"Disturbing Practices": Dehumanizing Asylum Seekers in the Refugee "Crisis" in Australia, 2001-2002

By Leach, Michael | Refuge, May 2003 | Go to article overview

"Disturbing Practices": Dehumanizing Asylum Seekers in the Refugee "Crisis" in Australia, 2001-2002


Leach, Michael, Refuge


Abstract

Throughout late 2001 and 2002, the Australian Government, seeking re-election, campaigned on a tough line against so-called "illegal" immigrants. Represented as "queue jumpers," "boat people," and "illegals," most of these asylum seekers came from Middle Eastern countries, and, in the main, from Afghanistan and Iraq. This paper explores the way particular representations of cultural difference were entwined in media and government attacks upon asylum seekers. In particular, it analyzes the way key government figures articulated a negative understanding of asylum seekers' family units--representing these as "foreign" or "other" to contemporary Australian standards of decency and parental responsibility. This representational regime also drew upon post-September 11 representations of Middle Eastern people, and was employed to call into question the validity of asylum-seekers' claims for refugee status. Manufactured primarily through the now notorious "children overboard" incident, these images became a central motif of the 2001 election campaign. This paper concludes by examining the way these representations of refugees as "undeserving" were paralleled by new Temporary Protection Visa regulations in Australia.

Resume

Tout au long de la periode de la fin 2001 et de l'annee 2002, le gouvernement australien, en quete d'un second mandat, mena sa campagne electorale en adoptant une ligne dure contre ce qu'il appelait les immigrants << illegaux >>. Representes comme des << resquilleurs >>, << boat people >> et << illegaux >>, la plupart de ces demandeurs d'asile provenaient de pays du Moyen-Orient, principalement de l'Afghanistan et de l'Irak. Cet article examine la facon dont une certaine image des differences culturelles a ete tissee dans les attaques des medias et du gouvernement contre les demandeurs d'asile. Tout specialement, il examine comment des personnages cles du gouvernement ont projete une interpretation negative de la cellule familiale des demandeurs d'asile--les representant comme etant << differentes >> ou << etrangeres >> aux normes de la societe australienne contemporaine en matiere de decence et de responsabilite parentale. Cet ensemble de representations mit aussi a contribution des images des gens du Moyen-Orient dans la periode de l'apres 11 septembre, et fur exploite pour remettre en question la validite des demandes des demandeurs d'asile pour le statut de refugie. Fabriquees avant tout a partir de l'incident notoire << les enfants a la mer >>, ces images devinrent un leitmotiv de la campagne electorale de 2001. L'artide conclut en examinant la facon dont ces representations des refugies, comme etant << non meritants >>, furent accompagnees de nouveaux reglements introduisant un Visa de protection temporaire (<< Temporary Protection Visa >>) en Australie.

While there are many aspects of the Australian Government s approach to asylum seekers that are worthy of comment and critique, this paper focuses on the representation of refugees by the Government and media throughout the so-called asylum-seeker "crisis" of 2001-02. I hesitate to use the term "discourse analysis" in this article, as the term often has an "agentless" sense to it--wherein social knowledges are constituted by the exclusion of other perspectives, but the actors involved are often vaguely defined. (1) In this case, I think the more appropriate term is propaganda (2)--in that the representational regime clearly emanated from the governing party and was publicized through official media sources (primarily ministerial press releases and interviews), with the apparent objective of stigmatizing a marginal group as part of a strategy for maintaining political power.

On 7 October 2001, at the commencement of the first week of the federal election campaign, the Government notified the media that a vessel of asylum seekers had been intercepted off the west Australian coast. …

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