The portrayal of asylum seekers and refugees during election campaigns

In the lead up to the Federal election both of the major political parties are once again encouraging Australians to disengage from humanity and look suspiciously upon asylum seekers and refugees. And both then deny all responsibility for setting a mood that permits widespread acceptance of the peremptory expulsion or indefinite incarceration of those who come here seeking our help.

It’s important to appreciate that Australian politicians are not unique in this behaviour. In the absence of rational analysis or historical perspective, phobias about desperate ‘interlopers’ remain high on the political agenda globally, and mainstream media and shock jocks eagerly whip up and perpetuate popular concerns.

Last year the Council of Europe passed a Resolution specifically about ‘The portrayal of migrants and refugees during election campaigns’.  It highlighted the fact that during election campaigns, some candidates and political parties habitually present migrants and refugees as a threat to and a burden on society, which increases negative reactions among the public to immigration and immigrants.  Those negative reactions include factors such as the feeling of losing control of immigration, the fear of differences and concerns for cultural identity, the collapse of the employment market and a widespread feeling of insecurity.

Not only did the Council of Europe call for enhanced ethics in politics to help reduce racist tendencies in society, it reiterated that politicians have a special responsibility to eliminate negative stereotyping or stigmatisation of any minority or migrant group from the political discourse, including during election campaigns. But it didn’t stop there. The Council noted that the media have a vital role to play and bear a major responsibility in shaping the popular perception of migrants and refugees.

There was a time in this country, after the fall of the South Vietnamese Government and the ensuing exodus of refugees, that scoring points of domestic political importance involved an Opposition denouncing the Government’s refugee program as marked by inhumanity and extreme restrictions. There was a time in this country when editorials described the Government’s refugee program “as one of the darkest, most demeaning and miserable episodes in ..history…a history that was to have been marked by a new enlightenment, a renunciation of racism, an assertion of humanitarian principles…” There was a time in this country when polls found that the majority of Australians wanted the Government to accept refugees. It seems those times are long past.

As evidenced by last night’s ABC’s Four Corners program, now we lock children and adults in indefinite mandatory detention, we ruthlessly ignore our obligations under the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we shut out media access to detainees with Guantanamo inspired media rules and we ignore the comments and criticisms of respected human rights bodies.  Is should be unbearable to our society that the innocent, the damaged and the vulnerable feel they have no choice but to resort to self-harm.

The mainstream media is letting us down by the absence of any carefully researched critique. Important questions remain unanswered by the major political parties.  Has the trend in asylum seekers coming to Australia matched global trends? What happens to Indonesia’s cooperation with Australia on asylum seekers if President Yudhoyono loses power? Are Indonesia’s supplies, housing and funds adequate to deal with the growing number of asylum seekers? Is people smuggling illegal in Indonesia? Is it true that many of those convicted of people smuggling are either refugees themselves or fishermen forced to turn to the trade after Australia toughened fishing regulations for the oceans in our Exclusive Economic Zone? How can the Government smash the people smugglers’ business model when the Department of Parliamentary Services reveals that there is no single ‘people smugglers’ business model’?

Why do WikiLeaks cables reveal that Kevin Rudd’s former foreign policy/national security adviser, Peter Khalil, told US diplomats that “In terms of overall migration, the surge in asylum seekers is a drop in the ocean. But Rudd is not mentioning this, or lauding his government’s more humane approach to asylum seekers” or that a Liberal strategist thinks that “the more boats that come the better”?

In this election year Australian politicians, their advisers and campaign strategists have a moral and ethical responsibility to come clean to the Australian public, to disclaim opportunistic rhetoric and to give the public the real facts surrounding asylum seekers and refugees based on the values of human rights and the rule of law. The media must be discouraged from publishing factual inaccuracies and distorted data and statistics which create unfair representations of asylum seekers and refugees. And equally importantly, the Australian public must pay attention and hold to account political leaders who are tempted to run with xenophobic rhetoric and ideologies in order to secure or retain political power.

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