Australia and Asylum Seekers: Media Perspectives

December 13, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Asylum seekers have long been the consequence of war, poverty and natural disaster. The term ‘asylum seeker’ refers to a human being seeking refuge from hardship or persecution. Whilst multilaterals such as the UN recognise their dire circumstances and universal human rights under International Humanitarian Law, the media continue to portray asylum seekers in a negative light. The media use their sway to influence public opinion on such matters as they see fit. This report investigates both scholarly and non-scholarly articles regarding the media portrayal of asylum seekers, and how it influences public opinion.


What role do the media play in forming public opinion? The media industry incorporates television, film, magazine publications, newspapers, radio and social media. With such a mass coverage and range of mediums, the media’s audience coverage and readership is extensive.

Due to their extensive influence and affluence, the media as an institution has incredible coercive ability and lobbying potential (Lynch 2005). With great power comes great responsibility, and it would not be unjust to suggest that the media abuses its power at times of convenience. So how does the media industry form public opinion? Through the analysis of research published regarding asylum seekers, this report will demonstrate the media’s ability to frame issues to suit their interests; lead public opinion through the portrayal of statistics; and encourage society into induced xenophobic indignation.

Media corruption can be in the form of backing governments, criticising politicians, lobbying for change or any number of self-beneficial causes (Lynch 2005). Such examples of Australian media corruption include the 1999 and 2004 ‘Cash for Comment’ scandal involving 2UE‘s John Laws and Alan Jones taking payment from corporate clientele in exchange for positive on-air radio comments (WSWS 1999) . Similarly, the 2001 ‘Children Overboard’ scandal was manipulated by the media to falsely portray asylum seekers in the lead up to Howard’s re-election ( Marr & Wilkinson 2003, pp.194-210). Such examples represent a slight proportion of media scandals whereby their power has been misused. This report will compare the media’s portrayal and the actual facts of asylum seekers. Using such examples this report will implement them relatively into the broader spectrum of the media’s role in society.


Published academic literature on the subject of asylum seekers is unified in its approach: the problem society has with asylum seekers is fabricated and formed by the media. This recognition undermines the fascist approach taken by media corporations which set out to portray asylum seekers in a negative light. The selective use of derogatory terms is done in the hope of demonising and dehumanising them. In no other place is this more evident than the media’s terminology in attempting to form public opinion. By utilising particular vocabularies within their message, political entrepreneurs are able to create favourable or negative attitudes to certain social ideas (Simon & Jerit 2007, p.255). Illegal Immigrants was a term popularly used by the Liberal government under John Howard (1996 – 2007) in an attempt to demonise and criminalise asylum seekers. This term was then used by the media in an attempt to form public opinion. This worked on the basis that “‘political discourse essentially determines public opinion.” (Simon & Jerit 2007, p.254) Likewise the term Boat People was popularly used in an attempt to dehumanise asylum seekers. In doing so the media hoped the public would be subservient to media discourse in denying asylum seekers universal human rights, essentially ignoring Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established by the UN in 1948 (United Nations 1948). Major themes throughout the literature suggest a strong link between the media’s framing of asylum seekers, and the government’s ability to form and lead public opinion.

Essentially the media becomes a tool utilised by the government to manipulate and lead public opinion. Popular belief within a democratic society however, often holds the opposite misconception; that public opinion leads government decisions, but according to academic articles, this couldn’t be further from the truth (Simon & Jerit 2007, p.254).


A key point the majority of academic journals unanimously agree upon, is that political policy does not dictate how many asylum seekers arrive on our shores every year – global events do. From January 2008 to June 2009, 750 asylum seekers arrived in Australian waters by boat.

This is a stark comparison to the 5516 which arrived following the onset of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (Get Up! 2009). The following research puts into perspective the actual situation surrounding asylum seekers and shows up the gross manipulation by the media, of the statistics.

Through media manipulation, public option is heavily skewed. Myths and misconceptions regarding refugees are rife throughout society fuelled by the media’s false representation on the issue.

Through such media manipulation, myths are appropriated by the government in an attempt to form public opinion. This can be seen through the six common myths circulated by the media, which are out rightly disputed by academics in the field (Pickering 2012). Published over multiple sources (Get Up! 2009), it appears these six ‘myths’ are commonly held throughout all socio-economic levels of society. Perhaps the most common of these myths, is that supposed boat people are swamping Australian shores’ they are not.

A report from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2009 revealed an increase of 19% in asylum applications from 2008 (United Nations 2009, p.3).

Whilst this figure may be regarded as substantial, let’s look at the bigger picture:

1) Firstly, out of the 4750 asylum seekers seeking refuge in 2009, more than 96% of the applications were made by people arriving in Australia by plane. This leaves a total of only 179 people, or less than 4% of asylum applications being made by people arriving by boat (Steketee 2009). Let us not forget that arriving in Australia by boat is not an illegal act in itself when the people entering are seeking asylum. It is their universal human right to seek asylum if they are at threat of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social class (United Nations ‘Who are refugees?‘ 2012).

2) Australia is a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1954. As such, it has agreed to adhere to the international laws regarding asylum seekers and granting them refugee status (United Nations 1951, p.137). However, despite being a signatory, Australia issues far fewer Refugee & Humanitarian Visas than most other countries. For example, according to the UNHCR statistics, the global average increase for asylum applications in 2008 increased by 12% from 2007. Australia’s went up by 19% – only 7% above the global average. Finland however, endured an increase of 181%, and they are a more densely populated nation (Steketee 2009).

3) The UNHCR calculates that countries should accept 197 asylum seekers, per million head of population (Steketee 2009). In this context Australia rates 20th of 44 countries (United Nations ‘Statistics & Operational Data‘ 2012). Another comparison is with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In this category Australia still falls short at 24th place (Carmody 2009).

With every aspect acknowledged, Australia takes nowhere near as many refugees as we should, or could.

As with all reports, it is important to consider not only that this presents a balanced view by encompassing all evidence, but also that the evidence comes from an appropriate and credible source. The evidence from this report derives from journals, government statistics, official UN publications and newspaper articles. After all, it would be unwise to quote statistics and information found on blog sites.


As these findings clearly show, asylum seekers are grossly misrepresented by the media. Not only is their intent and integrity called into question, but the percentage of reporting space asylum seekers consume in mainstream media is grossly disproportionate to their actual numbers and social issues they represent to the community.

As the findings demonstrate, asylum seekers are not the issue. The data shows that asylum seekers arriving in Australia are below global trends in all aspects. In this instance, the Australian media is in no position to use fear tactics to manipulate public opinion in this matter as the perceived threat presented is non-existent. It is crucial also to understand that whilst politicians claim boat people are swamping our shores, they still only represent the most minute portion of asylum seekers: 4%. If anything, the Australian government should be actively providing support to countries such as Finland that are struggling with their current intake capacity. Being as Australia is such a large country, further infrastructure should be put in place to enable greater intakes of refugees and make processing of asylum applications more efficient.

Clear connections can be drawn between the use of terms such as illegal immigrant and boat people, to the government’s attempts to form public opinion through the media. Correlations can also be drawn between Australia’s rising number of asylum seekers, and global trends.

However it is important to remember that Australia’s border policy does not determine how many applications for asylum Australia receives, but that global events (such as invading the asylum seekers’ home country) are responsible. If the Australian public truly find the current refugee intake too big a burden, then pressure should be applied to policy makers and politicians to cease Australian involvement in Allied imperial expansionist engagements, such as the War on Terror.


Clearly there is no great concern with the number of asylum seekers entering Australia, and especially not with supposed boat people. The term ‘illegal immigrants’ is a term used by the media to manipulate public opinion and in doing so attempt to change or shame government policy. Asylum seekers are not terrorists wishing to corrupt the Australian way of life, but simply victims of western imperial warmongering. Asylum seekers are human beings in such fear of persecution that they are willing to flee their homeland; abandoning their property and possessions.

The most interesting point derived from this research is the fact that ‘boat people‘ only represent 4% of asylum seekers – assuming 2009 represents an average intake portion. Thus clearly demonstrating the issue is not with Australian border security or asylum policies but with right wing xenophobic attitudes embedded in Australian politics.

This report is a vital component of the contextual understanding of the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. As part of a larger context, the data this report presents is integral to society’s understanding of key issues and arguments surrounding the asylum seeker debate. The findings from this report should be used to broaden society’s understanding of the issues and breed a greater culture of compassion to those seeking asylum.

Connect to Finn Bowen at:


‘Australia & Asylum Seekers: The Myths & The Facts’ 2009, Get Up! Action for Australia, < >.

ABC News 2009, ‘1999 – 2009: The asylum seeker issue in Australia’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Accessed 9-NOV-2012, < >.

Carmody, S. 2009, ‘When it comes to asylum seekers, Australia is no Malta’, Crikey, 19-OCT-2009.

Fox, P. 2010, ‘International Asylum and Boat People: The Tampa Affair and Australia’s “Pacific Solution”‘, Maryland Journal of International Law, vol. 25, no. 15, pp. 356-373.

Lynch, A. 2005, ‘US: The Media Lobby’, Corp Watch, Accessed 7-NOV-2012, < >.

Marr, D. & Wilkinson, M. 2003, ‘Truth overboard’, Dark Victory, Allen & Unwin, Crow’s Nest, N.S.W., pp. 194-210.

Pickering, S. 2012, 28-JUN-2012, ‘Six issues missing from the asylum seeker debate’, Australian Research Council/Monash University, Accessed 8-NOV-2012, < >.

Rosewarne, S. 2004, Reflections on Australia’s regressive refugee policies, Australian Review of Public Affairs, accessed 17 October 2012, < >.

Simon, A. & Jerit, J. 2007, ‘Toward a Theory Relating Political Discourse, Media & Public Opinion’, Journal of Communication, Vol.57, pp.254 – 271.

Steketee, M. 2009, ‘Liberals wrong on refugees’, The Australian, 16-APR-2009.

United Nations 1948, ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, UN High Commission for Refugees, Accessed 7-NOV-2012, < >.

United Nations 1951, ‘Chapter 5: Refugees & Stateless Persons’, Treaty Series, Vol. 189, p.137.

United Nations 2001, ‘A/56/PV.65’ (General Assembly, 56th Session, 65th Plenary Meeting), Official Records, 27th November 2001, New York, pp. 1-30.

United Nations 2009, ‘Asylum Levels & Trends in Industrialised Countries’, UN High Commission for Refugees, p.3.

United Nations 2012, ‘Statistics & Operational Data’, UN High Commission for Refugees, Accessed 9-NOV-2012, < >.

United Nations 2012, ‘Who is a refugee?’, UN High Commission for Refugees, Accessed 9-NOV-2012, < >.

World Socialist Web Site 1999, ‘Big business pays millions to talk show host’, International Committee of the Fourth International, Accessed 8-NOV-2012, < http://www. >.


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