It’s simple – blame all the problems on those who can’t vote. In this vein, immigrants act as easy scapegoats in popular politics the world over, but Australia has become notorious internationally for its fierce focus on asylum seekers, or “boat people”.
September 11, the global financial crisis, and the intensified economic competition and cultural awareness brought on by globalisation have led to a global climate of hyper-nationalism and xenophobia. Immigrants are characterised as a threat to employment, national security and culture. In Australia, asylum seekers are presented as cheats who have ‘jumped the queue’ to join our land, who will become a burden to our society.
This narrative is misleading and unproductive, but it has also driven vicious policies toward asylum seekers that disregard Australia’s human rights obligations and present Australia internationally as bigoted and insular.
Political parties across the West have scapegoated immigrants of all kinds in order to garner votes.
The recent European elections resulted in an upsurge in far-right, primarily anti-immigrant, political parties who promised to curb immigration. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and its leader, Nigel Farage, have gained significant popularity in the UK with the key policy to “take back control of the borders”.
The messaging around immigration relies heavily on fear mongering. The rhetoric is that unemployment and inequality in Britain are the result of European Union immigration. A UKIP campaign poster shows a pointing finger with the comment that “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?”
In other European countries, the anti-immigrant sentiment is directed at Middle Eastern and African immigrants, focusing the narrative on terrorism and threats to cultural identity. In France, Marie Le Pen’s National Front campaigns on an openly anti-Muslim immigration platform, propagating the idea that Muslim immigrants threaten the very nature of French society.
However, while anti-immigration political parties in the UK and France are growing, they remain on the fringe of mainstream politics. In Australia, the promise to stop the boats is at the very centre of both major parties’ policies.
Australia is also set apart by its focus on a small and already marginalized group, to whom it applies distinguishably cruel and inhumane policies.
Current asylum policies flout Australia’s human rights obligations under international agreements, including the 1951 Refugee Convention. Asylum seekers (including children) are subject to indefinite detention, harsh and inhumane conditions, and are returned to their country of origin despite a well-founded fear of persecution.
Although Australia has often been protectionist in its immigration policies - the ‘White Australia’ policy was only abandoned in 1973 - it was the 2001 Tampa affair that triggered the politicisation of refugees in Australian politics.
Prior to Tampa, asylum seekers were largely a bi-partisan issue. After Tampa, Kim Beazley and the Labor Party supported most of the government’s proposed measures, but they rejected a bill to allow Australian officials to take any measures against asylum seekers. John Howard and the Liberals used this to claim that Labor was soft on ‘boat people’. Tampa was the first time ‘boat people’ decided an election.
Throughout the 2000s, political campaigns from both sides focused on appearing strong on stopping the boats. The actual efficacy of asylum policies became secondary to the political narrative.
The ‘boat people’ narrative is effective because it attacks the voiceless. Asylum seekers have a limited public voice. There is little overlap between the interests of asylum seekers and the general Australian public, creating less empathy. Additionally, they are physically detained and isolated, and often lack the linguistic, cultural and monetary resources to raise awareness of their situation. Their marginalisation prevents them from effectively countering the allegations levelled against them.
The starting point for rectifying asylum policy in Australia must be to reject the categorisation of asylum seekers as representative of all immigrants. Asylum seekers make up approximately 2 per cent of Australian migrants, and 90 per cent of ‘boat people’ are found to be genuine refugees under international law. Asylum seekers have very little, if any, impact on Australia’s domestic issues and therefore their representation in the political discourse on immigration is disproportionate.
The extreme measures the current Abbot government has adopted to stop the boats have driven a more vocal lobby opposing Australia’s asylum seeker policies. However, these measures have not turned popular sentiment. A June 2014 poll conducted by the Lowy Institute found that 71 per cent of Australians still believe the government should continue to turn back the boats.
In the meantime, Australia’s international human rights reputation is reaching historic lows. The recent violence on Manus Island prompted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to warn the Australian government that it was neglecting its obligations under international law.
When Australia appears in the international media as a country that hands back asylum seekers to their persecutors, and enacts policies that deliberately set out to "make asylum seekers suffer", Australia’s soft power (particular as a member of the United Nations Security Council) is eroded.
It is vital for Australia’s international human rights reputation, and more importantly, for the protection of asylum seekers reaching Australia’s shores, to shift the narrative on the issue of immigration. The Australian media and public need to seek a more nuanced discussion around asylum seekers. More importantly, Australian politicians need to show the leadership required to elevate the conversation around immigration and create a new parable on asylum.
Lucy Bradlow is an Associate with Portland Communications, a strategic communications agency based in London. She was previously a lawyer in Australia.