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Nicolacopoulos, Toula; Vassilacopoulos, George --- "On the Other Side of Xenophobia: Philoxenia as the Ground of Refugee Rights" [2004] AUJlHRights 17; (2004) 10(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights 17

On the other side of xenophobia: philoxenia as the ground of refugee rights

Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos*

The question of Australia’s moral responsibilities to onshore asylum seekers is typically framed in terms of the assessment of governments’ responsibilities towards competing international humanitarian and national interests. Our paper invites us to rethink the starting assumptions of this approach. We argue for the adoption of a conception of ‘unconditional hospitality’ as our ethical guide to receiving Australia’s onshore asylum seekers. To this end, we elaborate a Greek-Australian concept of ‘philoxenia’ as a form of unconditional welcoming of uninvited strangers and we discuss the implications of its adoption in relation to the issues of political sovereignty and maintenance of border controls. We argue that, in the current situation, Australians should distinguish between the moral principles that should guide our assessments of liberal governmental policies, and the principles that should guide the Australian people acting in their capacity as citizens.

From the application of the concept of philoxenia to Australian political life, we derive the political maxim ‘act as if there were no borders’. We suggest that this maxim can serve to guide Australian citizens in making their ethical decisions and demands upon the state in a less than ethical world order.


The term ‘xenophobia’ springs to mind when we try to make sense of white Australia’s current response to the unauthorised arrival of asylum seekers. Many Australians seem reluctant to see asylum seekers, particularly those who have come to be known as the ‘boat people’, as human beings whose desperate circumstances have placed them in genuine need of our hospitality (Bailey 2002; Burnside 2002; HREOC 1998; Lock et al 2002, 35; Mares 2001; McMaster 2001; Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopolos 2002, 45; Nicholas 2002). Xenophobia, or fear of foreigners, may well underpin this reluctance. At the same time, the wider question of the human rights of the world’s growing number of refugees and displaced persons has renewed international discussion of an ethical discourse of hospitality. This discussion has drawn upon Jacques Derrida’s recent extension of a Levinasian idea of ethical agency that centres on unconditional responsibility for the ‘other’ to the concept of hospitality (Derrida 2000, 2001; Dikec 2002, 227; Venn 2002, 65). In our paper, we would like to contribute to the development of such a discourse of hospitality as it relates to the question of Australia’s ethical responsibilities to onshore asylum seekers: that is, to those who already find themselves within the jurisdictional control of the Australian state.1 In recent years, there have been many admirable efforts to explain the objectionable nature of the Australian Government’s particularly harsh onshore refugee policy. Measures such as mandatory detention, restrictions on family reunion and the issuing of temporary protection visas to asylum seekers have been challenged as human rights violations, and there have been many arguments to show that an alternative refugee policy would be in keeping with Australia’s responsibilities to the international community (for example Bailey 2002; Nicholas 2002). Rather than defending any particular policy change, we want to invite a rethinking both of some of the assumptions that typically underlie challenges to the current Government’s refugee policy, and of attempts to justify it within the general theoretical framework of liberal political philosophy.

Our approach will be to elaborate a conception of hospitality that we will call ‘philoxenia’ in keeping with its Greek-Australian origins. Indeed, the practice of philoxenia that we will rely upon derives specifically from the Greek-Australian political activism that has been in the making since the 1920s. This activism has drawn creatively upon valued cultural and political traditions that refuse to treat human beings in need as the mere potential recipients of the philanthropy of those who happen to control a greater share of resources (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos 2002a, 141; in press a, in press b; in press c). Although our elaboration of the concept of philoxenia will rely upon a particular cultural-political practice, we are not claiming that this represents common practice within Greek culture or that philoxenia is peculiar to Greek culture. The account we will offer derives from a cultural-political practice that does not treat the conditions of its own being as natural or pre-given for certain classes of agent. Accordingly, we hope to show how philoxenia contains the conceptual resources to aid us as Australians in determining our ethical responsibilities.

We will develop our paper in three sections. In the first section, we will introduce the concept of philoxenia by situating it in relation to the broader discussion of the concept of hospitality that we mentioned above and by drawing attention to a useful point of comparison with the concept of xenophobia. We will devote the second section to an elaboration of the key elements of philoxenia and to a discussion of their implications for the relationship between Australians and asylum seekers. Here, we will illustrate our claims with examples chosen, not only from Greek-Australian practices, but also from some more widely familiar scenes from Homer’s Odyssey. It is worth noting at the outset that, despite the repetitive nature, scene after scene, of the ritual welcoming of strangers in the Odyssey, the goings on never seem inessential. Even after encountering the Homeric scene of the xenos’ welcoming a few times, so that, as readers, we know what to expect from the welcoming process, we are never inclined to skip the page. This is because we do not experience the elaborate Homeric welcoming of the xenos as the performance of some kind of distant ritual, even one that might have been necessary in Homeric time. For this reason, we can draw upon some scenes from Homer, not for what they might suggest about philoxenia in ancient times, but to assist us in offering an analysis of the concept that, as we indicated above, belongs to current ethical practice. In the final section of our paper, we will explain how the concept of philoxenia might usefully be applied to Australian political life. Here, we will suggest that the ethico-political imperative of philoxenia calls upon Australians living in a less than ideal world to adopt a certain political maxim. This maxim holds that we should ‘act as if there were no borders’. It is intended to function as a guide to determining citizens’ ethical demands upon the Australian state.

Xenophobia and the perversion of hospitality

As an ethical concept, hospitality is understood as the manner of receiving the other into one’s home and it is usually associated with some form of conditional welcoming. We might, for example, extend an invitation to specific others or to the members of a predesignated group. Alternatively, hospitality can be understood as involving what Derrida calls an unconditional welcoming of the other. For Derrida, ‘unconditional hospitality’ is the ethical manner of receiving an uninvited stranger without imposing any prior conditions (Derrida 2000, 23; 25; 27). This contrast between unconditional and conditional forms of hospitality is particularly useful in drawing our attention to the question of the nature of a host’s relationship to his or her home as a site of welcoming strangers. Let us explain briefly.

Unlike unconditional hospitality, conditional forms of hospitality typically require that, in order to be received, a foreigner must first disclose his or her identity so as to demonstrate eligibility and/or suitability for acceptance into the host’s home (Derrida 2000, 27). This requirement places those who give and those who receive hospitality in an asymmetrical power relationship in which there is, as Derrida puts it,

... the necessity, for the host, for the one who receives, of choosing, electing, filtering, selecting their invitees, visitors, or guests, those to whom they decide to grant asylum, the right of visiting or hospitality. No hospitality, in the classic sense, without sovereignty of oneself over one’s home [Derrida 2000, 55].

Conditional forms of hospitality that require disclosure of a stranger’s identity as a precondition for giving hospitality effectively render central to the relationship a recognition of the host’s mastery over his or her own home. It is at this point that the very desire to give hospitality seems potentially to lead to its very opposite, namely xenophobia. As Derrida maintains,

... one can become virtually xenophobic in order to protect or to claim to protect one’s own hospitality, the own home that makes possible one’s own hospitality. ... I want to be master at home ... to be able to receive whomever I like there. Anyone who encroaches on my ‘at home’, .... on my sovereignty as host, I start to regard as an undesirable foreigner [Derrida 2000, 53, 55].

Derrida suggests that, instead, an opening to the authenticity of hospitality may well proceed, not from the ‘certain existence of a dwelling’, but from the ‘dislocation of shelterness’ (Derrida 2000, 56). Elsewhere we have argued that in the white Australian context, an opening to the authenticity of hospitality proceeds from an appreciation of the various ways in which the foreigner has been positioned within and on the margins of white Australian society (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos 2002b, 45). In our work, we develop the view that the proper site of hospitality is not the home of an owner or master of a place, but the very space of welcoming. This latter should be understood as a discursive space that is generated in part by the hosts’ engagement of their own being as foreigners in the presence of their guests. The proper site of hospitality thus becomes an intersubjectively generated sharing in the feeling of ‘at home-ness’ that informs subjects within a discursive space of welcoming.

In the next section of our paper, we hope to show that this understanding of the relationship of hospitable subjects to their home is at the heart of the concept of philoxenia. Before proceeding to our analysis of the concept, however, let us make two further general observations about its relationship to xenophobia and conditional hospitality. First, there is a noteworthy connection between the concepts of philoxenia and xenophobia in that their logical structure bears a certain similarity. As the Greek compound words philo-xenos and xeno-phobos suggest, a certain feeling, be it love or fear, functions as the substantial ground of the relationship in each case, and in each case the subject matter is the being of the xenos, the foreigner or stranger. But the structural similarities end here. Unlike xenophobia, philoxenia involves a mutual informing of its inter-related categories. The individual subject is internally related to its object, the love for the xenos, that the subject encounters through engagement with the concrete being of another. Accordingly, in philoxenia, a mutually informing love for the being of the xenos generates the sharing in the feeling of at-homeness that brings together a host with their uninvited guest.

This brings us to our second general observation. The mediating force of this feeling of at-homeness takes precedence over the fact of a host’s sovereignty vis à vis the rest of the world. To be sure, one needs to be sovereign if one is to provide the protections associated with the granting of asylum to another, but the important point here is that, unlike conditional hospitality, sovereignty over one’s home does not characterise the host’s primary ethical relationship to an uninvited stranger. On the contrary, in so far as love for the being of the xenos takes ethical precedence over one’s powers of sovereignty, the former frames the exercise of the latter.2 Let us now turn to an analysis of the concept of philoxenia in order to explain how this framing process might inform our response to Australia’s asylum seekers.

The logical structure of the concept of ‘philoxenia’

We can begin by noting that to enter the space of philoxenia as a xenos is to experience the feeling of at home-ness in a strange place through the presence of an unfamiliar other. For this reason, philoxenia demands that the questions of a stranger’s identity and of the purpose of a visit arise only after a stranger has been fully welcomed into a place. That is, all immediate needs must first be met and these will typically include not only material goods such as food and rest, but also familiarisation with the place, its dwellers and goings on.

On a number of occasions in the Odyssey, Homer presents us with precisely this kind of scene. On one occasion the goddess Athena accompanies Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, to Pylos, in the hope of learning from its king, Nestor, something of the fate of Odysseus, alongside whom Nestor had fought during the war in Troy. When Athena and Telemachus arrive in the middle of a feast being given in honour of the sea god Poseidon, the process of familiarisation calls for immediate attention to the spiritual, just as much as to the material. They are at once welcomed into the full proceedings: having been sat down at the banquet, with wine in hand, they are invited, in turn, to say a prayer to Poseidon. This process generates the sharing of the feeling of ‘at home-ness’ between guests and hosts. On this occasion, it is the festive honouring of Poseidon that happens to bring foreigners together in the space of welcoming. Only then can the question of the strangers’ identity be properly raised.

Once they’d put aside desire for food and drink,

old Nestor the noble charioteer began, at last:

‘Now’s the time, now they’ve enjoyed their meal,

to probe our guests and find out who they are.

[Xenoi], who are you?

Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes?

Out on a trading spree or roving the waves like pirates,

sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives

to plunder other men?’ [Homer 1996, 109].

Like our own boat people, Athena and Telemachus may well be travelling the seas in pursuit of non-admirable goals or, at the very least, may have no courtesy or regard for the impact of their actions on the security and comfort of others. Though Nestor countenances the possibility that they might even be criminals, he does not treat this as a reason for denying them their proper place as xenoi partaking in the feast activities of the moment.

The process of enacting philoxenia does not begin with the host’s access to the guest’s as yet unfamiliar personal history. This is because the moment of the initial encounter engages the other’s abstract being as that of the xenos. It is this abstract being of foreignness — in the dual sense of the unfamiliar and of something that is not immediately of this place — that the subjects of philoxenia encounter at the outset. This too is the form that our common humanity takes when we first encounter asylum seekers in the ethical framework of philoxenia. Precisely because we initially engage with the being of foreignness, a host’s demand to know the foreigner’s identity as a condition of welcoming is entirely inappropriate. The encounter with foreignness is an immediate one: in reaching us, asylum seekers are at once unfamiliar and not of this place. We do not need further information, such as proof of their genuine refugee status, in order for us to act in philoxenia.

A few clarifications are in order here. First, this is not to say that philoxenia is addressed to others in their capacity as the mere embodiments of some abstract quality, namely foreignness, that is attributed to subjects from the outside, so to speak. To be philoxenos at all, one must already have a sense of being as a xenos. In other words, foreignness is conceived as intrinsic to the being of the interacting subjects. Although philoxenia engages fully concrete beings, as we will see in a moment, the universal and the particular aspects of such beings play different roles in the internal dynamics of the interaction.

Second, in speaking here of a common humanity understood in terms of the foreignness that human beings share in an unmediated way, we do not mean to suggest that philoxenia is necessarily restricted to relationships between human beings. Philoxenia is not an intrinsically anthropocentric concept, as goddess Athena’s visit to Nestor’s kingdom suggests. It does not only extend to the gods but to the natural world as well. In Greek usage, when characterising a place as philoxeno or otherwise, we are not necessarily speaking loosely about its human inhabitants. The proper subject of philoxenia, therefore, is the living being.

Moreover, the subject who enters the space of philoxenia does so in his or her capacity as one of its participants, as distinct from the philoxenos positioned as host or guest. Telemachus and Athena are just as much foreigners amongst foreigners as they are the guests of their host, Nestor. Because of this underlying symmetry in the formal structure of philoxeno subjectivity, philoxenia cannot be reduced to a matter of the unidirectional reception of a stranger by a host. This explains why, from this ethical point of view, any disparities in the knowledge claims that the participants can make about each other are inconsequential. Unlike Nestor, who does not even need to ask the names of the xenoi as a precondition for enacting philoxenia, Athena and Telemachus seek out Nestor for a specific purpose that is framed by the knowledge of his personal history. The same can be said for our reception of asylum seekers when we function within the discursive field generated by a certain substantive idea, namely attention to the being of the xenos. We do not need to know whether their papers are in order, or whether they chose Australia because they think it is an easy target, in order to meet their immediate needs in emotionally and psychologically supportive conditions.

When Athena and Telemachus enter as unexpected xenoi, they are the ones who endow their hosts with the fruitful conditions for enacting philoxenia. That is, the encounter gives rise to an opportunity for sharing the best that the hosts have to offer. It continues to be customary for philoxenous today to share with the unexpected visitor the best portion of a meal prepared for their own enjoyment. Generosity to strangers takes place within the discursive space of philoxenia and this gesture extends no less to the uninvited. People being thrown by circumstances into close proximity is occasion enough for the activation, or not, of philoxenia. In other words, being philoxenos is a way of encountering the other once all affected are within its reach, so to speak: it is not an outcome of a subject’s willing the other’s presence. This is because philoxenia cannot be approached as a goal that might be achieved through the implementation of instrumental reason. Just as one cannot invite guests to one’s home as an external means to enacting philoxenia, so too one cannot restrict philoxenia to the category of invitees.

In our study of Greek-Australian political activism, one informant demonstrates this point indirectly as part of her accounting for the process of her and her family’s radicalisation. D was raised on one of the poorest of the Greek islands in a village that was amongst those named kokkina choria (red villages), marking the villagers’ overwhelming support for the Greek communist movement. Greece’s right wing authorities had used the island in question as a place of exile for political prisoners. The concept of philoxenia came to D’s aid as a way of telling her story:

No one in my family knew anything about Left ideas, you know, but we were philoxenoi. Our villages are renowned for the philoxenia of our people. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that our island was always very poor. In any case, when the authorities ordered every household on the island to take in and feed one political exile each, they didn’t take account of our philoxenia and, as all would have later realised, their order produced the opposite of what they must have expected. They sent the communists to us thinking that they would be made to suffer but, as is our way, we didn’t only share what little food we had, at the same table, day in day out. We also opened our hearts. When you are philoxenos, as we had been raised to be, you listen to and think about what the xenos has to say and what it means for you. They were well read, educated people who brought their knowledge into our homes and invited us to share it with them [Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulos, pers comm, 1999].

In the circumstances, being ordered by the authorities to take in a stranger indefinitely, to add to an already heavily taxed household yet another mouth to feed, could have been the source of some considerable resentment, especially when the Greek authorities made it known that, to return to their own homes, the strangers had merely to renounce their political convictions. Moreover, the presence of the stranger serves to remind the host of the vulnerability of the household to outside intrusions. Yet D’s account of the workings of philoxenia amongst her fellow villagers stands in striking contrast to the form of conditional hospitality that, as we noted above with Derrida, is potentially self-destructively grounded in the subject’s paramount desire for mastery over his or her own home. The ethical perspective of philoxenia draws attention to the question of what takes place in the encounter between the xenoi, and this is not reducible to a question of who has control over the borders.

Philoxenia involves a reciprocal ‘opening of the heart’ to the other in the sense of a willingness to bring something into a shared being, but what is brought into the discursive framework is not itself pre-given or fixed. On their respective sides, subjects encounter each other as a world: as bearers, that is, of their respective personal and collective histories, traditions and ways of reasoning and knowing. This encounter gives rise to the possibility of the kind of radical transformation of awareness that took place in D’s life. Indeed, it gives rise to creative transformations in multiple forms because the practice empowers participants to relate reflectively to the specific aspects of their contingent beings. Thus, the relationship gives rise to a transformative power: a creative energy whose exercise can impact upon any aspect of the participants’ determinate beings. The encounter with the xenos in philoxenia has the potential to open up and expand one’s own world.

On another occasion of xenos welcoming in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus is received by the Phaeacians, whom he has sought out on Athena’s advice that they are equipped to assist him to return to his homeland. As we might expect, they respond to his immediate needs for food and overnight rest and to his plea for the preparation of a ship that can sail him home. Odysseus then wakes to a day of ‘songs and contests’ that the island’s King Alcinous hosts by way of preparation for the xenos to give an account of himself. Alcinous finally raises the question of Odysseus’ identity only after seeing him break down in tears upon hearing a song about the fall of Troy. Indeed, it is only within the discursive framework of this elaborate honouring of the xenos that the latter is invited to speak about his life.

Clearly grief has overpowered his heart.

Break off this song! Let us enjoy ourselves,

The hosts and guest together. Much the warmer way.

All these things are performed for him, our honoured guest,

The royal send-off here and gifts we give in love.

Treat your guest and suppliant like a brother,

Anyone with a touch of sense knows that.

So, don’t be crafty now, my friend, don’t hide

The truth I’m after. Fair is fair, speak out!

Come, tell us the name they call you there at home,


And tell me your land, your people, your city too,


.... But come my friend,

Tell us your own story now and tell it truly [Homer 1996, 208-9].

To be sure, this honouring of the xenos — the songs, games and gift giving — is not conditional upon a prior disclosure to the hosts of an identity and a history of which they might approve, or even about which they might stand in judgment. Rather, it is the enabling condition for the enjoyment of the potential richness in an encounter of another as a world, in the sense we mentioned above.

Still, if the telling of one’s own story is to have more than entertainment value between xenoi, this derives from telling truly. Moreover, philoxenia is the discursive framework that generates for the xenoi the opportunity for, and expectation of, an honest disclosure, precisely because the interaction is mediated by love for the being of the xenos. This is the substantial ground of philoxenia. Substantial love for the being of the xenos is an objectively universal framework in this sense of preceding and making possible the particular activity of the individuals in question. Individual subjects do not merely give or receive philoxenia, although this is an indispensable part of what goes on; more to the point here, when they are and know themselves to be in a relationship of philoxenia, philoxenia gives them their being as philoxenoi, so to speak.

Substantial love for the being of the xenos ultimately frames the subjects’ respective powers of self-determination, including the host’s sovereignty over their home. That is, as the substantial ground of philoxenia, the former acts as a limit on subjects’ formal freedom to determine any number of ways of enacting the process of guest-host interaction. As we suggested above, each particular subject draws upon their specificities to determine what they bring to the relationship. Indeed, both the initiation and the actualisation of the specific relationship depend entirely on the participants’ specific differences and these differences exceed their shared being as xenoi.

As a form of ethical activity, philoxenia must be created and maintained by willing participants throughout the process. So, for example, it is up to Odysseus to determine whether and how he will bring his story into the encounter with the Phaeacians. Although free to make his choices, for his actions to accord with philoxenia, his decision must also be made with love for the being of the xenos. By the same token, there is nothing to determine whether a potential host will respond positively to an opportunity for philoxenia. Australians can certainly choose not to be philoxeni and, as we suggested above, absence of the will so to be can go so far as to be expressed as xenophobia. Still, if we do exercise our will to act in philoxenia towards asylum seekers then, within the limits of our own resources, we are required to meet their needs for housing, education, medical care, assistance with locating and reuniting with family members, and so on, irrespective of their formal legal status.

The politics of philoxenia

If philoxenia must be activated and actualised by willing participants whose decisions draw upon contingent factors that are not, themselves, capable of being externally pre-determined, then the concept has certain inherent limits of application. If the contingencies that ultimately bring specific instances of philoxenia into being are not themselves subject to orderly external regulation, they cannot form the proper object of law and legal authority. Indeed, it follows from our analysis of philoxenia above that a political state cannot legislate philoxenia. How, then, might Australians invoke the concept as a proper ethical response to the political problem of the arrival of asylum seekers? Our analysis of the concept has already shown that philoxenia cannot operate through processes that prioritise and rigidly maintain pre-designated borders. Indeed, it suggests that to apply the ethical concept of philoxenia to the sphere of political life in Australia would be to invoke the political maxim, ‘act as if there were no borders’. How can an ethical concept that ignores the legitimacy of state territorial borders play any useful role in determining our responsibilities to asylum seekers who are, after all, reaching Australian territorial borders?

In this final part of our paper, we want to suggest that we can consistently extend philoxenia to a limited yet important dimension of Australian political life. This dimension concerns the ethical agency of the Australian people in our distinct capacity as citizens of a modern western liberal order. It is worth noting here that discussions of Australia’s moral responsibilities to asylum seekers have tended to blur this dimension of political life by focusing on the moral responsibilities of a liberal political state. For example, there is a tendency in the current debates that we mentioned at the outset to run together two questions. One is whether the state is morally justified in adopting a particular refugee policy, and a second is whether its citizens are justified in supporting it. If we distinguish more carefully the moral and ethical principles that should guide the actions of political states and citizens respectively, we can begin to identify the field of application for philoxenia in Australian political life.

To begin with, even though philoxenia is an ethical stance that cannot properly be guaranteed through political institutional means, it does not follow from this that it is inappropriate as an ethical stance from which to determine the rightness of political policy or action. All that follows is that the proper ethical agents for the enactment of philoxenia are the Australian people in their capacity as citizens. The maxim ‘act as if there were no borders’ can still serve to guide those of us currently living on Australian territory in our assessment of, support for, or opposition to the authorities’ use of measures for the reception of asylum seekers. Here, it is not just the attitudes of individuals, such as policy makers, that might be softened in response to the wider adoption within Australian society of the ethical stance of philoxenia. Rather, what we are suggesting is that philoxenia and, hence, the imperative to ‘act as if there were no borders’ should inform the political reasoning of the citizens of a liberal order, even though their governments could not be guided by the same principle.

What are the merits of differentiating in this way between the ethical and moral principles that should guide citizens and governments of a liberal social order? Let us answer this question by way of a brief comparison with an alternative approach. Currently, the debate on refugee policy is typically framed in terms of moral assessments of the Government’s responsibilities towards competing humanitarian and national interests. For example, Jacqueline Bailey argues within this theoretical framework for ‘a more balanced approach to refugee policy’ (Bailey 2002, 1). Adopting an ‘idealistic’ interpretation of the national interest, she maintains that:

... the continued development of the international community and respect for human rights are also essential to the nation’s wellbeing. A state’s approach to asylum seekers must therefore balance a realistic assessment of the state’s capacity to assist, with its obligations to people seeking to engage the state’s protection obligations [Bailey 2002, 4].

Bailey defends this position by means of a number of consequentialist arguments that seek to determine the rightness of a policy on the basis of an assessment of the actual or foreseeable consequences of its implementation. She argues, for example, that:

... by seeking to deter asylum seekers from coming to Australia in a situation of global increase in the numbers of the total population of concern to the UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], Australia is simply decreasing its share of the burden, exacerbating the problems in the long term [Bailey 2002, 7].

We do not want to suggest that arguments of this form do not carry any weight. Still, here the problem of determining our obligations to onshore asylum seekers is framed in terms of identifying the most effective means by which the Australian Government can meet its international obligations, and thereby act in the national interest, as Bailey contends. This approach leaves room to conclude that, if harsh border controls were in fact the most effective means of meeting Australia’s humanitarian obligations to the international community, then their implementation would be justified despite the foreseeable negative impact on the individual lives of onshore asylum seekers. Even though she wants to defend a refugee policy that respects the human rights of onshore asylum seekers, Bailey’s theoretical framework places too much emphasis on the ineffectiveness of harsh border controls. It permits the operation of an element of arbitrariness in the Government’s demonstrations of respect for individual human rights. Moreover, by conflating Australians’ moral responsibilities to the international community with the obligations of the political state, her approach avoids the question of the complicity of the Australian people in the current treatment of Australia’s onshore asylum seekers.

In contrast to the above, when we invoke philoxenia as a guide to the deliberations of citizens, our approach rules out consequentialist justifications of the diminution of our respect for what are typically conceived of as asylum seekers’ human rights. Philoxenia effectively blocks all arguments that move from a political state’s possession of political sovereignty — and the related border control rights — to the dehumanisation of uninvited strangers. Moreover, because it attributes ethical responsibility directly to the Australian people — as distinct from indirectly through a treatment of the moral duties of the Australian state — philoxenia does not allow us to ignore our complicity in the current situation.

Philoxenia can and should play the role we are suggesting precisely because we are living in a less than ethical world. Elsewhere (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos 1999, 9-35) we have argued that modern western liberal democracies can be shown to represent, at best, a form of social organisation that conforms to a contradictory logic. This is a form of organisation that denies, in practice, the very principles and values to which it has given rise: most notably, those of freedom, equality and solidarity. From our Hegelian perspective, which takes western modernity to be a self-determining whole that is still in the process of its becoming, life in a liberal social order represents the ‘moment of modernity’s self-denial’. This is a moment in history that has acquainted us with, yet denies to us, the benefits of living within an ethical social and world order that is grounded in a principle of substantive freedom in solidarity. Freedom in solidarity thus remains a visionary ideal of a radically transformed world. In this current condition of modernity, ethical principles like philoxenia, which are admittedly limited, must stand in the place of this visionary ideal of solidarity.

We live in a world that is not yet ethically well ordered in the above sense. Consequently, it becomes the responsibility of ethical agents today to maintain pressure on a non-ethical Australian state to suppress its tendencies towards arbitrariness in the manner of its reception of asylum seekers. By the same token, we might advocate a manner of their reception that is mindful of the limits of our own ways of being within western liberal modernity — as foreigners to the place and to the times. Australians can read the arrival of the boat people as an unexpected encounter with ‘the other’ that foregrounds a visionary ideal of substantive freedom in solidarity. Currently, we must understand this ideal as a project still to be achieved, but also as something that the modern western world has lost sight of in our present reality. To respond ethically in these circumstances is to act, in the memory of a future, as if there were no borders. l

* La Trobe University. We delivered an earlier version of this paper to The Rights of Strangers, a conference held by the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Flinders University, 14-15 February 2003 and thank the organisers and participants for their comments. We are also indebted to the paper’s anonymous reviewer whose comments helped us to clarify a number of points. We acknowledge the support of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of La Trobe University. We conducted part of the research for the Department of Social Inquiry, Labour Studies, Women’s Studies at the University of Adelaide pursuant to an ARC grant. We also acknowledge the support of the following organisations: The Greek Orthodox Community of South Australia, the SEARCH Foundation, the Maritime Union of Australia, the Victorian Trades Hall Council, the Greek Atlas League, Platon Greek Workers League, the Greek Australian Women’s Movement, the Panhellenic Women’s Movement and the Greek Democritus Workers League.

1 In the remainder of our paper, ‘asylum seekers’ will be used to refer to those who have already arrived in Australia or within the jurisdictional control of the Australian Government.

2 We are particularly grateful to the anonymous reviewer of our paper for helping us to clarify this point.


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McMaster D (2001) Asylum Seekers: Australia’s Response to Refugees Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Nicolacopoulos T and Vassilacopoulos G (1999) Hegel and the Logical Structure of Love: An Essay on Sexualities, Family and the Law Ashgate, Aldershot.

Nicolacopoulos T and Vassilacopoulos G (2002a) ‘Doubly Outsiders: pre-war Greek-Australian migrants and their Socialist ideals’ 10(2) Hellenic Studies pp 141-158.

Nicolacopoulos T and Vassilacopoulos G (2002b) ‘Asylum Seekers and the Concept of the Foreigner’ 21(4) Social Alternatives pp 45-49.

Nicolacopoulos T and Vassilacopoulos G (in press a) ‘Racism, xenophobia and the onto-pathology of white Australian subjectivity’ in A Moreton-Robinson (ed) Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism Aboriginal Studies Press, Qld.

Nicolacopoulos T and Vassilacopoulos G (in press b) ‘Becoming Australian by choice: Greek-Australian activism in 1960s Melbourne’ in S O’Hanlin and T Luckins (eds) Go! Melbourne in the 60s Circa, Melbourne.

Nicolacopoulos T and Vassilacopoulos G (in press c) ‘The making of Greek-Australian citizenship: From heteronomous to autonomous political communities’ Journal of Modern Greek Studies.

Nicholas A W (2002) ‘Protecting Refugees: Alternatives to a Policy of Mandatory Detention’ 8(1) Australian Journal of Human Rights pp 1-9, < journals/AJHR/2002/6.html>.

Vassilacopoulos G and Nicolacopoulos T (12 February 1999) Interview with anonymous Greek-Australian activist.

Venn C (2002) ‘Altered states: Post-Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism and Transmodern Socialities’ 19 (1-2) Theory Culture and Society pp 65-80.

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