‘Asylum seekers’ – the two words that seem to have become their own cliche in modern Australian news and media. An issue that, according to a study by refugee advocate Professor Andrew Markus, is viewed by the general population as the second most significant issue in Australia behind economics (2007). An issue that has divided society to the point where 45% of Australians admit that they would be uncomfortable interacting with a refugee, 51% of Australians believe in negative stereotypes of asylum seekers relative to those they perceived as ‘native white Australians’ and 36% think that asylum seekers pose a threat to Australia’s resources and society (Nickerson, 2004).
So who is to blame for this? The government? With campaign slogans such as Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party’s “Stop the boats” and Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party’s promotion of the method of offshore processing that could seem very justified. What about the media? Well without the media campaigns such as Tony Abbott’s and Kevin Rudd’s never would have reached the living rooms of Australian homes as effectively as they did, and without the media I would not be turning on the tv of a night to be regularly greeted by the sight of scared, dirty and impoverished “boat people” seen to be attempting to ‘jump the queue’ and ‘cheat the system’ by getting on boats and illegally arriving in Australia, a representation that I believe has in fact facilitated the view held by 71% of Australians that we are not guilty of mistreating people who apparently are already trying to cheat us (Nickerson, 2004).
However, is the media entirely to blame for this, or is there also a cultural aspect to this issue? If we look back at Australia’s history and the dehumanisation of Aboriginal people that has occurred since the arrival of the First Fleet, the persecution of Chinese gold miners during the 1850s, the abuse of South Sea Islander ‘kanakas’ who worked in the banana plantations of Northern Queensland throughout the late 19th century, the White Australia Policy that was active throughout the early-mid 20th century, former Australian Prime Minister John Curtin’s statement during the Second World War, “this country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race” (Department of Immigration and Border Protection, 2012) and the current explosion of the ‘We can make it tougher’ competition between the Liberal and Labor parties in relation to federal policy concerning the treatment of asylum seekers, we can come to the conclusion that the despite the wrongdoing of much of the Australian media in its overtly conservative and racist portrayal of asylum seekers, the real issue of racial discrimination and intolerance, xenophobia and ethnocentrism is embedded in Australia’s very culture.
However, despite the fact that the issue itself may not be entirely a result of the media, I do believe that the media and government’s blatant dehumanisation and demonisation of asylum seekers and their facilitation of a national attitude that Human Rights Watch has dubbed “extremely harsh and egregious” (Millar, 2014) towards these people does justify the blame that they do receive from many Australian and international citizens and organisations.
1. Markus, A (2007), Asylum seekers and social cohesion, SBS World News, Melbourne
2. Nickerson, A (2004), Australians’ Attitudes to Asylum Seekers, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane
3. Department of Immigration and Border Protection (2012), Fact Sheet 8: Abolition of ‘White Australia’ Policy, Canberra
4. Millar, L (2014), Human Rights Watch annual report says Australia’s record damaged by treatment of asylum seekers, Australian Broadcasting Company, Ultimo
5. Jones, G, McPhedran, I (2012), Malaysia set to trade asylum seekers in detention centre deal with Australia, Herald Sun, Southbank