A grim anniversary: What is it about waterborne asylum seekers that makes them more despised than airborne ones?

By Jennifer Wilson, from onlineopinion, 24 February 2011

2011 marks ten years since the events surrounding the Tampa, the Children Overboard affair, and the sinking of the SIEV X in Australia’s border surveillance zone, with the loss of approximately 353 women, children and men.

In the ensuing ten years little seems to have changed in Australia’s attitudes towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat, indeed there are observers who think things have worsened.

The 2001 coalition government struck political gold in their framing of the above events. Following Pauline Hanson, and with the added impetus of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA, they constructed a narrative that played on Australia’s fears firstly about Muslims as terrorists, and then as agents of chaos.


What quickly became and remains paramount in the debate are their allegedly "illegal" actions. Requesting refugee status, as is their right, was reframed by the coalition as an illegal incursion into sovereign territory. Asylum seekers became criminals

In spite of knowing full well that the boat arrivals were legally entitled to request asylum in Australia, the Howard government continued to describe them as "illegals" and possibly terrorists, who were seeking to disrupt our borders and our sovereignty. They were described quite inaccurately as being "uninvited," and accused of jumping non-existent refugee queues of people who were more entitled than the boat arrivals to request refugee status in Australia.

Despite their patent falsity, theses stories took hold of the imaginations of a large number of voters, and they remain powerful lies politicians on all sides continue to tell.

So profound is public hatred and contempt for boat arrivals in some quarters, that on the day before the funerals of those lost in the Christmas Island shipwreck, Chris Smith, presenter on radio 2GB, ran a competition in which listeners were invited to ring in and guess the number of asylum seekers, including the babies, to be buried in Sydney. The winner, an ecstatic woman heard screaming against a soundtrack of applause, received a prize of a Rick Stein DVD, a book by Kim Scott, and movie passes to True Grit.

In reality, as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention Australia has agreed to accept asylum seekers no matter what their method of arrival in the country, regardless of their country of origin, and whether they are sans papiers, or not. The international Covenant is supported by our domestic law. The asylum seekers of 2001 were never in any way illegal, and the asylum seekers of 2011 are not illegal either.

They were and are legally permitted to enter Australia and request asylum until their refugee claims are processed, and they are found to be eligible for resettlement or otherwise.


For the asylum seekers to become "illegals," Australia will have to withdraw from or moderate our commitment to the UN Convention, and adjust domestic law accordingly. Both courses of action are possible. Domestic refugee law does not require any constitutional change, and can be addressed by parliament.

Until such time as these actions are taken, Australia remains a country that is open to all asylum seekers, and every asylum seeker who comes here by whatever means is doing nothing more than accepting Australia’s invitation.

Politicians continue to lie to the Australian people about the "illegal" nature of boat arrivals, and many media outlets are entirely supportive of that lie. Some, such as Paul Sheehan of the Sydney Morning Herald, deliberately conflate the illegality of the Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels that convey the asylum seekers to Australia, with the people themselves, and this spin is upheld by the Australian Press Council.

This contemptuous antipathy is, mysteriously, reserved only for those who arrive by boat. There are real illegals who arrive by plane, with visas, and then overstay, blending into the general population. These apparently are of no concern at all to the anti asylum seeker cohort, even though there are many thousands of them who never declare themselves.

Plane arrivals who overstay are guilty of transgressing borders and violating sovereignty. However, boat arrivals immediately declare themselves, and request asylum. Boat arrivals go through the proper channels. Thousands and thousands of over-stayers who arrive by plane do not.

While 55% of refugee applications from those arriving by plane are rejected, between only 2% and 15% of those arriving by boat are found to fail the requirements for resettlement.

In 2001, asylum seekers arriving by boat were as blank pages, upon which government and media could and did write a story, a story that had and still has very little relevance to the people themselves. Many of them arrived sans papiers, and stateless. In the absence of a documented identity, any identity could be created for them, manipulated by politicians for public consumption.

Boat arrivals are seen as violating a nation in which the concept of nationhood resonates with a sense of entitled and sacred inviolability. However, national boundaries are defined by the principles of inclusion and exclusion. They are social constructs, having everything to do with political expediency and human intervention. There is nothing in the least sacred about borders.

Boat arrivals were, and are, constructed as the perilous other within the nation state.

Boat arrivals provoke fears of an aesthetic and cultural annihilation that will inevitably (it is threatened) entail the subjugation of customs and norms that are understood as naturally Australian. This is a preposterous notion, given the range of ethnically diverse groups already thriving in Australia, most of whom were vilified and rejected when they first arrived.

Of course, the churches had their say. Anglican Dean Philip Jensen advised his flock in 2003 that any beliefs other than Christian are "…the monstrous lies and deceits of Satan designed to destroy the life of the believers…" This did not, at the time, encourage a benevolent view of Muslim asylum seekers. John Howard then revealed a few days later that he and Jensen communicated on a regular basis on "moral issues," and the inference was made that Jensen’s view might have influenced Howard’s stance on the non Christian boat arrivals.

Nothing unites a community like the external threat of a common enemy. In 2001, Senator Ross Lightfoot referred to the boat people as "uninvited and repulsive peoples whose sordid list of behaviours included scuttling their own boats." (Human Rights Watch Report, 2003). Disparate Australian communities, at times dwelling in uneasy peace, and sometimes refugees themselves from an earlier time, were offered a common enemy. The Howard government, following the lead of Pauline Hanson, tapped a deep vein of racist hostility in the Australian character across the board.

There is little likelihood of any change in attitudes in the near future. Those opposed to boat arrivals will continue to publicly demonstrate their disapproval in ways that sicken. We will continue to be a country in which it is acceptable for radio stations to run competitions about the burial of drowned foreign babies.

Politicians will continue to lead the charge, as Scott Morrison so ably demonstrated on the matter of the funeral costs. Asylum seekers will continue to fulfil the role of scapegoat that is apparently so essential to defining an Australian sense of identity.

In this country, it seems, and sadly, we still need to define ourselves against who we are not, rather than who we are. The foreigner serves this defining purpose for us, and always has. It was Greeks, or Italians, or Lebanese, or Vietnamese, or Chinese, or Irish, hell, I remember as a little girl being screamed at in the playground for being a pommy. "Go home pommy" was regularly scrawled in the dust on our family car.

And sadly, politicians see far too much to be gained in maintaining the lies than addressing the truth. There is no need for this divisive destruction they work to feed in their relentless pursuit of power. Address our international obligations, and our domestic law, and we will cease to be a country that accepts all asylum seekers. Then the boats will stop, and we can stop pretending to be a hospitable nation that locks up those who don’t know we don’t want them.

About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at http://www.noplaceforsheep.wordpress.com.

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