Australia’s denial of asylum seekers’ humanity

By Elizabeth Greenhalgh
© Steven Rubin / www.americanbar.org

By Elizabeth Greenhalgh. This article is part of our December 2012 and January 2013 focus on Asylum Seekers.

The last decade has seen an unprecedented shift in policies and responses addressing the arrival of asylum seekers in Australia. Despite being a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, punitive government responses aiming to “stop the boats” and give “no advantage” to people arriving by boat are given widespread support in the Australian community. Indefinite mandatory detention in remote, third countries is costly to Australia’s budget and to the mental health of asylum seekers, yet has become the norm amongst more extreme suggestions of towing the boats back out to sea, and bumper stickers exclaiming, “F*ck off, we’re full”. Further, with detention centres reaching capacity, more asylum seekers are being placed in the community under indefinite bridging visas. Consistent with the “no advantage” principle, asylum seekers holding these visas cannot work and must live in fear of being sent offshore or home at any moment for up to five years, even if ultimately found to be a refugee. These responses have been widely condemned by humanitarian organisations, yet policies hinging on deterrence and punishment remain favoured by both major parties.

They are perceived as less human, and therefore less deserving of humane treatment.

How is it possible that the Australian community, who may otherwise pride themselves on a sense of compassion and a “fair go” for all, is able to switch off from, or actively endorse, such inhumane treatment of an already extremely vulnerable group? The underlying determinants of these negative attitudes toward asylum seekers are of course complex, with false beliefs (i.e. misconceptions that asylum seekers are “illegals” or “queue jumpers”), and elements of racism, nationalism, social norms, and emotional dynamics, being involved. Additionally, asylum seekers may be perceived as less human than Australians – a process known as infrahumanisation. Within this process, the ingroup (us) attributes more uniquely human attributes and prosocial values (such as morality, civility, benevolence) to themselves than to the outgroup (them). They are perceived as less human, and therefore less deserving of humane treatment.

Once perceived humanity is lessened, the moral limits that usually apply in the treatment of others may be, essentially, disengaged.

It is not difficult to see the infrahumanisation of asylum seekers in practice when looking at the dominant narratives surrounding this issue. Common perceptions of an asylum seeker include someone violating Australian rules and social norms, a person who is at best opportunistic and immoral, and at worst a criminal or a terrorist. It is clear from these attitudes that large segments of the Australian community may view asylum seekers as not possessing the prosocial values and moral sensibilities that are necessary in perceiving humanness.

Developing ways in which their moral sensibilities and similarity to Australians, and in turn their humanity, can be highlighted, may be an important step in promoting harmony and acceptance.

So, why is this important? The outcomes of infrahumanisation can be dire. Once perceived humanity is lessened, the moral limits that usually apply in the treatment of others may be, essentially, disengaged. Infrahumanisation can lead to a lack of helping behaviour or forgiveness between groups, discrimination, or outright rejection. Asylum seekers may face all of these responses upon arrival in Australia, so developing ways in which their moral sensibilities and similarity to Australians, and in turn their humanity, can be highlighted, may be an important step in promoting harmony and acceptance.

Of course, breaking down current perceptions and creating new ones is easier said than done. The extremely negative discourse and misinformation that is perpetuated by the mainstream media and government continues to promote public perceptions of an asylum seeker as undeserving of our support and compassion, and also a serious threat to Australia. This discourse needs to radically change to one that, at the very least, ceases perpetuating myths of illegality and queues, but also reveals the difficult realities of seeking asylum, and that asylum seekers’ values and morals aren’t so different from everyday Australians’. Until then, damaging ideas about asylum seekers will continue to prevail, leaving them particularly vulnerable to denial of their humanity.

Elizabeth Greenhalgh is a PhD Candidate in Psychology. Her research focuses on Australia’s response to asylum seekers, particularly the role of values and morals in infrahumanisation. 

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