20 May 2012

The danger of stereotypes in the boat people debate

I'm going to start this with a caveat, which I shouldn't but... I don't often publicly enter debates around such volatile topics as the boat people debate in Australia. I have a very keen self-preservation gene and don't like to open myself up for attack on my personal beliefs, in case you haven't gathered that yourselves. But 30 days of preconceptions is a little different, so below is a description of the two stereotypes as I see them in the public space, I know that many people believe something in between but this is about the dangers of these two extremes and how the issue can never progress while these are the two public stories.

There are two stereotypes in the boat people debate inside Australia - or I should say in the "people who arrive by boat from our northern neighbours" debate. They are the right-wing "they're all illegal immigrants" and the left-wing "they are all refugees escaping persecution". I mentioned earlier that this was the first stereotype that I wanted to tackle, as it had come back up in the media, and I personally feel it is an important one for us as a nation.

The right-wing illegal immigrant
To the right-wing commentators, boat people are all illegal immigrants who are paying to jump the queue to get to Australia. Worse still, many of them are criminals who would never get into the country if they tried to do it by legal means.

They destroy all of their papers when the boats near Australia, so that our government can't verify their identities, or the stories that they tell about where they come from and their supposed refugee status. And this is why they should all be in detention, because they are "illegal immigrants".

The use of that phrase is extremely important. When a commentator uses that phrase to describe the people arriving by boat you know which side they stand on. It is an emotive descriptor that is meant to provoke the response of "well they are criminals", "they are queue jumpers" or "they are doing something wrong".

One of the far more vitriolic claims in recent times, that of the illegal immigrant as receiving more government money than Australian pensioners, is a great example of what this stereotype is meant to do. This was circulated around as an email that even had air time on current affairs programs. It adds to the negative image of them as sponges who are taking from our society, getting more money from the government than the aged pensioners who have worked hard their entire lives for this country - yes that is how this story went.

SANITY WARNING: If you want to be appalled by the really interesting "facts" and rhetoric of this debate try this site or this one, there are many more out there. Sometimes I am ashamed to be Australian.

The problem with this stereotype
This is a stereotype that depicts the scary, evil foreigners who come here by illegal means and are taking the food from our mouths. Over the last decade it is becoming more common for this to be followed by rhetoric around Muslim beliefs and wanting to turn our country into an Islamic state, just adding to the hype.

It is an awful argument that creates a culture of fear and loathing around all refugees in this country. And the big problem is, how do we distinguish people who have immigrated here through the "legal" channels when they are of the same ethnic background as the evil "illegal immigrants"? Well quite frankly we don't do we!

It feeds on the fear and concern that people might already have about the "other"; the different cultures, religions and ethnicities that are coming into our country. This is nothing new, the same thing happened when we turned away from the "White Australia" policy and again when we took Vietnamese refugees in the 70-80s.

The main problem is that it doesn't allow people to consider the individual situations of the human beings that are involved. They are all judged to be the same, and that judgement is of criminals who are out to suck our country dry and take over our way of life. It's particularly dangerous because it spreads insidious lies and half-truths to a population that is already concerned about not having enough for the future.

The left-wing asylum seekers
To the left-wing commentators, the boat people are all asylum seekers. They are all people who are fleeing from situations that are impossible to exist within, and they all deserve our sympathy and support. Every one of the asylum seekers is a legitimate refugee who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and risk their lives to make it to Australia; to have a better life.

For this group there is no legitimate reason to keep these asylum seekers in detention, and they should all be brought into the community and processed in quick time so they have a level of certainty about their future here. Moreover, keeping them detained leads to mental illness, suicide attempts and riots, that will cause all of them further harm.

This rhetoric makes a big deal of the right-wing hatred and paints anyone not in their corner as being nasty people who have no concern for other human lives. At this far left side of the scale you are either totally in or inhumane, there is no middle ground.

The problems with this stereotype
A major problem about this stereotype is that it generally becomes more about the people promoting the stereotype and less about the people who they are trying to protect with it. This is probably due to the mainstream media depictions of the left-wing group - you know the commentary "tree hugging hippies" and the like. This means that the arguments that they might put forward are usually circumvented into personal attacks on their naivety and questioning their patriotism, the standard right-wing arguments it would seem.

There is a real problem with the stereotype though, it does not allow for any discussion or possibility that the asylum seekers might not what they claim to be. This stereotype promotes the single story that all asylum seekers are nice, honest people who are fleeing persecution, and there needs to be an acknowledgement that this might not always be the case.

What this stereotype fails to take into account are the two minority groups of asylum seekers. These are the people that may not actually be seeking refuge from persecution (those subsequently not found to be legitimate refugees); and more importantly the refugees who aren't necessarily nice, honest people, or aren't of the right "character". And as long as this group fails to acknowledge the fears of the right-wing, there can never be a middle ground.

What does all of this mean?
The left-wing accuse the right of promoting inhumane treatment (UNHCR do much the same I should add) and the right-wing accuse the left of being naive tree huggers who are blind to the reality that we are being overrun by criminals and terrorists.

The major issue is that the stereotype debate stops people from thinking about the individual refugees and their own stories. This was why the SBS show, Go back to where you came from, was such a powerful interjection into the refugee debate. It shifted the conversation from the faceless 'boat person', humanised it with individual stories, and helped us understand that the average refugee story is more than the stereotypes that we see in the media. Rather they are personal stories of loss, fear, pain and isolation; they are stories that break the stereotypes and humanise the refugees for us.

And personally, once that veneer is broken down I don't believe that the majority of Australians would support mandatory detention or offshore processing. We need to discuss the real stories, the complex mix of issues around these people and allow the people leaning to the right to see the large number of positive refugee stories that exist in our culturally diverse country.

What is still missing?
The biggest issue with this stereotype and the fear mongering around us being overtaken by boat people is that the vast majority of our asylum seekers do not come on the boats! This is probably the most shocking fact that really does not get enough air time in the media. And yet, it is the most important fact that could shatter the stereotypes of "illegal immigration", and destroy to constant political debate in this country about the absolute importance and priority to stop the boats.

The fact is that the vast majority of our asylum seekers come on planes, on average 95% fly into the country on legitimate visas. They come into the country on visitor, business or student visas and they claim asylum once they are in the country. And, according to a number of sources, asylum seekers arriving by boat are considerably more successful in their claims for refugee status than the ones arriving by plane.

So the fuss made over people arriving by boat from our northern neighbours would seem to be blown out of all proportion. They constitute an incredible small percent of the number of asylum seekers we get and they are more often found to be genuine refugees (well over 80% in all the statistics I've read).

To paraphrase FDR, we have nothing to fear but fear itself people. There are far more pressing issues in our country than the small number of people willing to risk their lives in a boat to come here. The likelihood of them not being what they claim to be, or not being of sound character is extremely low, so we need to come up with a better way of dealing with them.

The processes aren't working, and a lot of people are hurting because of it. Do I think we just open the borders? Of course not. But we need a real debate about the issues that is not based on the single stories that currently dominate the media. Maybe the outcomes of the recent federal inquiry into our detention centres will lead a more balanced debate about this topic, who knows.

Factual sources about immigration, refugees and asylum seekers in Australia can be found on these sites, among many others: Refugee Council of AustraliaAustralian Human Rights Commission and Refugee Action Coalition Sydney. The Australian Human Rights Commission is a particularly good resource.

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