Australia’s asylum seeker debate and mandatory detention policy are two ugly white stains on our national image, having festered for over a decade.  They have consistently been on the receiving end of criticism from the United Nations, Amnesty International and other prominent international organisations, damaging our reputation as a welcoming and generous nation.

The main weapon of choice by those fighting the battle has not been guns, missiles or tanks, it has been language.  While most modern language succeeds in boring us to death in a kind of Chinese water torture style of repetition and banality, think ‘moving forward’, ‘touch base’ and ‘something different’, this debate has shown the true destructive power of language.  It has shown is that, armed with a few simple phrases, governments, media and sections of the public can do just as much damage to humans and humanity than with bullets or rockets.

By now Australians are all too familiar with the terms ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘boat people’, ‘queue jumpers’, ‘national security’, ‘border protection’, ‘Pacific solution’ and ‘children overboard’, as they have eked their way into our national lingo.  Sadly, many of these terms are based in fiction, lies and untruths, yet they remain largely unchallenged as they are parroted by the media, public and governments.  I have even seen recently, on the supposed leftist ABC, a morning breakfast presenter correct himself when he said asylum seekers instead of boat people.  The most widespread misnomer is ‘illegal immigrants’, an illegal immigrant is someone who overstays their visa, not someone who arrives (undocumented or not) seeking asylum.  Then we have ‘queue jumpers’ – asylum seekers are not waiting in line to buy milk at Coles, they are fleeing for their lives and there is no mythical queue for coming to Australia – arriving by boat is just as legal as flying in on a student / tourist / working visa before claiming asylum.  ‘Border protection’ – asylum seekers arriving by boat are not a threat to Australia, we do not require protection from them, they are arriving seeking our protection.  Finally, we all know that children overboard turned out to be ‘truth overboard’ – an opportunistic and outright lie from the Howard government.

Recently the debate has seen some new words and phrases enter.  An Amnesty International report released in February documented the conditions inside detention centres and a parliamentary inquiry last month shed some much needed light and truth on the conditions asylum seekers are placed under upon their arrival in Australia.

Amnesty International’s report told of the terrible conditions inside detention centres, ‘indefinite and prolonged detention’, ‘constant uncertainty, fear and monotony’, ‘confusion and frustration’, ‘little idea about their rights’, ‘behaviour management regime’, ‘remote and isolated’, ‘extremely hot and dusty’, ‘patches of sky’, ‘constantly watched’, ‘confined space’, ‘overly intrusive and unnecessary’ and ‘serious damage to men, women and children’.  This is the reality of life inside an Australian detention centre.

The parliamentary inquiry focused mainly on the length of time asylum seekers spend inside.  I use the term asylum seekers and not detainees, as ‘detainees’ suggests the person may have done something wrong to have been detained in the first place.  The inquiry recommended a maximum of 90 days in detention.  Basically, it stated that anything after that runs the risk of ruining already damaged people and people who are more than likely to end up being granted refugee status anyway.  In other words, future Australians.

‘Indefinite and prolonged detention’ for those who have committed no crime.

Mandatory detention has been a bilaterally and generally publicly supported policy for the last 20 years.  I can think of no other current national policy which enshrines the destructive human effects on people as mandatory detention does.  The NT intervention would probably be closest in 21st century Australia.  Oh wait, I forgot the Carbon Tax, silly me.  Imagine if a report came out about the elderly, disabled or even cattle and was telling of similar conditions.  There would be a national outcry if we treated any other humans or even animals like this.  Yet because of the language and its ability to create the notion that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are somehow a threat to our society, immoral queue jumpers or even undeserving economic opportunists, as some like to paint them (Andrew Bolt – I’m looking at you – Bolt Report 15/04/12, 4:30), the policy continues to receive wide support.

With the real possibility of a civil war in Syria, the continuing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan and persecution of ethnic minorities and political dissidents in Iran, ‘boat people’ are going to continue to arrive in Australia – whether we like it or not.  The so called ‘problem’ is not going to go away any time soon.  Australia needs to decide what kind of country we want to be.  Do we want to continue to grow our reputation as racist, islamophobic and cruel or reverse the damage that has been done and once again be the land of the ‘fair go’ where no matter what your colour, religion or history you are welcome.  To start the change we need to alter the language.  We need to send these corrupt and destructive phrases back to where they came from.


Refugee and Asylum Migration to the OECD: A Short Overview

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

Mandatory detention in Australia (Amnesty Australia)

Refugee Council of Australia – Myths about Refugees and Asylum Seekers