Australia consistently performs as a global leader when it comes to accepting refugees into our nation. However, it is not always a warm welcome that these newcomers are presented with when they reach our shores. Recent studies have shown that whilst many Australians agree that as a nation we should help people fleeing persecution, our attitudes towards those who have fled can be quite contradictory to this once they have arrived in Australia.
Constantly we hear our nation’s politicians using polarizing language to distinguish “queue jumping” asylum seekers from “genuine” refugees. This has the potential to dangerously affect public opinion. The findings of an online survey of 6001 Australians conducted in July and August 2015 and November 2016 indicate that the artificial binary created by politicians does, in fact, have a significant impact on the way that the public forms attitudes towards asylum seeker and refugees in Australia.
The language that we use to describe people from other nations arriving in Australia hugely effects how we view these people. For example, it has been showed that people’s evaluations and attitudes are generally less sympathetic if those arriving are referred to as illegal immigrants rather than asylum seekers. It has also been found that people are less sympathetic to asylum seekers than they are to refugees.
The Face Up to Racism: 2015-16 National Survey, was used to measure the extent of racist attitudes and experiences in Australia. A number of questions involved in the National Survey were used to assess attitudes toward asylum seekers, refugees and Australia’s border protection policies. It was ultimately found that only a mere 36 percent of respondents held positive or somewhat positive feelings toward refugees in Australia. 44 percent of indicated that their feelings were neutral (see Table 1).
Within the discourse of Australian politics and media, asylum seekers are frequently categorised in relation to their mode of arrival. Terminology such as ‘illegal boat people’ and ‘unauthorised boat arrivals’ has become synonymous with the term ‘asylum seekers’. This is extremely troubling as it has significant effects on the manner in which the Australian public forms opinions on refugees and asylum seekers as a whole. These labels are polarizing and are used for political purposes.
The people arriving on our shores have been left with no choice, no matter their mode of arrival. They have all been through traumatic experiences that most of us here in Australia are unable to even imagine. Australia should be a beacon of hope for these people, yet our attitudes towards them, formed as a result of this polarizing discourse, make their assimilation in our communities extremely difficult. Refugees and asylum seekers recently settled in Australia will likely face difficulty finding work, making social connections, and establishing themselves. They may find themselves in a limbo between not being able to return to their previous home and not being able to find a sense of belonging in their new home in Australia.
“The language political leaders use when discussing people seeking asylum by boat has been influential in constructing those classed under the label ‘asylum seekers’ as undeserving. In contrast, refugees are constructed as not only in need of our protection, but as deserving of that protection. Political leaders typically use the notion of genuineness to differentiate refugees from their supposedly non-genuine counterparts, asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat”
This dichotomous construction has created troubling ambivalent attitudes towards people seeking protection inside Australia’s borders. Our perceptions of these people become based purely on their mode of arrival. While Australians claim that they are generally open to and accepting of refugees, this acceptance does appear to be circumstantial.
Written by Georgia Martyn.