Let's Stop Calling Asylum-Seekers And Refugees 'Illegal'

25/08/2015 8:29 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Fairfax Media

After a decade living in the US I returned to Australia a year ago to make a feature documentary, Asylum, about our country's brutal refugee and asylum seeker policies.

I had been watching the asylum seeker situation devolve in Australia since the Tampa and figured my contribution could be to shed some light on the issue by humanizing asylum seekers and clearing up some misinformation.

Like about a third of the population I am first generation Australian. My parents came to Australia after surviving the Holocaust and I have always been very aware of how important it is to help people less fortunate, especially those who are victims of war and persecution.

In spite of our belief that we are all about the "fair go" Australia has the harshest refugee policy in the western world.

The country seems to be divided over refugee policy with a little over a third of the population agreeing with the government's hard line approach to "stop the boats."

About the same amount of people are horrified by what we are doing and want to close on and offshore detention camps, process asylum seekers quickly and efficiently and allow them work and education rights so they assimilate into society.

The final group again about the same size either don't care, are confused or just don't know the facts.

I am constantly surprised and horrified that smart, informed, educated, well-read people often are completely wrong or clueless about basic asylum seeker facts -- referring to them as "illegal" and "queue jumpers". So first up let's address calling asylum seekers ILLEGAL.

Fact: they ain't. Here's why: Australia is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol commonly known as the Refugee Convention. Asylum seekers who enter Australia without a valid visa by boat or plane are permitted to enter without prior authorisation because this right is protected by Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention which recognises they have good cause for entering without a visa.

The Refugee Convention defines a refugee as: "any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country."

So to be clear anyone who fits the above description of a refugee is allowed to come to Australia seeking asylum. Got it? Great.

So why then do we hear and read the term illegal asylum seeker on a daily basis in this country? Because it is something most politicians say. Our Prime Minister regularly refers to asylum seekers as illegal as do ministers, senators and to my horror journalists. And more importantly when elected officials use this incorrect term I have never seen a journalist correct it.

So firstly journalists this is a call to arms. Here is the challenge. It is incorrect to use the term "illegal" when referring to refugees and asylum seekers. Whenever you hear it, correct it. Whenever you read it, correct it.

If a politician said your tax rate was 10 percent and it was 50 percent you would correct them. So by that logic when a politician uses the term illegal correct them.

Using language in an incorrect way is powerful propaganda and successive governments have managed to hoodwink us into believing asylum seekers are criminals and therefore deserving of our punitive policies.

A simple containment of language could help reverse the tide. Use the hashtag #notillegal whenever you see someone referring to a refugee or asylum-seeker as illegal.

Next up, myth busting queue jumping (spoiler alert there ain't no queue!), the saving lives at sea argument, the stopping people smuggler argument and more...


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