Changing the Conversation

July 2016

Trigger warning: this article contains references to suicide and rape.

For decades now, the conversation around asylum seekers and refugees in Australia has been littered with falsities. Pejorative terms such as ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘illegals’ have worked their way into public discourse, distorting public perceptions of the reality faced by people seeking asylum.

These words and phrases have become part of the everyday conversation – politicians use them, the media uses them and over time they have become embedded in public thought. As a nation, we repeat these words and use them to justify the imprisonment of asylum seekers in conditions where they suffer physically and emotionally; where children as young as seven are pushed to suicide.

Disturbingly, there seems to be a large portion of our nation that accepts these slurs as fact. No matter how many women are forced to seek illegal abortions after being raped in the detention centres that we established, or how many people are driven to horrific ways of taking their own lives, many Australians use these false terms to rationalise the incarceration of innocent people for unspecified lengths of time. Reading the comments on any article about the detention of asylum seekers, there are bound to be several remarks along the lines of “They knew what they were getting into so they deserve it”, and “Coming by boat is cheating, and they are probably economic migrants.”

It’s difficult for me to understand these attitudes. How is one human life less valuable than another? How does seeking asylum make anyone less human?


These attitudes are the result of decades of xenophobic policy and language intended to dehumanise and demonise refugees and asylum seekers. Take the word “illegals” for instance; this term has been thrown around by shock jocks and politicians for years to describe asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia, with little regard for the fact that it is incorrect. Asylum seekers are not doing anything illegal. They have every right to seek asylum. Often, they seek asylum from conflict, poverty or persecution. As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Australian government has a responsibility to protect these people. But instead, it is failing them.  

Another term used to 'stop the boats' is 'queue jumpers'. This is another myth. There is no queue, and seeking asylum in a country, via any means of transport, is a legitimate means of being granted refugee status. Politicians have been very strategic in incorporating this expression into their rhetoric. Such terms play upon existing prejudices – everybody hates the person who cuts in front of them in a queue. Most people automatically think of a queue-jumper as a conniving, self-centred person with no respect for others. When tarred with the false 'queue-jumper' label, people seeking asylum are more likely to be viewed as a public enemy.

The 'cheater' stereotype is another common slur used by politicians describe asylum seekers; rationalised by a lie that most asylum seekers are economic migrants. This too is false. In 2012-2013, 88% of asylum seekers who arrived by boat were found to be genuine refugees. The remaining percentage were not necessarily economic migrants, but may not have had the evidence to back their claims for asylum. 

But many people are unaware of these facts, and continue to spread misinformation about asylum seekers breaking the law and cheating the system by jumping a supposed queue. The word 'people' is rarely used when talking about 'queue jumpers' and 'illegals', so little compassion is felt for those that have risked their lives to escape persecution. And when horrific events occur in detention centres, there seems to be little urgency in addressing why the event took place in the first place, or how it may have affected the people involved.

Absence of the word &#entity39;people&#entity39; 

This issue has been contentious in Australia since the arrival of Vietnamese migrants in 1977. This influx followed the relaxation of Australia’s asylum seeker policy to accommodate the many displaced people seeking asylum from the Vietnam War. Up until the second half of the 1977 election campaign, Australia had increased funding for resettlement services, including English language courses and orientation assistance. With the influx of boat arrivals, Gough Whitlam insisted that these people should not be put “ahead in the queue” of genuine refugees. And a myth was born. 

The Howard era brought about a whole new culture of distrust around asylums seekers. The infamous 'Tampa affair' whereby a Norwegian boat of asylum seekers was refused entry into Australian waters just before the 2001 federal election paved the way for a much harsher discourse. Shortly after the Tampa affair and not long after the September 11 attacks on New York, Defence Minister Peter Reith described seeking asylum by boat as a “pipeline for terrorists”. From then on, people seeking asylum in Australia would not just be treated as cheaters in the public discourse, but as dangerous terrorists. Suffice to say, Howard won that election. 

It is interesting that as the world becomes globalised, we are tightening our borders to refugees and asylum seekers. We travel more than ever, and can connect to people in almost any part of the world via the Internet, yet we still fear “the other”. By encouraging this fear, our Government is able to justify harsh and inhumane policies, and secure Australia’s power as a nation state. The most frightening aspect is that we know so little about what goes on in detention centres. By clamping down on media access, the government is able to have almost total control over the public discourse. 

Fearing the &#entity39;other&#entity39; in a globalised world

It’s easy to become apathetic to the plight of asylum seekers when we know so little about how they are treated, but we must continue to campaign for their right to seek asylum, and our own right to know. The first step in doing this is to tell the truth about asylum seekers. Instead of interviewing politicians, journalists need to give more voice to people with lived experience of seeking asylum. 

Most importantly, this country must dispel myths that have circulated for decades, and start seeing asylum seekers as human beings. In the meantime, I am certain that in years to come this dark era of human rights abuses will be viewed with the shame it deserves.

How can we change the conversation?

Words are weapons. When coded or framed in a pejorative or negative way, the language used to describe any given issue has the power to sway public perception and opinions of that issue.

With that in mind, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre recently conducted a study entitled Words That Work, to identify problematic terminology that is used to discuss the topic of people seeking asylum in Australia. The research uncovered a range of alternative positive words and terms that may assist in humanising the people at the heart of the debate, and persuading Australians to shift their ideas about people seeking asylum.

This Glossary outlines some of the Dos and Don’ts that you should be aware of when trying to change the conversation:



 Asylum Seeker(s)   

 People seeking asylum

 Australia(ns) should/must/can

 We should/must/can

 Comply with international human rights law; humanitarian and legal obligations

 Treat others the way we want to be treated; do the right thing

 Tackle the problem


 Create a fair and efficient process; fairly examine each (person’s) case

 Fleeing persecution, violence and torture

 Seeking safety; rebuilding lives where it’s safe; looking to set up a safe home

 Security; survival

 Live in peace; care for children; live free from danger; safety