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Turn Back The Boats- The Hardline Asylum Seeker Debate in Australia

Updated on March 23, 2015


Current policies surrounding asylum seekers in Australia are in place to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Australia by boat. These policies are justified by the assertion that they save lives. However these policies are inefficient and inhumane. Alongside these policies is a very public debate that is distorted by myths and misconception. Together the policies and public debate have placed Australia in major violation of International Human Rights Law. My aim through this article is to show that Australia’s policy towards asylum seekers has always been unjust and together with the media and public opinion have created a very hostile perception of asyl

Important facts:

Before going onto anything else let’s clear certain things up; a migrant is someone who decides to leave their country in order to seek a better life and can return home at any time, they can be granted temporary or permanent status to live in Australia.

Under the United Nations Convention relating to the status of Refugees 1951 and the protocol relating to the status of Refugees 1968; a refugee is any person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their; race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group and political opinion. To seek asylum the person must be outside their country of nationality and they are unable or unwilling to return due to fear of persecution. It is important to note that people become refugees in the context of political violence and human rights violation committed against particular groups. People do not become refugees in the context of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis or famine, or for economic reasons or climate change.

An asylum seeker is a person who has left their country of origin and is seeking protection as a refugee to the government of a country that is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, which are primarily developed countries like Australia. Every refugee has at some time been an asylum seeker (From, Ross, 2011).

People fleeing persecution for reasons stated in the UN convention do not need identity papers or a visa to enter a country to claim protection under this convention. They can enter these countries by plane, boat, car and foot.

As of 2012 the UNHCR estimates that there were 15.4 million refugees and 45.2 million forcibly displaced people in the world. This includes people who have experienced traumatic experience in the context of political violence, (but do not fit into the refugee definition), due to general civil unrest, the effect of war where they are not targeted in the conflict and people displaced within their own countries by conflict.

The Australian government is a signatory to both the United Nations 1951 Convention and the 1968 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

Australia’s Humanitarian Program is divided into 2 main components: 1st is the Off-Shore Program (Resettlement)- for refugees and other humanitarian entrants who applied for resettlement in Australia from overseas. The on-shore program (asylum/protection)- for refugees and other people needing protection under complementary protection legislation, who those who apply for protection when already in Australia. Until their claims are decided, these people are referred to as “asylum seekers” (From



Prior to the invention of air travel people travelled using boats, all discoveries were done on boats even modern white Australia was discovered by boat. So how and when did it become a horrendous crime to seek the opportunity of a better life via a boat and without a visa.

In the 1930’s more than 7,000 refugees from Nazi Germany were accepted into Australia. After World War II ended, almost 200,000 European refugees settled in Australia, in order to increase Australia’s economic productivity. Prior to this Australia led a very monocultural society. The white Australia Policy placed a “dictation test on intending immigrants, forcing the exclusion of those who were perceived to be physically different, and those who were assumed to be culturally unassimilable” (Theophanous, 1995, pg. 3). It basically excluded most people, except the British and some Northern Europeans. In particular, it was extremely tough for Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders and this effect was reinforced by the media in major scare campaigns. When these first waves of refugees came into Australia at the end of the Second World War the White Australia Policy came under extreme pressure. In return the policy turned its assertion towards assimilation. The Governments of the time believed that “social cohesion would only be maintained if Australia pursued a discriminatory immigration program” (Theophanous, 1995, pg. 3).

The public consensus was that Australia should adopt a migration program for economic gain however there was a disagreement over the “cultural and racial composition of the program” (Theophanous, 1995, pg. 3). The idea was to limit migration to the Anglo-Celtic stock; this was challenged by the expansion of the immigration program. Due to the declining number of British settlers emphasis then fell on including other Europeans including Eastern European Migrants. However a stark distinction was made between Europeans and people of other races, who were still excluded by the White Australia Policy. During this period migrants had to assimilate, they were “strongly urged to cast aside their own cultural heritage and adopt the language, values and norms of the mainstream Australian culture” (Theophanous, 1995, pg. 4). The aim of assimilationists for Australia during the post-war period was to do what had been done up until then, and that was to deny any cultural forms other than the Anglo-Celtic ideal. Even though many cultures did co-exist together within Australia, there was still an absurd idea that there was only one homogenous Australian identity and culture. As the post-war migration continued so too did the pressure on the assimilate policies. In the 1960’s the “dictation” clause of the White Australia Policy was removed, however it was not until 1973 when the Whitlam Government sealed the final steps in eradicating the White Australia Policy.

The Whitlam Government introduced a number of measures relating to Australia’s immigration policies which reversed the racist attitudes that were inherent in Australia’s immigration policies at the time. With these positive changes Australia saw a new wave of immigration. With it came in April 1976 the first recorded instance of asylum seekers arriving unauthorised by boat. These were Vietnamese asylum seekers fleeing the violence in Vietnam. Initially there was some controversy regarding these asylum seekers, which included mandatory detention of asylum seekers. However between 1976-1985 70,000 Vietnamese refugees were settled in Australia, which was authorised by the then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. However settlement in Australia was difficult, there were no settlement services including English classes to assist the new arrivals. They were expected to come in and melt in within the Australia system. Most came and joined the labour force, taking on menial jobs where English wasn’t required. Public opinion was quite discriminatory, white Australia saw the new arrivals as coming into the Country and taking over their jobs and taking over Australia.

For the Vietnamese family kinship structure is very important, when the first wave of refugees arrived in Australia they were lucky if they had come with a nuclear family. The loss of this kinship structure had a catastrophic effect on the community. With parents working long hours, there wasn’t anyone to look after the children. Children then became isolated and mum and dad found they had become distant from their children, the children then found comfort in gangs, drugs and crime. This then escalated into what was known as the drug and crime problems of Cabramatta. The Governments at the time realised they needed to do more to provide support to refugees upon arrival into Australia, thus the settlement program for Australia began.

During the late 80’s and early 90’s asylum seekers from Cambodia began arriving by boat. In response the then Hawke/Keating Governments introduced a policy known as mandatory detention aimed at deterring refugees. Under mandatory detention anyone who enters Australian migration zone without a valid visa is detained while security and health checks are performed. In additions to this the validity of the person’s claim to asylum is assessed.

In the year 1990 numerous boats carrying asylum seekers from Somalia without documentations arrived on Australian shores. They were detained for 18 months without any progress on their status. Eventually they were all determined to be genuine refugees. In the mid-1990s numerous boats carrying Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese refugees were returned to their place of origin after their claims for asylum were refused. During this period a refugee from Indonesia was detained for 707 days before being granted refugee status. (From

In 1995 Australia changed its laws to reduce Australia’s intake of refugee’s. “Previously a family application for offshore settlement had been counted as one of 12,000 places granted each year” (Isaacs, 2014. Pg. 323). After the change of law each individual member of a family in an application was counted as making an individual application for one of the 12,000 places. In 1996 Australia became the only country to link its offshore and onshore program by allowing the 12,000 places previously set aside for offshore applicants were to be replaced by any successful onshore applicants. “This meant that the more boats that came the fewer refugees would be accepted from UNHCR camps and the rest of the world” (Isaacs, 2014. Pg. 323). This is when the idea that boat arrivals were stealing the places of genuine refugees in camps, thus the term “queue jumper” was creating.

In 2004 The High Court of Australia ruled legal for the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. “The Australian government can now legally detain anyone reasonably suspected of being an illegal non-citizen for an indefinite period of time with no access to judicial review” (Isaacs, 2014. Pg 323).

Negative Media in Association With negative Government Policy

Negative Media in Association with Negative Government Policy:

As history has shown there have been many instances of a media campaign marked by fear against asylum seekers, however I would like to focus on a very tragic event that marked a very grim time in Australian politics. 2001 marked a very troublesome year for the Western World; there were the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and on the Pentagon. There was also the much publicised issue of the “Tampa”. In August 2001, a Norwegian tanker the Tampa, picked up 438 people whose boat was sinking off the coast of Indonesia, and then the Australian Government refused permission for the Tampa to dock at an Australian port. The Government claimed that the asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard after being refused permission to enter Australian territories. The truth was that the rickety boat the asylum seekers were travelling began to sink and the asylum seekers had no other option but to throw their children overboard in order to survive. Throughout this saga and through 2001 there emerged in Australia a “negative and sometimes crudely pejorative asylum dialogue within the Government, media and other public discourse” (qtd in Klocker and Dunn 2003, pg. 71). Following the weeks after the September 11th attacks ministers of the Australian Government crudely “linked asylum seekers to terrorism”, there seem to be, in the Governments opinion, an undeniable link between illegal immigrants and terrorism, Junior finance minister quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 September 2001 and Minister for Defence, quoted in The Insiders, on the 23rd of September 2001, (from Klocker and Dunn 2003, pg. 71). These assumption were based on the notion that at the time the asylum seekers were primarily Muslim and from Afghanistan and were people with “strange identities” (Klocker and Dunn, 2003, pg. 71). Some ministers were referring to how asylum seekers had thrown children overboard during the Tampa crises or that asylum seekers were threatening to sew their children’s lips together whilst in detention. It is said to be noted that these accusation and links to terrorism and threats to children were found to be baseless lies.

News journalism is part of the “machinery representation which is influential in determining our knowledge of society and the policies that we are prepared to accept” (Klocker and Dunn, 2003 pg. 74). In this way the media are a significant driver of public opinion, what is stated in the media influences public opinion. The Howard Government lay claim that their asylum seeker policy was driven by public opinion; they heavily fed the idea that it was their policies which stopped the boats. However it can be said that they led through the media, rather than followed public opinion. This was a way to generate public concern and to construct asylum seekers as the other. Klocker and Dunn research proved that the Howard Government used negative language to describe asylum seekers, in fact over 90% of the language used was negative, thus to win the consensus of the public. They discovered that the most frequent used words by the federal government portrayed asylum seekers as “illegitimate, illegal and threatening” (Klocker and Dunn, 2003 pg. 77), as was seen and heard on mainstream media. Descriptions of “illegitimacy” were used to describe asylum seekers as “bypassing/transiting through safe countries, and seeking a migration outcome, as opposed to the refugee, and also taking places from genuine refugees” (Klocker and Dunn, 2003 pg. 77).The use of “illegitimacy” were used to declare that asylum seekers are not entitled to protection within Australia, which justifies their detentioning and exclusion. The use of “illegality” included words like “illegal immigrants, as unauthorised” (Klocker and Dunn, 2003 pg. 77). The third most common government set of description of asylum seekers as being a “physical and cultural threat” (Klocker and Dunn, 2003 pg. 78). There was an ever present threat to border integrity, which became a recurrent theme for the Government and consecutive Governments. “Its importance was highlighted by the naming of the 2001legislation to exclude asylum seekers with the Border Protection Bill” (Klocker and Dunn, 2003 pg. 77). I think it is very evident the Government has led negative rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers.

Unfortunately Australia hasn’t learned from its troubled past, in fact today the Government policies and media approach to asylum seekers is still negative. It can be observed by one that if there is any positive rhetoric regarding asylum seekers it usually has to do with how much Australia (as white Anglo-Saxon) has assisted asylum seekers rather than implying that Australia merely provided a capacity for asylum seekers to achieve self- determination. Historically Governments have involved the media and together they have used very toxic terminology to describe asylum seekers.

Rudd, Gillard, Rudd

When Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election, a lot of optimism was bought with it. First came the national sorry day in recognition of the injustice suffered by Australia’s indigenous population. Then Rudd abandoned the Howard Governments Pacific Solution, installing a more humane policy. Rudd sought to settle asylum seeker claims within three months and closed Nauru down. The Rudd Government also abolished temporary protection visas in 2008. As it turns out only 45 of the 1,637 asylum seekers detained in Nauru were found not to be refugees.

Then things went from great to worse for asylum seekers as politics was interplayed with their future, with a rise in asylum seekers arriving by boats and increases in claims under Rudd’s term as Prime Minister. Mr. Rudd attempted to blame the increase on the international political climate at the time and not on the abandonment of the Pacific Solution, which the Coalition lay claim to and which became the consensus amongst the media and population. When this claim failed for Kevin Rudd, he proposed what has become known as the Indonesian solution. Under this plan Australia would give Indonesia funds and intelligence in exchange for a crackdown on people smugglers and transported asylum seekers. Unfortunately the Indonesia Solution failed for Kevin Rudd.

When Julia Gillard came to power in what has become known as Australia’s first Coup. She strongly believed that it was unfair that special privileges were given to asylum seekers arriving by boat; this exemplifies the negative rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers as they somehow cheated into arriving in Australia, and she was also against a return to the Pacific Solution. She instead argued for establishment of a regional offshore processing centre. In May 2011, the Gillard Government announced a new plan where new asylum-seeker claims will be “swapped” for long-term genuine refugees in Malaysia, this became known as the Malaysia Solution. This later became ruled as unconstitutional because Malaysia was not a signatory with the United Nations Convention. Underlying the rhetoric of this policy has been the idea that asylum seekers arriving by boat are somehow taking the place of genuine refugees, as if there is a line and queue. In reality being granted a visa in a refugee camp is like “winning a lottery ticket”. There is no refugee line, visas are granted via case by case and the most serious cases are granted first.

In 2012 the Gillard Government reinstated the Pacific Solution after an expert panel placed 22 recommendations. Mark Isaacs became a Salvation Army worker at Nauru during this term. When the Pacific Solution was in place, whilst under the Howard Government there was no room for any other workers besides the immigration workers and security workers, however under the Gillard Government, the scheme hired Salvation Army to look after the needs of the asylum seekers. Mark Isaacs spent 4 terms working at Nauru, he gives a firsthand account of the conditions there and the inhuman nature of the place and the policies the Governments have implemented.

In another twisted bid Kevin Rudd, after being reinstated as Prime Minister of Australia. Made a deal with the Papua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, where new asylum seekers would be sent to Papua New Guinea where legitimate cases would be granted asylum to live in Papua New Guinea, but they would lose any right to seek asylum in Australia. This policy received much criticism by the Greens and other Human Rights Groups. But the majority of public consensus and the Coalition agreed with the policies, claiming that Australian’s had, had enough of seeing innocent people dying at sea.

Operation Sovereign Borders

We now turn to the current situation, with a Liberal Coalition Government with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Operation Sovereign Borders is a military-led response to tackle people smuggling and to protect Australian borders, a hard-line policy the Coalition took to the September 2013 federal election. Its aim is to stop asylum seekers from reaching Australia by boat, and without a valid visa and it also includes denying those asylum seekers resettlement in Australia. The Policy includes;

  • Turning back boats, including providing support to transit countries to intercepts asylum seekers departing their shores.

  • Intercepting all vessels travelling from Sri Lanka and arranging for the immediate return of all passengers, regardless of their asylum seeker status.

  • Increasing the capacity of offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, and denying those in offshore detention resettlement in Australia, even if found to be genuine refugees.

  • Purchasing and deploying vessels, such as orange lifeboats, to turn (and tow) back asylum seekers whose boats are unseaworthy

  • Reintroducing temporary protection visas (TPVs) for asylum seekers currently in Australia, awaiting determination of their refugee status

  • Denying refugee status for those who are reasonably believed to have discarded or destroyed their identity documents- the Coalition government wants to simply refuse to process such asylum seekers

    (From; ASRC Operation Sovereign Borders)

This hard-line policy affects asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home countries, and those living in transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. The policy aims to deny asylum seekers resettlement in Australia and leaves them stranded in transit countries or in offshore detention centre’s adding to their trauma and mental instability.

The UNHCR has raised many concerns regarding offshore processing, stating the “legal framework and physical conditions for the detention and treatment of asylum-seekers remain below international standards and, overall, do not provide for a safe, fair and humane standard of treatment” (UNHCR Regional Representation, Canberra, 2013). This report looked at conditions in the regional processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island, it also looked into the Australia and Papua New Guinea agreement in this report it concluded that there were “no legal and regulatory framework for processing asylum claims” (UNHCR Regional Representation, Canberra, 2013). This report also outlines many issues that it identified as being problematic. This included;

  • Constitute arbitrary and mandatory detention under international law;

  • Do not provide a fair, efficient and expeditious system for assessing refugee claims;

  • Do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention; and

  • Do not provide for adequate and timely solutions for refugees

    (UNHCR Regional Representation, Canberra, 2013).

    As well as militarising the asylum seeker debate the current government has also shrouded its policy in secrecy. The government has restricted access to information regarding all aspects of the military action. This includes;

  • The number of detected vessels still attempting voyages

  • The number of turn back boats and the use of lifeboats to transfer asylum seekers

  • Conditions and security incidents in offshore detention centres

    (ASRC, Operation Sovereign Borders)

    Mark Isaacs is a Salvation Army worker hired to work at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre whilst the previous Labour Government was in power. In his book, “The Undesirables; Inside Nauru” Mark raises many concerns he has regarding Australia’s treatment of Asylum seekers. His book is an interesting read and it outlines the daily struggles on life in a detention centre, it also gives accounts of the lives of the men held in detention, their hopes, dreams, failures and the threat of indefinite detention.

Concluding Remarks

Concluding remarks

Through this article I have tried to argue the point that Australia has always had negative and often harsh perspectives on migration and in particular on boat arrivals. In recent times the policies have become harsher, the government has shifted its rhetoric onto people smugglers stating that they take advantage of innocent people by tricking them into endangering their lives and those of their loved ones, and somewhere amongst this debate we have justified the turn back the boats policy. However with all of this Australia has failed its obligation towards the Human Rights Treaty. Australia has claimed that many of the asylum seekers that come via boats are “economic migrants”, however in many instances this has been proven false, majority of Asylum seekers arriving by boat are deemed to be genuine refugees. If we take time to look at why asylum seekers are taking that risk we can see that their perilous voyage is in desperation and is usually the last resort. An asylum seeker can find them in a refugee camp or transit country for years, even decades. Receiving a visa to travel to another country is like winning a lottery ticket, according the refugee council. In this frustration the asylum would try anything to find safety, even risk their lives and travel by a rickety boat. They cannot return to their homes, they live in fear of persecution. In camps and transit countries they live as second class citizens with next to no rights, they are not safe. In the end they take that journey as a last resort or they risk living like stateless citizens in countries which they don’t care for their welfare.

It is true that not everyone applying for asylum will be granted refugee status; however does that mean their fear of persecution and harm is not real. According to the UNHCR as of 2012, there were 45.2 million forcibly displaced people in the world. This includes forced migrants, asylum seekers and internally displaced people. This shows that as a global trend there are numerous unstable problems including war, civil unrest, natural disasters, genocides and climate changes, which are forcing people to flee their homes, towns, cities and countries to look for a safer place to settle. It is human nature to seek a better life, and there is nothing wrong with that. For the lucky few who can be recognised as “refugees” resettlement becomes easier and they can go on to re-build their lives. But there are many more out there who fall out of the criteria of a refugee, but who still live in fear of persecution and or cannot go back to their homes, live in unsafe environments and cannot return back to their homes and most likely cannot afford to pay for the expensive migration visas. How do we as a globe address this? Can the developed world provide a scheme where people can seek asylum on other grounds besides refugee applications. Offcourse this will be for people who are displaced. There surely can be a more humane way to deal with the most vulnerable people in our societies.

Australia together with the United Nation should push for better conditions for those seeking asylum in transit countries and where refugee settlements are established. Australia can also process claims and applications quicker and increase its intake of refugees from transitional countries and refugee camps. For those that do come via the boat are so allowed under international refugee law, Australia should deal with this humanly and justly. They should be allowed to remain within the community and, does it really matter that asylum seekers are allowed to live within the community until their applications are processed? The Refugee Council and Amnesty International also believe that no one individual should be subjected to prolonged detentioning, decision making and unlawful profiling. Enough is enough, attempts to close borders are almost certain failure and an aggressive response cannot prevent the phi light of people. They have suffered and their torture has been prolonged enough, Australia needs to recognise this. They are not criminals they are humans who are scared and are attempting to find a better life for their families.

By Zafirah Akbar


  1. Amnesty International Australia; (2013), Our Campaign For Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

  2. Asylum in Australia;

  3. Asylum Seeker Resource Centre; (2013), Operation Sovereign Borders, mail:

  4. Isaacs, Mark; (2014), The Undesirables: Inside Nauru. Hardie Grant Books; Melbourne.

  5. Klocker N and K. Dunn; (2003), “Who’s Driving the Asylum Debate: Newspaper and Government Representation of Asylum Seekers”. Media International Australia Incorporating Culture and Policy: Quarterly Journal of Media Research and Resources.

  6. McNevin A, Peter Mares, Damir Mitric, Klaus Neumann and Savitri Taylor; (2014), Beyond Deterrence: Reframing The Asylum Seeker Debate. Inside Story.

  7. Refugee Council of Australia; (2014), Australia’s Focus on Deterrence Challenged in Global Forum.

  8. Ross, Monique; (2011), Understanding the Asylum Seeker Debate. ABC News.

  9. Theophanous, Andrew; (1995), Understanding Multiculturalism and Australian Identity, Elikia Books; Melbourne

  10. UNHCR Regional Representation; (2013), UNHCR Monitoring Visit to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, UNCR The UN Refugee Agency; Canberra. .


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