The asylum seeker discussion in Australia – most notably the discussion about people who attempt to travel to Australia via unauthorised means – has for the last decade been increasingly boganised. It’s been taken over by the Today Tonight/A Current Affair world of absolutes and sensationalism – of 30 second sound grabs and thinly veiled racial prejudices.
Like various politicians in the United States paying lip service to the Tea Baggers for cheap votes, Australian politicians have allowed themselves to be sucked into the boganisation of the discussion. Since news in Australia seems to be programmed by extreme ADHD sufferers on cocaine, there isn’t time in any news segment for an articulate discussion – any individual news item is usually over within a few minutes at most. The only time the news concentrates on any topic for more than a few minutes is when a princess or a pop star dies.
Indeed, one might cynically suggest that the only way any serious media attention will ever be paid to the asylum seeker discussion in Australia would be to ensure the next boat load of unauthorised asylum seekers is composed entirely of clones of Princess Di and Michael Jackson.
It’s almost as if at some point Australia forgot about what it means to be human, and to be a human in need.
Between the lack of media focus and the bogan attitude given to the subject in the media, asylum seekers who attempt to enter the country via unauthorised means are reduced to:
- Queue jumpers and
- Illegal immigrants and
- Cheating against those who follow the rules and
- Likely dole bludgers and
- Possibly terrorists.
It’s actually a pretty sick set of generalisations. Since the regular media has the attention span of a 3 year old in a toy store, being seen as “tough on illegal immigrants” has become Good Political Nous – someone stamping their hand on a lectern saying “We decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come” (John Howard) gets a lot more media play than a politican actually speaking for 5-10 minutes of the complex considerations that come into play in this issue. In other words, a politician who fits the “media whore” stereotype doesn’t want to discuss the issue in detail because the regular media will always turn to another politician happy to speak in short sentences.
So let’s avoid 30 second sound grabs, and consider the “illegal boat people” discussion for a moment.
The way the issue is portrayed in the media is that in the nebulous “out there” (where “out there” is anywhere outside of Australia’s borders) there are a variety of people waiting very patiently in perfectly serene circumstances for their case for asylum in Australia to be heard. They are under no pressure, they are in no danger, and therefore should be content to wait patiently for as long as it takes to be heard – and equally, should their asylum claims be denied, they can just keep going about their normal lives as if nothing untoward happened.
In other words, the way the issue is discussed mostly in Australia completely confuses “asylum seekers” with “immigrants”, and is complete bollocks. Let’s look at the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “asylum”:
refuge b :protection from arrest and extradition given especially to political refugees by a nation or by an embassy or other agency enjoying diplomatic immunity
So someone who is an “asylum seeker” is someone who wishes protection from their country of origin. The notion of “political refugees” doesn’t just cavalierly refer to someone who say, would prefer to vote Tory instead of Labor, Democrat instead of Republican, or Labor instead of Liberal. It refers to someone who seeks refugee status from laws that would violate their human rights – such as being executed for being homosexual, or being beaten to death for voting against the regime, or being imprisoned for 30 years for speaking out against the regime.
Thus, “asylum seekers” aren’t “immigrants” – not by any stretch of the imagination. An immigrant is someone who wants to marry a citizen of another country and move to live with them, or wants to transition from working for a few years in a country to living there permanently, or wants to move to live with family who previously changed countries, etc. An asylum seeker on the other hand is someone who may very well be killed, mistreated, abused or imprisoned should they remain in their own country. And not just them, but their family – their children, their parents, etc., too.
Australian politicians like to speak of “illegal immigration”, thus diluting the asylum seeker reality of the situation. They like to speak of “illegal boat people” and derisively dismiss the dangers suffered by people who pay sometimes tens of thousands of US dollars to people smugglers so as to “jump the queue” and “cheat” their way into the country.
In a bizarre case of tall poppy syndrome, it sometimes seems that the real crime, in the eyes of the bogan media posse, is that people who have enough money to pay a people smuggler should have no need to flee their country. Ergo, they must be lying. Ergo, they must be undesirables.
The argument is never turned around though. Instead of the media doing voxpops asking people inane questions like “Do you think illegal immigrants represent a threat to our security?”, maybe they should be asking questions that teach the heart of the ethical dilemma, such any of the following:
- If you and your children were at constant risk of being killed by your government, would you do anything you could to save your children?
- If you were going to be executed for having been accused of having an affair, would you appeal to the UN and hope you’re heard in time, or would you take a chance to flee your country?
- If you were going to be imprisoned because your father spoke out against the government, and your children left to fend for themselves, would you accept your just punishment or do whatever it took to save yourself and your children?
Of course, these questions take a few seconds longer than the normally posed voxpop questions, so the media is unlikely to ask them. That’s a pity, of course – asking the real questions might encourage people who think the asylum seeker discussion is just a binary decision to think again.
It’s time that mainstream Australian politicians stopped being sensationalist media whores and started to encourage a humane discussion regarding asylum seekers. I don’t pretend to know all the answers – I want to know the answers, but I’m not going to know them until there’s an articulate discussion. That means an end to 30 second sound grabs on the issue that appeal to people who are too comfortable in their xenophobia for their own good. Every time a cheap vote is earned by appealing to the baser nature of ourselves, we lose a little of our real humanity.
About half an hour last night after I posted the above entry, I changed channels on my Pay TV and saw the following Red Cross ad regarding discrimination and labels. The message of the ad fits perfectly with why the discussion on asylum seekers needs to be had at a deeper level than 30 second populist sound grabs: