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Justice and fairness for asylum seekers, not just compassion

By Osmond Chiu - posted Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The last few months have been very depressing to those who believe in a humane policy towards asylum seekers. It has been disappointing after the significant improvements that occurred when the Labor Government first was elected in 2007. The ending of the Pacific Solution, the abolition of temporary protection visas, the abolition of detention debts and attempts to explain push factors were all positive moves. The bipartisan embrace of third country processing and the renewed rhetoric about queue jumpers and their illegality have signaled a shift back to towards 2001. But why has it happened? Why are we repeating it all over again?

I realised some weeks ago that unless those who support a humane policy on refugees change tactics, we will continue to see the harsh approach towards asylum seekers as the issue has the potential to flare up again. This is because refugee advocates’ arguments against inhumane policies have primarily been based on complex technical arguments.

The main arguments have been a combination of the following:

  • refugees are only a small proportion of our migration intake with 13,507 refugee visas granted in 2008-09 while overall migration to Australia was 158,021;
  • only a small proportion of asylum seekers came by boats with just 1,033 in 2008-09;
  • refugees are not economic migrants; they have a well-founded fear of persecution and are often educated and middle-class;
  • the cost of offshore processing is massive: for example, the Pacific Solution cost more than $1 billion over five years to process fewer than 1,700 asylum seekers according to A price too high: the cost of Australia’s approach to asylum seekers (PDF 289KB), a joint report by Oxfam and A Just Australia;
  • temporary protection visas led to the percentage of women and children taking the dangerous journey to Australia by boat increasing from 25 per cent to 40 per cent;
  • as a signatory we have obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to not discriminate based on their mode of arrival; and
  • there is no queue as our obligation to participate through the offshore UN resettlement program is completely separate from our obligation to process the claims of asylum seekers who arrive here.

These arguments are all correct and are based on fact. However, it is a complex technical argument. And a complex technical argument will never win against a simple emotive argument. The emotive argument being used by supporters of a punitive approach towards refugees is based on an inherent sense of fairness.

Arguments about there being no queue or that refugees only constitute a small percentage of immigrants will not succeed. It will never overcome the perception some individuals have that it is fundamentally unfair to others who are waiting in refugee camps overseas because a few can scrape together funds to reach Australia by boat.

Refugee advocates have assumed that rational thought, evidence and facts will ultimately triumph. If this was the case, we would not have punitive, ineffective welfare policies, there would be a land tax and we would have a carbon cap-and-trade system by now.

Instead, a case for a humane policy needs to be mounted on an emotive level, based on fairness and justice. For example, WorkChoices was not defeated on a technical argument. It was fought on a sense of why the new laws were unfair and wrong which, in turn, helped to mobilise public opinion. It was done through the telling of stories that people could relate to. In the end, it was successful because every time WorkChoices was mentioned by the Coalition government, it reminded people of why it was unfair and reinforced this belief.

What should be done was best shown by the (ABC program) Gruen Nation during “The Pitch”, a segment where two advertising agencies are asked to create an advertisement, in this instance about the Greens. The first ad, which was pro-Greens, was powerful and had the potential to shift votes because it was simple, emotive and based on a sense of what is unfair and what would be morally right.


Advocates for asylum seekers need to follow this example and go beyond just calling for a compassionate approach; to challenge the perception that the current regime is fair by telling people’s stories that the public can relate to. They need to show why offshore processing and detention is unfair and unjust, not only why it is against international law and ineffective in the long-run.

An effective emotive argument could shift public support to the processing of asylum seekers onshore in the community.

It’s far harder than it sounds but it is necessary and it will work. We should not forget that towards the end of the Howard government a few gains were made. This was due to the attitude among many in the general public that the treatment of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez was wrong, as is keeping children in immigration detention. People were able to relate to the injustices. Until the general public has the emotive sense that the current and proposed arrangements are morally wrong and unfair and are able to relate to those seeking asylum, little ground can be made permanently.

The genie has been let out of the bottle: people now see that the right of refugees to settle in Australia is a potent electoral issue. Even if there is some bipartisan agreement on a more humane policy, it is highly likely that it will flare up again as we have seen in the past few months - by opportunists seeking to stir up xenophobic fears for their own gain.

Inevitably there will always be a minority who fear the acceptance any asylum seekers arriving in leaky boats, seeing it as a loss of control. However, placing empathy, fairness and justice for refugees at the centre of the debate can help to counter these perceptions. By mounting a case on an emotive sense of fairness and justice that people can relate to, not just compassion, advocates can start to shift the debate back towards a more humane policy on asylum seekers.

With independents like MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, who have backed a more humane policy towards refugees, potentially holding the balance of power in the next Parliament, now might be a good time to start to change the general public’s attitude.

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About the Author

Osmond Chiu currently works as a researcher for a trade union. He is a former National Union of Students NSW Anti-Racism Project Officer and is on the National Executive of Australian Young Labor.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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