Silvera Samiento, A., Bartholini, I., & Di Rosa RT Eds. Corporación Universitaria Americana. Barranquilla, Colombia.
As a current lecturer of peace and conflict studies in challenging times, there are many aspects of offshore detention that I find troubling: the isolation of vulnerable people; the lack of access to support services that collectively and comprehensively address past, present and foreseeable future fears and traumas; the legal and ethical dilemmas of acting outside UN conventions; the impact these things have on an individual’s capacity to recover from the lived experiences of pain and suffering, injustices and marginalization to name a few. But one aspect that is most troubling in terms of what this might mean for peace at personal, community and national levels is the repeated and consistent evidence of people living in a state of crippling despair.
Australia’s policy of offshore detention in remote areas of the Pacific affords little to no access to outside support in terms of health care, legal support, or social and cultural support. This is a contributing factor in the despair experienced by detainees. Indeed ‘despair’ was the theme of a 2016 report by Amnesty International ‘Island of Despair’: Australia’s “processing” of refugees on Nauru (Amnesty International, 2016) which speaks to the inhumanity of offshore detention, and the disturbingly common theme of anxiety, mental health issues and overwhelming loss of hope that prevails in these institutions.
A regular visitor to my undergraduate and postgraduate master’s level courses in peace and conflict studies since 2010, acclaimed Australian philosopher and peace ethics educator Professor James Page, makes a point of speaking frankly with my students about how despair potentially shapes and skews the hopes and aspirations of both individuals and communities; in Page’s view despair is insidious in that it has no clear resolution. Given the serious impact this can have on humanity then, we must ask what can we do about despair? Hegel referred to a ‘highway of despair’ where doubt drives one to bleak skepticism about the future, fraught with false knowledge that one cannot put aside for fear that it is truth (Hegel, 2012, pp.49-50). Is the answer inherent in the capacity to break this cycle of doubt and fear? And if so, to what end is that capacity innately the individuals? Is it enabled and sustained by the environments the individual experiences, and thus beyond individual capacity alone?
Mary Kaplan wrote about how gender impacted ones reaction to and memory of Jewish experiences in Nazi Germany (Kaplan, 1998, pp.8-9). She reflected on the differences between women and men’s recollections of trauma and flight and how they related to environments of political and social stress. Kaplan found women focused their memories on social aspects of their life in Germany under Hitler, family, friendships, community while men focused much more on the economics of life, of business and political environments. Perhaps this teaches us that the traumas of asylum seekers and refugees will in the long term create different problems for men and women. While I certainly do not claim to have a deep understanding of the psychology this does prompt a question about what that means for the way that we do or should care for refugees and asylum seekers if prolonged despair has varied consequences for people based on their gender.
Another significant concept Page discusses with my students is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics argues that it is in ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ that people find a sense of agency, and that this where an individual can rise above the circumstances they might find themselves in – they take on certain virtues of strength and resilience, of being good people and striving for excellence rather than ‘acting’ from a sense of obligation and duty (Page, 2008, pp.23-24). For instance, once might ‘be’ positive and uplifted through their sense of self-worth even in the harshest conditions, while others may act positively through their sense of obligation to ‘do’ good in the same conditions even if they do not feel positive about themselves or their circumstances.
Virtue ethics therefore guides the self to be resilient and positive in spite of external influences, or as Page puts it by ‘enhancing the confidence of the individual as an agent of peace’ (Page, 2008, p.189). Virtue ethics may provide an antidote of sorts to the despair that is so deeply a part of the offshore detention experience. However, this is an individual response and while it may hold important value to individual well-being, it cannot alone resolve the persistence of external factors. It is an ethics of care that speaks to the collective responsibility of the care providers, in this instance the Australian government and their associated agencies that facilitate their policies.
Care must therefore be understood as a state response that is integrated into the policies and practices of offshore detention as well as a personal responsibility. It may be born of duty or as a consciously pursued virtuous quality. Regardless of the motivation, it is inherent on the government to ensure that a culture of care is cultivated, supported, maintained and sustained.
 Page has received critical recognition for his contributions to field. In recent years, he has been a recipient of the New South Wales Institute for Educational Research Award for Outstanding Educational Research; a nominee for the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize; a recipient of the United Nations Queensland Award and joint winner of the West Suburban Faith Based Peace Coalition Peace Essay Contest.