Closed Borders Spur Closed Minds

By Melissa Reid

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

Asylum seekers. Refugees. Boat people. Illegal refugees. Queue jumpers. The Other. There seem to be all these different people flocking to Australia to steal “our” riches, corrupt “our” culture, take “our” jobs and plunder “our” taxes. Why do they come if they don’t want to adopt the “Australian way of life” and “assimilate” – after all, Australia is the lucky country, right?

These are “solutions” to a complex problem that cannot easily be addressed so long as the reasons why people seek asylum in the first place are not given adequate attention or airtime

The asylum seeker and refugee debate is loaded with political rhetoric and framed through a hazy moral lens. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has spoken out against Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. The Australian debate is not framed within a human rights context; anti-human rights language is spoken by politicians and the media, creating an environment where it is acceptable to disrespect asylum seekers. Society adopts this language and these attitudes, enabling ignorance to create a societal acceptance of our inhumanity and human rights infringements. This can be seen in the incorrect information, inaccurate use of terminology and disrespectful language used to discuss some of the most fearful yet legitimate and internationally recognised persons, whom Australia has a responsibility to protect.  

Australia: the land of boat people

Modern Australia is founded upon a tradition of boat people. However, rather than a place of asylum, Australia was sought as a territory to house convicted criminals. Many of these early boat people did not want to come to Australia, yet they were cast away to a foreign land and became active pawns and instigators in British colonial expansion. 80 years after the arrival of the First Fleet (1788), 165,000 convicts were relocated to Australia; a land with a population between 350,000 – 1,000,000 Indigenous peoples and consisting of over 500 clan groups. In a short period of time, disease, murder, rape and warfare became commonplace due to the Australian settlement of British convicts and free settlers. This was undoubtedly Australia’s first, and most significant, boat people crisis. Fast-forward 224 years and the situation surrounding people who arrive in Australia by boat is vastly different.

Australia’s modern history

Australia’s modern history is fraught with fear of the Other, arguably due to awareness of how modern Australia came to be and how the original boat people decimated cultures and assumed the rule of the land. The Immigration Act (1901)(which enabled the White Australia Policy) was one of the first policies passed by the federated nation. The White Australia Policy, coupled with Australia’s staunch protectionism, worked to isolate Australia from cultural or trade related engagement with other cultures and nations. These founding policies have informed the Australian psyche for over a century;  whilst Australia has progressively opened its borders to trade opportunities and embraced a multi-cultural society, the memory of these policies linger and are part of our national character. This is illustrated in the overt and acute racism that increasingly plagues the media, as well as by the negative and ill-informed language used to speak about the international humanitarian issue of asylum seekers.

A country should be judged on how it treats those who are most vulnerable

As a young island country, Australia does not have a history of tumultuous democratic revolution, of conflict with neighbouring states or of cultural exposure and regional conflict. Australia is geographically removed from the historical experience of people fleeing across borders to escape oppressive regimes. This works to the detriment of cultural attitudes regarding the internationally shared responsibility to protect people whom, for their right to life, require asylum; it is not on the Australian doorstep – indeed nothing is on the Australian doorstep because everything is overseas – and thus Australia is removed from the situation.

The power of language

The national conversation about asylum seekers suggests people are invading Australia as opposed to attempting to seek safety and security from the very real fear of persecution. The history of these people is largely kept out of the media and thus the conversation. Through the limited information provided to the Australian public, the conversational scope is constrained to talking about a collective of faceless people perceived to be doing something illegal. However, these people are individuals, with internationally recognised human rights, and possess an inherent worth and inherent dignity equal to all other persons. The public debate is simplistic and focuses heavily on deterrence –  “stopping the boats” – as opposed to prevention through proactive relationship building, increased foreign aid and conflict resolution efforts. The Pacific Solution, the Malaysia Solution – these are “solutions” to a complex problem that cannot easily be addressed so long as the reasons why people seek asylum in the first place are not given adequate attention or airtime.

The conversation needs to be honest and respectful

Language represents internal thoughts and personal and cultural attitudes. Language provides insight into people’s perspectives. The language often employed to discuss asylum seekers is negatively based and often in pursuit of Australian protectionism; for example words akin to invading, terrorists, queue jumpers and illegal refugees. Asylum seekers are portrayed as faceless people, rather than real people, with real stories, real families and real experiences of fear, pain and persecution.

An international participant

As a nation state, Australia is entitled to pursue its national interest and has a responsibility to ensure the interests, safety and security of its citizens. But as a member of the international community, Australia also has a responsibility to act in good faith and in a manner that honours, respects and causes no intentional harm to their international peers or their citizens.  Australia, which covers 7,686,850 square kilometers and has a national population of 22,825,859, hosted 22,548 refugees in 2009 (0.098 per cent of the Australian population). In contrast, Pakistan, a country which covers 803,940 square kilometers and has a population of 190,291,129 (2011) with an annual income of $1,256.8 (2011-12), had a refugee population of 1,740,711 in 2009 (0.94 per cent of their population). This is despite the fact that, according to the United Nations Human Development Report, 50 per cent of Pakistanis live in poverty. Yes, Pakistan is geographically positioned amongst countries from which many people flee, but so is Australia. Comparatively speaking Australia is hard to get to. But transit countries like Pakistan provide refugees with little rights & protection, which propels many to seek asylum in Australia. Considering Australia has greater landmass, a smaller population, and is a more developed country and has greater economic means, logic questions why Australia’s refugee population is significantly less than a developing country when Australia espouses to uphold international humanitarian and human rights laws.

Tampa, the children overboard and the framing of the conversation

“The majority of asylum seekers who have reached Australia by boat have been found to be genuine refugees. Between 70 and 90 per cent have typically been found to be refugees, compared to around 40 to 45 per cent of asylum seekers who arrive with some form of temporary visa.”
The Refugee Council of Australia

In 2001, the Australian media was frenzied with then Prime Minister John Howard’s “Tampa” and “children overboard” crises. Since this time, asylum seekers have become highly politicised. The debate ebbs and flows depending on many factors, including how recent the last boat arrival was, or how many unnecessary deaths were caused by innocent people travelling on a rickety boat in dangerous waters. Indeed, the dangerous waters that surround Australia are the strongest form of border protection. There is a strong focus on stopping the boats as people smugglers charge large sums of money for a poor quality service and take advantage of desperation. However, the people smuggling industry exists due to basic economic rationale – demand for these services fuels the supply.

Used as a political handball and exploited by the media, asylum seekers have continually been the focal point for Australia to strengthen nationalism by overt “Othering”. Othering fuels fear mongering and enables politicians to feed misinformation to Australians. Both the government and the media have a responsibility to ensure the public is adequately informed to form cognizant opinions and have constructive conversations which helps lead to the development of humanitarian policies in response to this international crisis.

Real people with real experiences

People who come to Australia via boat seeking asylum undergo more extensive screening than people who arrive by other means. Local and public debate has referenced the fear of terrorists and security risks gaining a backdoor entrance to Australia under the guise of a person seeking refuge in Australia arriving by boat. The Refugee Council of Australia notes that Australia’s rigorous processes for persons arriving in Australia via boat are more likely to identify and screen out any potential terrorists and people who pose a security risk compared to the screening processes for people seeking asylum who arrive in Australia on a visa. Asylum seekers fleeing persecution often travel long distances across dangerous territory despite perhaps having knowledge of Australia’s poor human rights record regarding asylum seekers, but come anyway, because, too often, there is no real alternative.

Those who arrive by boat are overwhelmingly genuine refugees and are as legitimate as refugees in camps awaiting resettlement. Refugees spend an average of 17 years in camps waiting for resettlement, and these camps are often dangerous places due to peoples’ desperation. Access to food and water is temperamental, which goes against people’s basic right to food and water and impacts upon peoples’ dignity and freedom, as well as the inability of camps to ensure residents safety and security.

People who seek asylum have had experiences that not many people would volunteer for. Deciding to flee and leave behind family, friends, a sense of belonging, home, work and study to embark on a dangerous journey to a faraway land would be unimaginably difficult. It is unfortunate that by maintaining largely closed borders, ill-informed debate and a narrow national mindset, Australia is distancing itself from its responsibility to respect, protect and promote the internationally recognized rights held by all persons seeking asylum. Key human rights principles include freedom, respect, equality and dignity. Mandatory detention, negative language and misdirected debate enable an infringement of people’s human rights. A range of human rights are brought in to play with the treatment and debate surrounding asylum seekers, including but not limited to:

  • Freedom of movement.
  • Freedom of expression and freedom of speech.
  • Freedom from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.
  • The right to self-determination.
  • Equality before the law.
  • Freedom from discrimination.
  • Humane and respectful treatment when deprived of liberty.
  • The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
  • The right to an adequate standard of living.


“Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.”
Donald Horne, The Lucky Country (Penguin Books, 1964)

One of Australia’s finest characteristics is its multiculturalism. Located far from other countries, Australia has developed a unique personality based upon our rich migrant history and contemporary migration, which is due in part to Australia’s refugee intake over previous years. Australia’s diversity as a nation makes it more beautiful, stronger and simply better as the country grows and evolves culturally, politically, economically and socially. Many people who live in Australia are lucky to do so; however, Australia should also be lucky for those who deserve not only luck, but respect for their human rights and international compassion.

Australia’s belief in giving people a “fair-go” is testament to Australia’s personality. A country should be judged on how it treats those who are most vulnerable. When this is tested, it would seem that a “fair-go for all” only applies to those lucky enough to be already settled. Indeed, the arrogance that fuels the “f–k off we’re full” slogan is a testament to the ignorance that results from our geographical isolation and the political and public debate that fuels these rights-infringing attitudes. The conversation needs to be honest and respectful. The media and the politicians need to expand the scope of the conversation and allow for informed debate as opposed to recycling the same catch-phrases developed to enable political point scoring.

For too long, the asylum seeker debate in Australia has been framed in a context which contravenes reality, international law, and humanity whilst contradicting the premise of Australia as a beacon of opportunity, advocate for human rights and equality, and the land of multiculturalism.

Melissa Reid holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Applied Human Rights from RMIT University and a Bachelor of Arts from La Trobe University with a focus on politics and philosophy. Currently working abroad in international development, she has experience working in Aboriginal health and mental health with a focus on social policy in Victoria. Melissa has also worked for not-for-profit organisations in Australia, Rwanda and Viet Nam using education, human rights and relationship-building as a tool to address poverty and disadvantage and to pursue the realisation of people’s human rights.