Opinion: Rewording the asylum debate


Nobody wants to see asylum seekers drowning at sea, that’s a given, but that isn’t the whole issue by a long shot. There is a lot of debate around asylum seeker policy in Australia, in particular the ‘turn back the boats’ policy and offshore processing both inspire heated argument from both sides of the fence. But the fundamentals of the argument are flawed; the deck seems stacked in favour of maintaining the current norms.

The current political lexicon related to matters of asylum seekers has been slowly but surely subverted. Australia is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention that makes exceptions for people arriving in a country for the purposes of seeking asylum in regards to their manner of entry (see article 31 of the Convention). It is legal to arrive by boat; it is legal to arrive without a visa. This is not a point up for discussion, it is a fact. Despite this the term ‘illegal immigrants’ is bandied around a lot these days; Tony Abbott in our country’s top office has even accused asylum seekers of being “people who are attempting to break Australian law” in a statement about the recent ‘burnt hands’ scandal. They are not attempting to ‘break Australian law’, they are fleeing persecution.

A lot of people will offhandedly refer to ‘boat people’ without batting an eyelid; every time I hear the term it sends a chill down my spine, and should yours. Language has long been used to shape public perceptions (links below) and terms like ‘boat people’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ are just that. Even mention of ‘legal refugees’ reinforces the idea that people arriving by boat are necessarily and contrarily illegal.

A case can be made that the name ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ implies some threat to our validity as a state, to our sovereignty. That is absolutely ridiculous. If a couple of leaky fishing boats can be seen as a national threat the lets pray we never face any real threats to our sovereignty. Along with terms like ‘protecting our borders’ I see this in part as a justification to involve the Navy in a non-military issue, and to escalate it in the current zeitgeist to the state of national emergency. By couching the debate in these terms it shifts the focus of debate to a conversation about what the solution is, rather than asking what the problems are.

Regardless of where you stand on current asylum seeker policy, I think we as a nation really have to sit down and renegotiate the terms we use in relation to these people. And that is one thing the current lexicon is designed to do: help you forget they are people. By emphasising their differences politicians make it easier for the public to divorce themselves from the affected individuals; you can’t empathise with an issue the same way you can with a person. 


Language used to shape perception:

Language and Power in English Texts, by Susana Murcia Bielsa and Mick O’Donnell

The language of money: How verbal and visual metonymy shapes public opinion about financial events, University of Nebraska 

Featured image: Vote to care about Refugees – Refugee Action protest in 2013. Photo: Takver/CC/flickr

One Reply to “Opinion: Rewording the asylum debate

  1. Not to play favourites but this is honestly one of my favourite articles posted on the site. The ‘Asylum seeker policy’ is an important issue in Australia and to see people brush it off to the side can be disheartening. So to have someone put into perspective like this gives me hope.

    Hopefully, more people read this article and start putting a lot more thought on the ‘rewording’ of this debate.

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