Stigma and Stereotyping of Asylum Seekers: Is this the Australia We Want?

by | Sep 5, 2012

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About Guest contributor

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

Continuing with our Australian asylum seeker theme this week, the Oxford Human Rights Blog is delighted to welcome Australian writer, comedian, social commentator and participant from the SBS programme Go Back to Where You Came From, Catherine Deveny, to comment on the stigmatisation and stereotyping of asylum seekers in Australia.

The Australian government policy to ‘stop the boats’ (discussed in Monday’s blog post here) caused misery, loss of life, loss of face, corroded our national reputation irreversibly, made the international community think of Australia as a bunch of redneck racists, reneged on our international obligation as signatories to the UN Refugee Convention and poisoned the welcoming and compassionate heart of Australia is, in my opinion, undeniable. And unforgiveable.  And the current Gillard Government’s recent resuscitation of the heartless and unconstructive ‘stop the boats’ mantra is beyond shameful.

Dog whistles like ‘boat people’, ‘queue jumpers’, ‘people smugglers’, ‘illegals’, ‘children overboard’, ‘onshore and off shore processing’, ‘national security’ and ‘border control’ were used by the former conservative Australian government to incite panic.  It is crucial to remember these dog whistles did not infect us all. Informed and compassionate people have became more determined and vocal in response to the lies and misinformation, inspiring shows like Go Back To Where You Came From and documentaries like Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and A Well Founded Fear.

However, the dog whistles and sentiments appealed to the worst in some people. They fed the parts of their hearts and minds that were racist, xenophobic and fearful. They infected our nation’s psyche and it spread like a virus.

Asylum seeker dog whistles appeal to those who feel ripped off. Blaming the fact they can’t get a job, a bed in a hospital, a seat on the tram, affordable housing, a pool in their backyard, their kid in the school they want on asylum seekers is convenient. It allows people not to blame themselves, or poor infrastructure because of bad government. It’s not their fault, it’s the fault of government with no vision, no courage, no compassion, no balls.

Make no bones about it. Our treatment of asylum seekers is born out of bigotry, xenophobia and racism. If the boats carried French physists, British doctors or American teachers fleeing death, fear and persecution there would be no ‘problem’ and no need for a ‘solution’.

Our nation was built on ‘boat people’ and it will only survive and thrive if we revert back to the county we once were; a tolerant, secular democracy that lead the world in workers rights, feminism and multiculturalism.

People ask me why I’m I so passionate about asylum seekers. Were my parent’s asylum seekers? No, they weren’t. My family migrated from Ireland generations ago and I have no idea why. But whatever that ‘better life’ my peasant ancestors were prepared to risk leaving everything behind for I am a humble and grateful recipient of.

I went to Preston Primary School which was full of migrants. Italians, Greeks, Dutch, Yugoslav, Croatian, Macedonian, German. We called them ‘New Australians’. For all my parents’ faults, I never heard a single racist word growing up.

At our grade six graduation we sang;

I’m as Greek as a Souvlaki, I’m as Irish as a stew

I’m Italian as spaghetti, I’m as Danish as a blue

I’m as German as a dumpling, Middle Eastern as a lamb

And I’m an Aussie, yes I’m an Aussie, yes I am.

And we felt it.

What I find sad and inspiring, in equal proportions, is when racists and xenophobes actually meet migrants, refugees and asylum seekers personally. They almost always, and immediately, think these particular ones are okay. It’s just those other ones. The ones that are dodgy are the ones with the funny names, funny religions and funny smelling food that they have not met.

Bill Bryson, in his book Made in America, neatly sums up anti migration sentiment for me. His take is many people believe “immigration was a wise and prescient thing in the case of one’s parents or grandparents, but it really ought to stop now.”

No one is suggesting an ‘open door’ policy. And no one is suggesting Australia take the 43 million displaced people in the world. The fact is that Australia is not doing its fair share. Australia is currently home to only 0.2 per cent of the world’s refugees. Per capita, we rank 68th in the world.

Raising our humanitarian intake, processing asylum seekers swiftly and compassionately, and supporting them as best we can while they resettle is all we ask.

For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share,

With courage let us all combine

To advance Australia fair

Racist, nasty, ungenerous, backward, deceitful… Is this the vision we have of Australia? Is this the Australia we want? The demonisation of asylum seekers diminishes us all culturally, politically and economically. And it’s deeply unAustralian. Whatever that is now.

A version of this post first appeared on the Drum on 27 August 2012.

Catherine Deveny is a comedy writer, comedian, author, social commentator and broadcaster.  Catherine appears in the TV documentary Go Back To Where You Came From, which was aired in Australian from August 28 on SBS1. More about Catherine can be found here.


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