Legal v. Ethical: Seeking asylum in Australia

Legal v. Ethical: Seeking asylum in Australia

Last week Australia’s High Court ruled that it was lawful for Australia to detain asylum seekers in a foreign country. The court’s ruling, originally brought to the court by the lawyers of a Bangladeshi woman flown from Nauru to Australia due to severe medical complications, sets a precedent to deport an additional 267 asylum seekers currently in Australia seeking medical treatment.

This ruling reminds us that what is legal, isn’t always what is ethical.

As a child I thought that what is legal is also what is right. Laws are there for a reason – if you remain within the law you will be treated justly. But as I got older I began to realise that what is legal and what is “right” are not always the same. By the time I realised that cheating on a test would not result in the police swooping down on me, I had started learning about the legality of slavery in 17th century America, and about the anti-Semitic laws passed by Hitler in 1930’s Germany. I learned how Australia was totally cool with marital rape until the 1980’s and Tasmania considered sex between two men a criminal act up until 1997. These were all perfectly legal things in their time and yet they seemed so abhorrent and unethical to me.

Now determining what’s ethical can be a fraught subject. For this reason it’s important here to distinguish between ‘ethical’ and ‘moral’.

Ethics are codes of conduct determined by a larger body e.g. the society you live in or the profession you belong to. Morals however are individually determined codes of conduct that may have been influenced by an individual’s society, culture or faith. What is moral to one person may be immoral to another, but both may be subject to the ethics of a particular society.

What is classified as ‘legal’ is far more straightforward. If an act is permissible under the law of the country in question, then it is legal. Australia’s high court ruled it was legal to allow the government to detain asylum seekers offshore as there is a law that permits it. This law however was enacted retroactively upon the woman who brought the case to the high court. The woman was detained on Nauru between January 2014 and August 2014. She was then moved to Australia for medical treatment related to her pregnancy. The law that will permit her deportation, 198AHA of the Migration Act, passed parliament (became law) in June 2015, after the case against the woman’s detainment had been initiated. This suggests that the then government knew the arrangement they detained asylum seekers in was illegal, and hastily legitimised it.

Deporting 267 asylum seekers offshore for an indeterminate amount of time in squalid conditions may be legal, but it is severely unethical. Institutions that are arguably seen as ethical bastions in Australia, institutions that supposedly have great influence on our individual morals, strongly oppose this deportation as well as the general treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru. Doctors have risked prosecution for speaking up the substandard treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru. Lawyers have appealed to international law on the grounds that seeking asylum is a human right. Churches are offering sanctuary to these asylum seekers, confirming for many the similarities of character between the Australian government and medieval Europe. The United Nations and Amnesty International have both condemned this offshore internment.

Turnbull government, off to protect our borders

Just a thought: when the leading international human rights organisations are condemning your actions, it might be time to rethink them.

In their defence, the government maintains that “the line must be drawn somewhere”, lest all those pesky people smugglers start up again and more people die at sea. Essentially, they’re arguing the most humane option is detaining 267 people (including 30 babies).

*heavy sarcasm alert*

Because it’s obviously better to know that an extra 267 people suffer under cruel and inhumane conditions, than to risk more asylum seekers dying at sea. Or worse – actually making it to Australia.

The government’s argument might even have some credence if there wasn’t already allegations that they’d been paying people smugglers to turn their boats around.

Or even that due to the tight restrictions (read: censorship) placed on reporting ANYTHING to do with “on water matters”, it’s near impossible to get independent data on how many boats have actually entered Australian waters since the start of operation Sovereign Borders. There very well may have been deaths at sea, but a lack of departmental transparency means they aren’t publicly reported.

Legal as they may be, the actions of the Australian government towards asylum seekers are unethical and inhumane. Legitimised only by a law passed at the eleventh hour, their treatment of vulnerable people has been overwhelmingly denounced by the institutions Australians generally regard as ethically upstanding. What ever happened to the Australian notion of “a fair go”? To detain people in fetid conditions simply because it’s lawful, exposes a government that is deliberately callous. History will not remember how safe Australia kept its borders, but it will give damning evidence on how unethically it treated its asylum seekers.




Whitewashing: Hollywood’s dirty habit

Whitewashing: Hollywood’s dirty habit

Is it ever appropriate for an actor to play a role outside their own racial group?

Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors as characters of a completely different race. The practice became so commonplace that it has been nicknamed ‘white-washing’. While white-washing in television and film is rarely as caricatured and racially insensitive as in the early days of film, ‘white’ actors are still commonly cast as characters of a completely different race and culture (think Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia, or the entire cast reversal in Avatar: The Last Airbender).

Apparently the casting director had a rare type of colour blindness…

So why is ‘whitewashing’ bad?

The practice is harmful because it implies that viewers only want to see white actors on film and television, that only white actors are good enough to play leading roles. It is an issue of representation, the importance of which should not be underestimated. White-washing is particularly harmful if the film or television in question is unquestionably based in a non-western, non-white culture where it is entirely unrealistic for protagonists to be white. Basically ‘white-washing’ prevents fair and equal representation across the racial spectrum.

But is it ok for an actor to play a character of a similar race?

In the recent American sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt the love interest of titular character Kimmy Schmidt is a Vietnamese character named Dong Nguyen. Many critics have praised the show for the inclusion of an interracial love story, a rarity on American cable television.

The twist is that Ki Hong Lee, the actor who plays Dong Nguyen, is Korean-American not Vietnamese.

The argument against casting an American-Korean as a Vietnamese character might state that there are significant differences between Korean and Vietnamese people. Such a casting decision could be argued as another example of western cultures perceiving all ‘asian’ or ‘black’ people as one culture.

At this point it is helpful to stress the difference between ‘race’ and ‘culture’.



From these definitions, it’s evident that an individual may identify as one race (defined by physical characteristics like skin colour), but from an entirely different culture (defined by the society they were raised or reside in). In an increasingly globalised world, more and more people identify with a culture(s) outside what may have been defined by their race. An personal account of the difference between race and culture can be found here.

Back to our original question. If an actor physically resembles the race of the character they have been cast as – even if they identify as different culturally – is it an ethical casting decision?


After all, an actor’s job is to be someone else.It is the casting director’s job to find an actor suitable for the described character. To clarify; television and film ‘white-washing’ is racially insensitive, it disregards people of colour from being allowed fair and equal representation. But in a media landscape that has Australian actors playing English characters, English actors playing South African characters, and absolutely everyone playing Americans – whose to say a Korean actor cannot ethically play a Vietnamese character?

Talking Animals: the reality is no fairytale

Talking Animals: the reality is no fairytale

What was your favourite movie as a child?

Babe? Garfield? Lady and the Tramp? Aristocats? The Jungle Book? Stuart Little? Cinderella? Lion King?

"Do you see the common motif yet Simba?"
“Do you see the common motif yet Simba?”

What’s similar between all these films is their use of talking animals as a main plot device. In some films (such as above mentioned) animals are able to speak ‘human’ languages, holding fully understandable conversations with either,

a) only their species and other animal species


b) their species, other animals and humans

Other children’s films, whilst not allowing the use of language per se, have animals which are clearly capable of human-like intelligence, responding non-verbally to the actions of human characters, and in turn having the human characters understand these responses. Films that portray animals thus include Tangled, Mulan, Frozen, Aladdin, Free Willy and Flipper.

Bestowing intelligent communication skills to animals is a common trope in films aimed at children. As we move through adolescence and into adulthood however, films that feature animals capable of complex communication become less and less common. Is it that we no longer find it credible that animals could be smart enough to communicate? Or do we no longer want to?

‘Talking’ animals are not as fanciful a notion as you may think however. Whilst there yet exists no non-human species capable of communicating verbally with us (an individual exception was Alex the African Grey parrot, who was capable of intelligent spoken communication – not simple mimicry) there are numerous examples of animals able to express themselves explicitly to humans. Apes are almost universally recognised of having highly developed communicative abilities. This is evidenced by their ability to learn human sign language to converse with their handlers (Koko the Gorilla is a prime example).

Accepting other species as capable of inter-species communication presents an ethical dilemma as to how we as humans treat them, particularly in regards institutions which keep animals captive. The ability to communicate is often regarded as a sign of intelligence. This makes confining animals capable of communication morally questionable. The notion that animals capable of communication may be entitled to freedom was recently highlighted by the case of Sandra the Orang-utan. After living her entire life in an Argentinian zoo, 29-year-old Sandra was last year granted “non-human personhood”, enabling her the right to live freely.

I will miss the free health care though...
I will miss the free health care though…

Acknowledging other animals as entitled to the right to freedom will no doubt maintain controversial for many years to come. But considering the human desire to fictionally portray animals as cognitive equals, it is not unreasonable to imagine a future where animals’ ability to communicate is accepted, and rights to freedom consequentially granted.