Asylum seekers and the propaganda machine

Ah, the old “illegal boats” trick. It’s a phrase that never seems to get old, no matter how factually inaccurate it may be. Politicians on both sides are guilty of using it, or similar phrases, that suggest that people coming to Australia to seek asylum are doing something illegal.

Let’s start with a very basic fact. Since Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, if a person comes to Australia and lodges a claim for asylum, then their actions in coming here are not illegal. That’s regardless of whether they enter with or without valid travel documents, or whether they come by plane or boat. They have a right to come here and seek our protection from persecution. (All the facts available here:

Ok, so that’s settled. So why is it that someone with the amount of (presumably) intelligent policy advisers and media people that Tony Abbott has, can still have his photo taken and blasted around social media in front of this billboard:


It’s a sad reflection on our political environment that politicians like Abbott continue to knowingly, blatantly mislead the public as to such a critical fact – as to whether the actions of a group of people are legal. It’s not just Abbott – both sides of politics have pressed ahead with this kind of language in an attempt to create an environment of fear, anger and resentment towards those who justly come to Australia seeking our protection.

The article ‘Illegals’ and the erosion of empathy gives a telling account of how and why this type of behaviour happens:

“It’s an irresistible temptation for politicians to simplify and distort by constantly being on-message”, said [former political speechwriter] Mr Watson, and its prevalence is a symptom of the pressure on politicians to fill an expanded news cycle.

“[Politicians] fill it with can’t and clichés and often with prejudice, with tendentious phrases that are designed to fill the public’s mind and not leave room for anything else.”

“’Illegal entries’, ‘stop the boats’, ‘jumping the queue’. They are all prejudiced clichés but they remain prominent in the discourse on asylum seekers.

“If the first thing that enters your head is a cliché or some prejudice or some line that has been drummed into you, you can guarantee there’s no room for anything else until you get that cliché out. So if you’re constantly being told that these people are ‘illegals’, then that will do for your thinking about refugees.”

It also helps keep any kind of empathy at bay, so people don’t have to imagine it were their family in the situation of an asylum seeker.

“You don’t want that. You actually want these people to think ‘illegals.’ And then you don’t have to think anything more.”

I recently watched the Four Corners episode on offshore processing and the line I most remember is the Australian doctor, Dr John Vallentine, who said that “For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed to be an Australian”.

Listening to Australian politicians constantly declare that asylum seekers are illegal makes me ashamed of this country. Sending children to far-away detention centres on remote islands makes me ashamed of this country. Holding asylum seekers in limbo for an indefinite period of time – possibly up to five years – makes me incredibly ashamed of our ‘free’ country.

I understand that the rhetoric around asylum seekers makes it hard to understand the true nature of the issue. At least that’s how I excuse the otherwise maddening lack of compassion I see in otherwise ‘nice’ people around me.

But imagine being locked up for 65 days in a cell 1m wide, for no apparent reason. Or having many of your friends and family killed by the radical militant group that controls your country and hates your ethnic group. Imagine feeling that you would rather lose your life attempting the journey from your home country – where you’ve grown up, lived and loved – in a rickety boat at the hands of a people smuggler, than stay any longer in a hopeless and dangerous situation (which is exactly how a friend told me he felt).

These are the realities that many asylum seekers face, and this is why they have come to our country, taking us up on our international obligation to provide them safety, if it is warranted (if it is found that they do have a genuine well-founded fear of persecution). Why is it so hard for many of us to try – just for a moment – to imagine ourselves in such situations, and to express some level of compassion at the plight of these people? That’s right – asylum seekers are just people like you and I, but in most cases the situations they have come from are a world away from anything we will ever experience.

If you’ve found yourself starting to believe the rhetoric – if you catch yourself thinking that asylum seekers are illegal, or criminals, or taking advantage of our country – then do yourself a favour. Get involved with an organisation that works with refugees and asylum seekers. Meet the real human beings that are tossed around in the politically-charged headlines. You may just be surprised at what you learn, and how it makes you feel.


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