The changing language of asylum-seeker policy

2010 Coalition election campaign poster (AAP)

What might changes in the language used about asylum-seekers mean?

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Under the previous Labor government, asylum-seeker policy was the responsibility of a Minister for Immigration and Citizenship.

Now, in the new Coalition government, it's being handled by a Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

And there's a senior military officer in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders, designed to stop what the Coalition calls "illegal boat arrivals".

Subtle changes in language?

Or something more significant?

In opposition, Scott Morrison was keen to portray a Labor government that had lost control of Australia's borders, and unable to stop what he called the illegal entry of asylum-seeker boats.

His first media briefing as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection was held alongside the head of Operation Sovereign Borders, General Angus Campbell.

"Operation Sovereign Borders is the government's response to stopping the flow of illegal boat arrivals to Australia that commenced and occurred under the previous government, where more than 50,000 people arrived illegally by boat in Australia on more than 800 such vessels, costing Australian taxpayers more than nine billion dollars and sadly led to more than 1100 deaths at sea."

Mr Morrison outlined plans to strengthen cooperation between Customs and the Australian military to detect and intercept boats carrying asylum-seekers.

Continuing the expression he used in opposition, he promised the new government would adopt a tougher approach to "Illegal boat arrivals".

"And the policy of providing permanent protection visas to people who have arrived illegally by boat under the last government - that policy has ceased. We have commenced planning and implementation of the regional deterrence framework and other related measures, including maritime arrangements."

Jack Smit, from the refugee advocacy group, Project SafeCom, conducted a Masters research project on the language used by Australian politicians in the debate on asylum-seekers since the 1970s.

Mr Smit says the language has changed as politicians have to sought to portray themselves as worthy of voter support for dealing with a threat to Australia posed by asylum-seekers.

He says it was the former Coalition government of Prime Minister John Howard that began the use of the term "border protection".

"He started calling them 'illegal' in more vigorous ways than any politician before him. Secondly he started talking about the border and that we needed to protect the border and it is a way of saying that they're invaders of Australia."

However, Jack Smit believes it was an earlier Coalition Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who began the negative depiction of asylum-seekers in 1977, when he described some Vietnamese asylum-seekers arriving by boat as "queue-jumpers".

Mr Smit says it was also under the Fraser Government that some asylum-seekers were labelled as "economic migrants" which in turn raised questions over whether they were in genuine need of asylum.

"By 1978, two years after the fall of Saigon, the population on board boats that left Vietnam changed. They were a lot more well-dressed and also had a lot more money on them and they were well educated. So as soon as they threatened to arrive directly in Australia, Fraser's Immigration Minister Ian Macphee started calling them 'economic migrants'. They were described as 'bogus refugees'. That came from the Immigration Minister under the Fraser Government where these terms came, like 'bogus refugees', 'economic migrants', and 'fake refugees' and they used in the parliament and in the media, terms like 'they were too well dressed!', 'they were not malnourished', and 'they had a lot of money on them!', so they couldn't be refugees."

Mr Smit says the term "economic refugees" was used recently by former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr when describing Iranian asylum-seekers in response to a question from the Australian Greens in the Senate.

"The evidence is people-smuggling, economic refugees and a spike in numbers coming overwhelmingly from people who are majority ethnic or religious groups in the community they come from. The Green Party won't consider that. When people arrive in Australia without authorisation, any claims they make for their reasons to travel to this country are assessed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. If these claims are not covered by Australia's international obligations, they will be returned to their homeland wherever possible."

Associate Professor Jane Haggis from Flinders University in Adelaide believes the use of terms like "queue jumpers" and "economic refugees" have led many Australians to take a less sympathetic view towards asylum-seekers.

And Dr Haggis suggests that the Abbott government is playing upon public fear about boat arrivals, by trying to portray it as a national emergency which requires military intervention.

"They seem to be ramping it up to almost a war-like context, both with the naming of Operation Sovereign Borders and the terminology of border protection which, of course, they haven't instigated. It's been a long-running way of describing asylum-seekers who come by boat and the response to it, but I think ramping it up to a war-like status also comes from the information control that they now seem to be intent on establishing."

Dr Haggis sees similarities to the events in 2001 under the Howard government which became known as the Tampa incident.

At that time, the Australian military was ordered to board a Norwegian ship which had rescued over 400 asylum-seekers bound for Australia, to stop it from landing at Christmas Island.

Dr Haggis believes the Abbott Government's more regular use of the military in asylum-seeker operations suggests it could go further than the Howard government did.

"I think there are similarities obviously with the willingness to place the defence forces in that kind of situation which clearly sends a message that this is about national security rather than a humanitarian policy, but I think it goes further than Tampa in the sense of institutionalising the militarisation of the problem through Operation Sovereign Borders under the control of the military."

Professor Linda Briskman, from Swinburne University in Melbourne, has similar views.

She also believes the Abbott government's use of the term "Operation Sovereign Borders" is an attempt to make Australians think that asylum boat arrivals are a threat to national security.

"Aside from a patriotism angle to that which I think is important, I think it also signals that we're in some sort of danger and that our sovereign borders are everything and they're totally meaningful and that we need a military operation to stop people invading our land."


Source SBS Radio

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