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We think in black and white

In Australia there is a strong and vitriolic reaction by the media, politicians and public to asylum seekers arriving by boat. These asylum seekers are often described as ‘economic migrants’ and not believed to be ‘genuine refugees’ because they have not come through the official channels. This is despite the fact that official channels for seeking asylum are often inaccessible to people caught in conflict or in fear of persecution, or even non-existent in many of these places.

The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention recognises a person’s right to asylum only in specific circumstances related to political and social persecution, but does not cover economic persecution or oppression. Its definition of a refugee suggests a distinction between political and economic motivations for migration. This distinction made between ‘political refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ is often cited to demonise asylum seekers and to dismiss their claims for asylum. This is particularly so in the case of asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Australia, risking their lives in sea journeys from Malaysia and Indonesia. The public and political hysteria over asylum seekers arriving by boat is astounding for the following reasons:

  • There has been a consistent political and media focus on boat arrivals for the past 10-15 years, despite the fact that by international comparisons Australia receives very few asylum seekers.
  • Politicising the issue has resulted in routine disregard for international laws and conventions around the right to seek asylum and the obligations and responsibilities of the government.
  • Successive governments of different sides of politics have made numerous policy decisions and changes to laws to deny protection and human rights, detain asylum seekers, deter asylum seekers from coming to Australia and to ‘stop the boats’.
  • The refusal to believe that asylum seekers arriving by boat are fleeing persecution, despite the fact that the vast majority of such asylum seekers are found to be refugees and granted protection visas.
  • The use of pejorative terms to denigrate and dismiss asylum seekers, such as ‘illegals’.

It is all part of the game where both sides of politics in Australia attempt to be the ‘toughest on border security’ or better at ‘stopping the boats’. Compassion for asylum seekers is rarely evident. It makes a fleeting appearance when people die on the perilous sea journey. However, these tragedies are gruesomely used to feed political rhetoric and twisted to make ‘stopping the boats’ a humanitarian response to a so-called ‘crisis’ of boat arrivals. Other policy alternatives are not explored. Apparently being tough is how to win votes in this vicious cycle of ignorance, hysteria and misinformation, encouraging greater ignorance, hysteria and misinformation.

This ridiculous state of affairs reached its nadir in July this year when the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced that asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat would never be resettled in Australia, even if found to be refugees. Those found to be refugees would instead be resettled in Papua New Guinea. This policy was the result of a perfect storm of a looming federal election, fear-mongering by opportunistic politicians, a media illiterate in intelligent and meaningful policy debate, and a largely misinformed public discourse about asylum seekers. The new government’s policy is just as regressive and punitive.

The fear-mongering has always taken the form of border insecurity. Being a large island nation without the population or resources to monitor its vast coastline, there seems to be a fear embedded in the national psyche about the potential for foreigners entering the country from the sea undetected. This fear of unknown and unauthorised border crossings is further exploited by the suggestion that among those who come this way are terrorists. This was taken to extremes with the Tampa incident in 2001 which occurred after the events of 11 September and when another federal election was on the horizon.

Asylum seekers arriving by boat have been demonised by politicians and media, often labelled ‘illegals’, ‘queue-jumpers’ and ‘economic migrants’. These are all terms used to strip asylum seekers of their humanity, dignity, and human rights. The terms are used to sway a misinformed public that asylum seekers are not ‘genuine refugees’, completely ignoring their legitimate rights to seek asylum. In June, the then Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, said he believed that current boat arrivals were mainly economic migrants and the processing of asylum seekers should be tougher, attacking the decisions of independent tribunals.

The pejorative use the term ‘economic migrant’ to dismiss the legitimacy of claims to asylum is so firmly embedded within public ‘debate’ on asylum seekers that it is never called into question by the mainstream media. It is simply accepted as the binary opposite of ‘genuine refugee’. In fact, even refugee advocates have felt the need to use these terms to make their case in support of asylum seekers. In a rally I participated in protesting the government policy, some speakers supported asylum seekers by stating that they are not ‘economic migrants’, but ‘genuine refugees’.

This simplistic and artificial distinction between the political and the economic is misleading and supports the fallacy that the two spheres are mutually exclusive. The complex and very real connections between the political and economic are not even understood in the public discourse. Where there is persecution and oppression in one sphere, there is likely to be persecution and oppression in the other sphere. Political instability and economic instability feed off each other. You cannot achieve political and social justice if there is no economic justice. They go hand in hand.

The challenge is to insert nuance and critical thought and discussion into the public debate, which has turned a very complex issue into a simple political game of chess, indifferent to the damage caused to so many lives.


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