Negotiating Dehumanising Experiences of Asylum Seeker Policies in the Australian Community

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As the number of refugees and asylum-seekers escalates worldwide, industrialised countries continue to apply increasingly restrictive measures to deter those seeking asylum from entering their borders. These include the use of immigration detention, tougher refugee determination procedures, and temporary forms of protection.[1]


In Australia, a range of punitive policies and practices that target people seeking asylum by boat have been implemented by successive governments over the past 25 years. This includes the “no advantage policy” which has been applied to all people seeking asylum who arrived to Australia by boat since 13 August 2012 and meant that their protection claims would not be processed any faster than had they remained in Malaysia or Indonesia or in their neighbouring countries. Part of this policy was to re-open offshore detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Those who were not sent to an offshore detention centre remained in Australian immigration detention centres. Many of those who remained in Australia were later released into either community detention or issued a restrictive bridging visa that allowed them to live legally in the community while they waited for their refugee claims to be processed, but without the right to work.[2]


These, and more recent punitive policies, arguably help to convey a dehumanised image of people seeking asylum to the broader Australian community. While the process of dehumanisation appears to be an important process in justifying community support for restrictive and harsh policies,[3] that is, attributing less humanness to people seeking asylum, less is known about the ways in which people seeking asylum experience and negotiate such policies and the impact this has on their sense of humanity.


This gap in the literature is important. Despite being exposed to extraordinarily challenging circumstances, people from asylum-seeker and refugee backgrounds demonstrate considerable levels of personal resilience, with research highlighting a range of strategies that may maintain a sense of self and assist with coping throughout the migration process.[4] In this context, important questions arise as to how dehumanising experiences might be negotiated in ways that enhance and restore one’s humanity.


In this research, we focused on the experiences of people seeking asylum who arrived in Australia by boat since 13 August 2012 and were living in the community on a restrictive bridging visa. At the time of the interviews, people had been living in the community with no right to work and limited welfare assistance for periods ranging from two weeks to 9.5 months. The welfare support provided by the government is equivalent to 89 per cent of the basic national unemployment benefit allowance. While those on these visas are “entitled” to study, they must meet the required expenses themselves. For those who are eligible to pursue studies at a technical college or university, this means they need to pay international or full student fees, thus putting the option of study out of reach for most.


Through a series of 29 in-depth interviews with people seeking asylum from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iran, we examined their experiences of restrictive government policies, including delays in the processing of their refugee claims, and the denial of the right to work and limited welfare support. In particular, we considered how their experiences are described in dehumanising ways and how they negotiate their humanness in relation to their treatment.


Most of our interviewees described their experience living in the community in explicitly dehumanising terms, describing the ways in which government policy made them feel as though they were being denied experiences that distinguish humans from other animals, such as the right the work and having access to basic standards of living. This denial of humanness was met with a sense of shame and humiliation, and a destruction of one’s sense of autonomy. Some interviewees described their day-to-day experience as merely ‘existing’ in their room or apartment – undertaking only basic activities of survival such as eating and sleeping. A number of the interviewees described that the denial of the right to work was stripping away what makes humans unique from other animals, mapping onto animalising understandings of dehumanisation.[5] For example, Mostafa (names included in this article are pseudonyms) described how his monotonous daily existence made him feel as though he was living as an animal.


We are like animals. We wake up, we eat, we sleep. That is our life.


Despite the conditions in the community being described by many as dehumanising, many were also working hard to find activities that were affordable to regain a sense of control and independence over their daily lives. In particular, various forms of activities were drawn on to negotiate, resist and challenge their dehumanising experiences in the community.  For example, Riaz found a very cheap gym near where he was living in Perth that helped him cope with his daily concerns about the future. He described his days before finding the gym as living like a dog, demonstrating the ways in which his strategy helped to reconnect him with feeling human.


Before I didn’t have anything to do, I just walked, you know, street after street…like a dog just wandering around, I just went here and there.


A final theme among a number of those who were interviewed was the negotiation of their dehumanising experiences through speech. A number of interviewees asserted their humanity by appealing to human rights when discussing various aspects of their dehumanising experiences. The appeal to human rights through speech when describing dehumanising treatments worked to negotiate such treatment by realigning themselves to the human category and asserting themselves as human deserving of rights. For example, Omed negotiated his dehumanising experience by highlighting that he and others seeking asylum were entitled to the right to asylum, just as other humans are.


The thing is that if they think that all human beings are the same, why are we different?  Is it our fault to be born in Afghanistan and we’re here now?  We came here to survive, we knock on the right door to get some help, nobody’s answering that door to us.  Why are they thinking that humans are different, all humans are different?  If we are human, we should have the same right.


Despite the dehumanising experiences described by those in this research, our interviews highlight the very important finding that such experiences can be negotiated, challenged and resisted through action and speech-orientated strategies. Such expressions of agency and resistance are in-line with the reality that asylum-seekers who make it to Australia by boat have actively demonstrated that they are highly resourceful and determined. Despite significant and ongoing dehumanising treatments, people continue to assert their humanity and assert themselves of humans deserving of rights.


The full research paper can be found at:

Hartley, L., & Fleay, C. (2017). “We are Like Animals”: Negotiating Dehumanising Experiences of Asylum-Seeker Policies in the Australian Community. Refugee Survey Quarterly. https://academic.oup.com/rsq/article-abstract/doi/10.1093/rsq/hdx010/4101639/We-are-Like-Animals-Negotiating-Dehumanising

Top Image credit: Barat Ali Batoor


Works Cited

[1] T. Gammeltoft-Hansen, “International Refugee Law and Refugee Policy: The Case of Deterrence Policies”, Journal of Refugee Studies, 27(4), 2014, 574–595

[2] Australian Broadcasting Commission, As it Happened: Panel Releases Asylum Policy Findings, 2012, available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-08-13/live-blog-asylum-seeker-report/4195120 (last visited 10 Jan. 2017). It should be noted that restrictive bridging visas denying people seeking asylum the right to work or access to education, health services, or welfare were also used prior to 2012. See A. Markus & J. Taylor, “No Work, No Income, No Medicare – the Bridging Visa E Regime”, People and Place, 14(1), 2006, 43–52.

[3] V.M. Esses, S. Veenvliet, S. Hodson, & L. Mihic, “Justice, Morality, and the Dehumanization of Refugees”, Social Justice Research, 21(1), 2008, 4–25.

[4] For example, L. Hartley, C. Fleay, & M. Tye, “Exploring Physical Activity Engagement and Barriers for Asylum Seekers in Australia Coping with Prolonged Uncertainty and No Right to Work”, Health and Social Care in the Community, 25(3), 2017, 1190–1198; M. Hutchingson & P. Dorsett, “What Does the Literature Say about Resilience in Refugee People? Implications for Practice”, Journal of Social Inclusion, 3(2), 2012, 55–78; R. Schweitzer, J. Greenslade, & A. Kagee, “Coping and Resilience in Refugees from the Sudan: A Narrative Account”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry,41(3), 2007, 282–288.

[5] N. Haslam, “Dehumanization: An Integrative Review”, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(3), 2006, 252–264.

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