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‘Queue jumping’ the hot button for Australian thinking about asylum seekers

Symbolic minefield: the Australian Navy escorts intercepted asylum seekers to land. AAP/Josh Jerga.

The public’s openness to asylum seekers depends largely on the perceived threat that would-be immigrants pose to traditional Australian values, new research has found.

Academics from Monash University surveyed 585 people about their understanding of how and why people seek asylum, the availability of information about asylum seeking issues, along with the different attitudes towards asylum seekers among various cross sections of society.

“Queue-jumping” emerged as a fundamental irritant to respondents, according to the paper published this week in Journal of Refugee Studies.

One of the authors, Dr Samantha Thomas, a senior research fellow in Monash’s Marketing Department, described the hostility to people who are seen to “sneak in” as “a very Australian attitude”.

“People are very accepting of asylum seekers and refugees if they feel they’ve been through the appropriate channels,” Dr Thomas said.

“If they feel they’ve somehow jumped the queue or tried to sneak in then there’s quite a different reaction to them, but people are generally in support of Australia taking refugees,” she said.

The paper, “‘It Would Be Okay If They Came Through the Proper Channels’: Community Perceptions and Attitudes Towards Asylum Seekers in Australia”, points out that Australia has long had one of the largest refugee resettlement programmes in the world, with over 700,000 refugees taken in since World War II.

However, unauthorised boat arrivals continue to provoke the public, partly due to misrepresentation and dehumanisation of boat arrivals by the mainstream tabloid press and Government rhetoric, Dr Thomas said.

“Calling asylum seekers ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’ dehumanises people and their experience,” she said.

The report finds that almost half of the people surveyed considered the Government’s policy towards asylum seekers was “too soft.”

The report says that to reorient public attitudes to be more sympathetic towards boat arrivals will require “a significant shift in political rhetoric and media reporting.”

This shift “will not be easy to achieve,” write the authors, given political parties’ investment in the hardline notions they have fostered.

“The shift will also be difficult for the media,” write the authors.

Dr Thomas said she wished public commentators would mind their words: “We have standards and guidelines about the language to be used,” she said.

Nevertheless, something fundamental in the Australian psyche is disinclined to welcome boat arrivals in the same manner as people placed here in authorised refuge-settlement programmes, said Dr Bob Birrell, Reader in Sociology at Monash University.

“What’s at the core of a lot of disquiet within mainstream Australia is that unannounced boat people violate people’s sense of sovereignty - that is, they’re choosing us rather than we’re choosing them,” said Dr Birrell, who described the new paper as important research.

For long established residents the sense that we can defend our borders taps into a traditional sensibility, he said.

“It’s never really been challenged except for a few Japanese submarines, but the threat that it could occur galvanised people for the Second World War,” Dr Birrell said.

“What I feel quite strongly is that many commentators, and I pick [journalist and author] David Marr as an example, insist that there must be something wrong with ordinary people because they don’t seem to understand that the number of people coming here as boat people and subsequently obtaining refugee status are quite small relative to the numbers coming into Europe and relative to our large migration program.”

“All that’s a fact, but it still misses the point that this is a very symbolic issue. It’s not numbers that are crucial in popular thinking about this - it’s symbolism about people arriving here and simply expecting to be welcomed into our community when our people, who regard themselves as being one community with the right of self-determination in these matters is not engaged in this choice.”

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