Why do many Australians feel alienated from the pro-refugee movement?

By Ellen Hays | 09 Jan 15

The national dialogue surrounding refugees and asylum seekers raises deep questions about rights, morality, duty and fairness. Such emotional debates easily bring out the worst in people. I have been guilty of raising my voice at my dear grandfather when he suggested that asylum seeker boats should be used for military target practice. I was shocked that my kind-hearted, gentle grandfather would say something so atrocious, and it brought out the worst in me.

But he is not alone in his harsh attitude towards refugees. The 2013 Scanlon Foundation’s Social Cohesion report found that 77 per cent of those surveyed felt that the boats should be turned back, or arrivals should be detained and deported, or only temporary residence should be allowed. This popular opinion is reflected in the policies of both major parties engaging in a “race to the bottom” in cruelty towards asylum seekers. It’s easy to say that these policies are simply trying to grab votes, but it’s also hard to ignore that this is democracy in action – those in power are reflecting the will of the people.

Devastatingly, some refugees in offshore detention centres might have preferred it if my grandfather’s refugee policy had been implemented. At least there is peace and certainty in death, unlike the psychological torture of indefinite detention. As a supporter of refugee rights, I often find myself asking how Australia has come to be in this place, with a shockingly cruel, UN-condemned policy. How can this be? Are we truly a heartless nation of racists and bigots?

As with all questions of human nature, there is no easy answer. The seemingly callous and brutal attitudes towards asylum seekers may not be rooted in hatred, but something more elusive.

Mark Pagel of Reading University and Ruth Mace of University College London have found that distrust of foreigners may be explained in evolutionary terms. Early in humanity’s history, it was discovered that living in cooperative groups improved chances of survival. This way, groups were able to carry out tasks that would be impossible for one individual to carry out, such as hunting large prey. However, Pagel and Mace note that:

[cooperation depends] upon one key demographic feature: migration between groups must be kept low. If it is not, groups become homogenised, cheats can prosper and the driving force of group selection – difference between groups – fails. Wariness of strangers, for all its potentially ugly manifestations, may be deep in our psychological make-up.

Social theorist Zygmunt Bauman also considers this line of thought. He argues that exclusion can be used as a tool of social unification. By projecting our fears onto another (often vulnerable) group, they become demonised and we are able to feel more secure because we do not belong to that group. This is seen in action when we consider the fear-mongering language used by the government and the media when discussing refugees. They are labelled as “illegals,” “queue jumpers” and threats to the sovereignty of our borders. This behaviour comes from a place of fear and insecurity, rather than hatred.

While these explanations of unkind attitudes towards asylum seekers do not excuse the government’s policy, it does confirm that it is completely normal to be afraid of strangers and unwilling to share with them. This means that the supporters of harsh refugee policy are not necessarily uncaring racists, but they are likely to be decent people, doing their best to live good lives, only perhaps with a few unjustified fears and a couple of misunderstandings. This has important implications for the strategies taken by refugee advocates.

Describing the government’s policy as a “sociopathic” and “evil” may, in fact, be accurate, but it also implies that supporters of the policy are mean and nasty people, which only encourages them to dislike the pro-refugee movement. Alienating them in this way is clearly not the most effective way of opening their hearts to this issue. We are asking them to open their circle of empathy to those whom they fear, which is no easy task. It is unfair to criticise them for lacking humanity and compassion simply because they struggle to overcome these natural fears.

We need to consider how to diffuse their fears and address their insecurities about asylum seekers. We need to tell the stories of refugees and asylum seekers to show that they are not a threat to our country, but a valuable asset. The refugee movement needs to become more inclusive it is going to be successful in changing the hearts and minds of the nation.

This is captured by a Philosophers’ Mail article: “If you don’t sympathise with your opponents’ fears, you will never be able to reassure them and therefore help them to reach the stage of confidence which would allow them to go with your proposal.” The article then likens the issue to teaching children in the classroom: “If a child is nervous around maths, no decent teacher is going to shout at them and call them evil. You start by recognising the fear and trying to boost confidence.” This is the kind of approach refugee advocates need to consider.

Next time my grandfather says something unkind about asylum seekers, I will try to contain my anger and remember that it is natural for him to feel afraid. I will not raise my voice and accuse him of heartlessness. I will tell him stories of refugees I have met. I won’t expect his mind to be changed overnight. I will remember that, like many Australians, his attitude is not a product of hatred, but a result of fear and unfamiliarity with the plight of asylum seekers.

The pro-refugee movement should be congratulated for its deep empathy towards asylum seekers, but it will only have limited success until it can also empathise with its opponents.

Ellen Hays is an Arts (Politics)/Law student at Monash University.

Feature image: DIBP Images via Flickr