Public attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees

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Australian politicians have a long history of using dehumanising language to influence public opinion against people seeking asylum, particularly those arriving by boat (Clark 2013, Nicholson and Dodd 2012, Cox 2015, Bickers 2017).

Often, polarising language is used to distinguish “queue jumping” asylum seekers from “genuine” refugees. The findings of an online survey of 6001 Australians conducted in July and August 2015 and November 2016 indicate that the artificial binary created by politicians may have an impact on public attitudes toward asylum seeker and refugees in Australia. Past research has found that peoples’ evaluations and attitudes are generally less sympathetic if the group is referred to as illegal immigrants rather than asylum seekers (Augoustinos & Quinn, 2003). Our results further show that participants are less sympathetic to asylum seekers than to refugees.

The broader research study, Face Up to Racism: 2015-16 National Survey, sought to measure the extent and variation of racist attitudes and experiences in Australia, using a sample that is largely representative of the broader Australian population. A number of questions were used to test attitudes toward asylum seekers, refugees and Australia’s border protection policies. We found that 36 per cent of respondents stated they had positive or somewhat positive feelings toward refugees in Australia, with 44 per cent of respondents indicating their feelings were neutral (see Table 1). While only 19 per cent of respondents claimed to have very negative or somewhat negative feelings towards refugees, 43 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposition (asked in a later question) that boats carrying asylum seekers should be turned back. Only 29 per cent of respondents disagreed with this proposition. Furthermore, when asked if Australia should help refugees fleeing persecution in their homeland, 55 per cent agreed and only 14 per cent disagreed (see Table 2).

Table 1


Table 2 


Interestingly, responses to these questions contradict each other. A cross-tabulation indicates that of those participants who believe all boats carrying asylum seekers should be turned back, 34 per cent of them also agree that Australia should help refugees fleeing persecution. Our results show that while Australians are largely supportive of helping refugees, a significant proportion of those same people want to see boats carrying asylum seekers turned away.

Table 3


These results may be indicative of the impact different social category labels, such as ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘refugees’, have had on the respondents’ evaluations of members of those social groups. Binary language is often used to make the distinction between ‘asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat’ and ‘refugees’ (Rowe & O’Brien 2014; Pickering 2001). In the past, we’ve seen that the use of terms such as ‘legal’ versus ‘illegal’, ‘genuine’ versus ‘non-genuine’, and ‘refugee’ versus ‘boat arrival/person’ have contributed to a delineation between two groups of people (Rowe & O’Brien 2014). In these examples the former always refers to refugees, who are often depicted as languishing in refugee camps in Africa for extended periods of time, waiting their turn to be resettled, and the latter as asylum seekers, who have ‘jumped the queue’, paid for the services offered by people smugglers and subsequently made their way to Australia by boat. This depiction of two separate and distinct groups – one which is constructed as the illegitimate and undeserving ‘other’ – enables the Australian public to simultaneously hold negative attitudes toward asylum seekers and positive attitudes towards refugees.

Within Australian political discourse and media representations, asylum seekers are frequently spoken about in relation to their mode of arrival. Terminology such as ‘illegal boat arrivals’ and ‘unauthorised maritime arrivals’ have become synonymous with the term ‘asylum seekers’ (see for example, election leaflets and online advertisements distributed throughout the 2013 Federal Election campaign). The effect of political leaders using these descriptors has resulted in people seeking asylum being perceived as illegitimate or criminal, because their arrival in Australia is perceived as illegal. The perceived illegality and illegitimacy of asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat, as perpetuated by Australian political leaders and Australian media (Pedersen, Attwell & Heveli 2005; Klocker & Dunn 2003; Pedersen, Watt & Hansen 2006), could be responsible for a sizeable proportion of the Australian population demanding the repatriation of asylum seekers and supporting government policies that prevent people seeking asylum from even entering Australian territorial waters.

“More than 14,500 desperate people have been denied a place under our offshore humanitarian programme because those places have been taken by people who have arrived illegally by boat. These people are genuine refugees, already processed by United Nations agencies, but they are denied a chance at resettlement by people who have money in their pocket to buy a place via people smugglers”

The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders Policy, 2013, pg. 3


The language political leaders use when discussing people seeking asylum by boat has been influential in constructing asylum seekers as undeserving. In contrast, refugees are constructed as not only in need of our protection, but as deserving of that protection. Political leaders typically use the notion of genuineness to differentiate refugees from their supposedly non-genuine counterparts, asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat (for example see The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders Policy). This dichotomous construction has generated contradictory attitudes towards people seeking the protection of the Australian government, based purely on their mode of arrival. While Australians are generally open to and accepting of refugees, this acceptance does not extend to people seeking asylum who travel to Australia by boat.


This research was commissioned by the television network SBS for the documentary entitled ‘Is Australia Racist?’


Augoustinos, M., & Quinn, C. (2003). Social categorization and attitudinal evaluations: Illegal immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers? New Review of Social Psychology, 2(1), 29-37.

Bickers, C. (2017). Estimates hearing outrage after asylum seekers referred to as ‘fleas’. news.com.au. Retrieved from http://www.news.com.au/national/politics/estimates-hearing-outrage-after-asylum-seekers-referred-to-as-fleas/news-story/64dbeea66143bc4ad297148e073463d3

Clark, T. (2013). Calling a boat person a spade: Australia’s asylum seeker rhetoric. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/calling-a-boat-person-a-spade-australias-asylum-seeker-rhetoric-19367

Cox, L. (2015). ‘Nope, nope, nope’: Tony Abbott says Australia will not resettle refugees in migrant crisis’. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/nope-nope-nope-tony-abbott-says-australia-will-not-resettle-refugees-in-migrant-crisis-20150521-gh6eew.html

Klocker, N., & Dunn, K. (2003). Who’s driving the asylum debate? Newspaper and government representations of asylum seekers. Media International Australia, 109, 71-92.

Nicholson, B., & Dodd, M. (2012). Abbott slams boatpeople as un-Christian. The Australian. Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/immigration/abbott-slams-boatpeople-as-un-christian/news-story/ac0085182bda0a3dc3e469651873fa46

Pedersen, A., Attwell, J., & Heveli, D. (2005). Prediction of negative attitudes toward Australian asylum seekers: False beliefs, nationalism and self-esteem. Australian Journal of Psychology, 57(3), 148-160.

Pedersen, A., Watt, S., & Hansen, S. (2006). The role of false beliefs in the community’s and the federal government’s attitudes toward Australian asylum seekers. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 41(1), 105-124.

Pickering, S. (2001). Common sense and original deviancy: News discourse and asylum in Australia. Journal of Refugee Studies. 14(2), 169-186.

Rowe, E., & O’Brien, E. (2014). ‘Genuine refugees or illegitimate ‘boat people’: political constructions of asylum seekers and refugees in the Malaysia Deal debate. Australian Journal of Social Issues. 49(2), 171-193.

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