‘It Would be Okay If They Came through the Proper Channels’: Community Perceptions and
Attitudes toward Asylum Seekers in Australia
FIONA H. McKAY
Consumer Health Research Group (CHaRGe), School of Primary Care, Monash University,
SAMANTHA L. THOMAS
Consumer Health Research Group (CHaRGe), School of Primary Care, Monash University,
Faculty of Law, Monash University, Australia
MS received October 2010; revised MS received January 2011
Australia’s humanitarian programme contributes to UNHCR’s global resettlement programme and enhances Australia’s
international humanitarian reputation. However, as the recent tragedy on Christmas Island has shown, the arrival of
asylum seekers by boat continues to stimulate debate, discussion and reaction from the Australian public and the
Australian media. In this study, we used a mixed methods community survey to understand community perceptions and
attitudes relating to asylum seekers. We found that while personal contact with asylum seekers was important when
forming opinions about this group of immigrants, for the majority of respondents, attitudes and opinions towards
asylum seekers were more influenced by the interplay between traditional Australian values and norms, the way that
these norms appeared to be threatened by asylum seekers, and the way that these threats were reinforced both in media
and political rhetoric.
Keywords: asylum seeker, survey, qualitative, community perceptions, attitudes
Australia has one of the largest refugee resettlement programmes in the world. Since the Second
World War over 700,000 refugees or Displaced Persons (as they were originally termed) have
settled in Australia. Each year about 13,500 refugees are admitted under Australia’s Humanitarian
Programme . Under this Humanitarian Programme, the Australian Government allocates a set
number of places to refugees and others in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. While
most refugees are accepted by Australia through this formal Humanitarian Programme and are
granted refugee status before they arrive in Australia, an increasing number of individuals (referred
to as asylum seekers) arrive at Australian land and sea borders and then ask for protection. Asylum
seekers who arrive without a valid visa are detained in one of Australia’s detention facilities until
their case can be processed, usually several months but sometimes this process can take years .
Refugees accepted under the Humanitarian Programme are commonly perceived to be deserving of
resettlement, partly because they are seen to be following the ‘correct’ procedure for entry into
Australia . By contrast, negative media reporting and political discourse, and the public rhetoric
surrounding asylum seekers implies that their claims are not legitimate, that they pose a threat to
Australian identity and security, and are in some way engaging in illegal behaviour by not following
formal refugee processes . This perception of illegality is reinforced by the use of mandatory
detention of asylum seekers who arrive without a valid visa . While Australia’s acceptance of
refugees has contributed to its positive international humanitarian reputation, the policies towards,
and treatment of, asylum seekers has caused widespread national and international criticism .
Public Opinion towards Asylum Seekers in Australia: The Historical Context
In 1976, the first documented group of asylum seekers—five Vietnamese men termed ‘boat
people’—arrived in Darwin (Australia’s far north) by boat and asked for protection . While these
asylum seekers received support from the conservative Fraser Government, they did not receive the
same support from the Labor Opposition. This disagreement between the major political parties led
to a public debate about the fate of asylum seekers in Australia, resulting in widespread community
antagonism directed toward ‘boat people’ arrivals . In the six years to 1982, about 2,000
Vietnamese ‘boat people’ arrived in Australia , with a further 15,000 Vietnamese refugees settled
directly from refugee camps under the Humanitarian Programme . Despite the small numbers of
asylum seekers who arrived by boat during this period, public reaction was largely negative .
Australians were generally happy to receive the Vietnamese refugees selected from camps in
Southeast Asia under the Humanitarian Programme; however, 20 per cent wanted all ‘boat people’
‘stopped from staying here’ . Negative community reactions continued with the next ‘wave’ of
approximately 3,000 asylum seekers, mostly from China, Vietnam and Cambodia, who arrived by
boat between 1989 and 1993 . News polls conducted during this period showed that the majority
surveyed felt that the number of immigrants arriving in Australia was too high .
However, it was the arrival of approximately 12,000 asylum seekers, predominately from
Afghanistan and Iraq, between 1999 and 2001, that led to unprecedented negative political, media
and public reaction . While negative public reaction toward the arrival of asylum seekers was
present before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, it was intensified in the immediate
aftermath and the responses to terrorism, and the increasing negative political rhetoric directed at
asylum seekers from Australia’s conservative Howard Government . Such negative attitudes toward
asylum seekers had already been seen in response to an incident shortly before, in August 2001.
This incident involved the refused entry of the Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa, after the ship
rescued 438 mainly Afghani nationals who were en route to the Australian territory of Christmas
Island to claim asylum. The arrival of the Tampa sparked a surge in media interest in asylum seeker
issues, and allowed the Howard Government to establish a link between asylum seeking and the
threat to national sovereignty and terrorism . The Howard Government used the arrival of these
asylum seekers, and the newly established links between asylum seekers and terrorism, to
implement a number of policies that made it more difficult for asylum seekers to access Australia’s
legal processes. One of these policies allowed for the excision of many external Australian
territories, including Christmas Island, from the migration zone, while another was to allow asylum
seekers only temporary protection. Opinion polls during this period showed increasing hostility
toward asylum seekers. A poll conducted in September 2001 (6 weeks post Tampa) showed that 50
per cent of those polled would ‘turn back all boats carrying asylum seekers’ . Seven weeks later this
response had risen to 56 per cent .
Australia is currently experiencing the ‘fifth wave’ of asylum seeker arrivals . Between the
beginning of 2008 and the end of 2010, Australia received 9,422 asylum seekers by boat, including
6,535 in 2010, predominately from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka . The majority of these boats
departed from Indonesia, and involved people smuggling operations . Consistent with previous
asylum seeker arrivals, negative public sentiment has persisted throughout this ‘wave’. For
example, in 2010 an opinion poll showed that 75 per cent of Australians were concerned about
unauthorized asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat .
In the past decade a number of asylum seekers have perished while making their journey to
Australia by boat . The presence of a boat carrying asylum seekers in distress at Australian shores
often serves to both ignite and polarize public opinion about asylum seeker arrivals. A recent
example from December 2010, in which a boat carrying around 100 people broke down and drifted
onto the rocks off Christmas Island, killing at least 40 individuals on board, is consistent with past
reactions . The arrival of these asylum seekers re-ignited an intensive debate about ‘border control’
and how best to prevent and manage asylum seeker arrivals by boat. The Prime Minister, Julia
Gillard, suggested that the boat was not intercepted in the normal way as the weather provided an
impassable obstacle, while others suggested that the tragedy could have been avoided by the
implementation of stronger asylum policies that do not ‘tempt asylum seekers to risk their lives by
trying to reach our shores’, and a return to offshore processing on Nauru and temporary protection
visas . Once again the political divide was mirrored by a divide in community attitudes and opinions
towards asylum seekers. Australia’s two major news organizations ran public opinion polls about
the deaths and issues of border control on their news websites. Fairfax papers asked ‘should Labor
increase border patrols after the Christmas Island asylum-seeker boat tragedy?’ (yes=56 per cent,
n=2581) , while the News Limited papers asked ‘should Australia open the door to asylum seekers
to prevent further tragedies?’ (yes=11.48 per cent, n=19,913) . Although many of the news stories
that were published alongside these polls were positive or reflected a more balanced style of
reporting, the largely negative results from these polls, particularly that of News Limited, are
consistent with previous opinion polls about asylum seekers.
Key Influences on Public Opinion towards Asylum Seekers
Opinion polls, initially used to ascertain voting intention, are now frequently used to provide
governments with information on whether they are in step with the opinion of the public on specific
issues, allowing for public-driven changes in policy . A number of studies in the last 40 years have
explored the influences on public opinion toward asylum seekers in Australia. These studies have
investigated the ways in which asylum seekers are represented in media and political fora , have
investigated the beliefs and ideologies that influence public opinions toward asylum seekers , have
reported on public opinion through the use of commercial opinion polls or have undertaken private
polling to further investigate the attitudes behind such opinions . Results of such studies suggest that
socio-demographic factors, including age, gender, education, socio-economic status and political
views, are important influences on attitudes and opinions toward asylum seekers . Research
investigating influences on public opinion suggests that asylum seekers are portrayed by the media
and politicians either as genuine and in need of protection, or as taking advantage of the policies of
the host country for their own economic or personal gain . Furthermore, some research suggests that
negative portrayals of asylum seekers, particularly those that describe asylum seekers as ‘illegal’ or
as ‘queue jumpers’, have resulted in their construction as a ‘deviant social group’ who pose a threat
to national security and national identity . This construction of deviance has often been attributed to
the influence of some of Australia’s leading politicians. For example, one of the key messages of
the conservative Howard Government was that Australian values and identity needed to be
protected from asylum seekers who seek to change the Australian way of life . This theme of
protecting Australia has been maintained by the current Gillard Labor Government who, by
proposing an offshore resettlement centre on East Timor, has reinforced perceptions of the need to
protect Australia’s national borders from asylum seekers . This issue of protecting Australia’s
borders against the arrival of asylum seekers by boat re-emerged during reporting of the deaths on
Christmas Island in December 2010. While acknowledging that the deaths at sea were a tragedy and
devastating for the families, some commentators went on to call for more restrictive policies to act
as a deterrent. Suggestions included greater border protection, a return to processing on Nauru and
temporary, rather than permanent, protection .
Following in the tradition of previous studies is this current study. While this study seeks to
build upon the previous research in this area, this research differs in that we have investigated the
influence of socio-cultural factors upon attitudes and opinions toward asylum seekers, and have
sought to gain an understanding of the motives and influences of public attitudes and opinions. We
hope that the findings of this research will contribute to the development of further study in this
area, be useful for those working in the media and reporting on asylum seeker issues, and be of
value to those working with asylum seekers. We believe that an important component of this
research was the inclusion of the qualitative section that allowed participants to write freely in
response to general questions about their feelings toward asylum seekers. As we report, in many
cases this led to participants identifying and justifying their fear of asylum seekers, or highlighting
some common myths about asylum seekers. In many ways, we believe that this is one of the most
useful aspects of this research as this information may help those working to promote a more
balanced reporting and discourse to dispel fear-promoting myths and possibly change or adjust the
information provided to the community.
Aims and Approach
Using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, this study explored the attitudes and
opinions of the Australian public in relation to asylum seekers. In particular we sought to provide a
critical depth of understanding about why the Australian public hold certain beliefs about asylum
seekers, and what has influenced these beliefs. We designed a postal, mixed methods survey that
aimed to investigate:
-The general public’s understandings of how and why individuals seek asylum.
-Where the general public go to access and receive information about asylum seeking issues.
-How attitudes and opinions relating to asylum seekers may differ between different socio-
demographic groups, and why these differences may occur.
The use of both qualitative and quantitative methods allowed for the triangulation of responses: that
is, to see if the findings from the quantitative responses were consistent with those in the open
ended written responses. The survey was three pages in length, consisted of 16 questions, and was
divided into three sections.
1. Socio-demographic characteristics. The first section of the survey asked for basic
demographic information (age, gender, education, income, immigration status (Australian born or
immigrant) and marital status). These questions were important as we were interested to see
whether attitudes and opinions varied according to socio-demographic factors as identified in
previous studies .
2. General understanding of asylum seeking issues. Questions in this section explored
respondents’ understandings of why and how individuals might seek asylum in Australia. We also
investigated whether personal contact with a refugee had influenced attitudes and/or opinions
towards asylum seeking issues. These questions were quantitative, using ‘tick box’ options, and
aimed to understand what respondents knew about some of the pathways and the reasons for
entering Australia. In order to gauge if respondents were aware of the countries of origin of asylum
seekers, we then asked if they could identify which countries asylum seekers were from. Finally, we
asked respondents to state whether they thought Australia’s asylum seeker policies were ‘too soft’,
‘too hard’ or ‘about right’. Here we provided space for respondents to elaborate on the option they
3. What influences attitudes and opinions. The final section of the survey probed more
deeply for attitudes and opinions toward asylum seekers. In this section we used open-ended
questions which allowed individuals to write more extensively. We asked how asylum seekers
should be treated upon arrival, and what respondents thought had most influenced their opinion on
asylum seekers and why.
We calculated the sample size based on a ±3 per cent accuracy (error). Based on a standard
response rate to general community postal surveys of about 20 per cent we calculated that we
would need to sample about 3,000 individuals to get a response rate of 600. For random sampling
reasons, we sent the survey to 3,069 households. Surveys were sent between 15 March 2010 and 15
April 2010. The survey was sent with an information sheet, one survey, and a reply paid envelope.
No follow up was made. We included a reply paid envelope as previous research had identified this
would help to increase response rates . It was important to get a sample from each state of Australia,
as previous research had only focused on one state or geographic location . Some states in Australia
are more politically conservative (e.g. Queensland) while others typically support more liberal
political ideologies (e.g. Tasmania). If we had only focused on one of these states, our results might
have been skewed. State based sampling involved taking the number of names from each White
Pages directory (for each state) that was in proportion to the population of that state. We staggered
the posting of surveys, with 500 sent every third day to ensure that the neither the university postal
system nor the research team would be overwhelmed with responses.
Given the mixed methods approach of the survey, a combination of techniques was used to analyse
the data. The quantitative data analysis used basic descriptive statistics to characterize the sample.
Categorical data were reported using simple frequencies and percentages, while continuous data
were presented as means, medians and standard deviations. To determine socio-economic status
(SES), we used the Australian Bureau of Statistics SEIFA deciles (Index of Relative Socio-
Economic Disadvantage). Areas with a high index value (8−10) have few families on low incomes,
or people who have little training or who work in unskilled occupations. Areas with low values
(1−3) have many low income families, people with little formal training and people who work in
unskilled occupations. The distributions of index scores are generally similar across the states,
although the Northern Territory has a higher proportion of disadvantaged areas, and the Australian
Capital Territory has a lower proportion than Australia as a whole . In this paper, the distribution of
index values is summarized into low (1−3), medium (4−7) and high (8−10).
The qualitative responses were managed and coded using the qualitative analysis software
QRS NVivo 8, which allows for the marking and subsequent retrieval of text according to a
particular theme . Following Miles and Huberman we used a thematic style of analysis, reading and
rereading the survey responses, and coding and comparing patterns and clusters of responses
between the surveys. To identify if there were any patterns between responses and demographic
variables or geographic variables, the responses were consistently checked against the quantitative
The general characteristics of the sample are detailed in Table 1. Of the 3,069 surveys sent, we
received 585 completed surveys, and 224 ‘returned to sender’. Excluding those returned to sender,
this was a response rate of 20.5 per cent. There were no differences between the state and SES
characteristics of the respondents and non-respondents. The sample was skewed toward older
adults, with an average age of 58 years (SD=15.06, range=19−91). Just over half of the respondents
were male (n=323, 55.2 per cent), and most were married (n=414, 70.8 per cent). Over half were
from an area of low or middle SES (n=342, 58.5 per cent); had completed at least some high school
education (n=320, 54.9 per cent); and reported a household income of less than AU$80,000 (n=403,
68.8 per cent). Most respondents were born in Australia (n=425, 72.6 per cent).
[Table 1 about Here]
Knowledge about Asylum Seeking Issues
More than half of all respondents thought that asylum seekers came to Australia ‘for a better life’
(n=328, 56.8 per cent), and about one quarter (n=141, 24.4 per cent) to flee persecution. As shown
in Table 2, there were no statistically significant differences in either of these responses by socio-
demographic or economic variables. Respondents most frequently identified Afghanistan (n=236,
40.0 per cent) and Sri Lanka (n=190, 32.5 per cent) as asylum seekers’ country of origin. Almost
half identified that asylum seekers’ method of arrival to Australia was by boat (n=250, 43.1 per
cent). Almost half of all respondents said that Australia’s current policy toward asylum seekers was
‘too soft’ (n=285, 49.2 per cent). These respondents were significantly more likely to be male
(n=173, 54.1 per cent, p=0.011); working in a ‘trade’ occupation (n=27, 81.8 per cent, p=0.00); or
retired (n= 114, 51.1 per cent, p=0.00).
[Table 2 about here]
Three key themes emerged from the analysis of the qualitative results. See Table 3 for an overview.
[Table 3 about here]
Theme One: Asylum Seekers Exploit Australia’s Democratic Systems and Processes
Under this theme responses fell into three subthemes: the method of the asylum seekers’ arrival to
Australia; their exploitation of Australia’s welfare system; and the belief that asylum seekers come
to Australia for economic rather than humanitarian protection reasons.
When writing about the method of arrival of asylum seekers, respondents often used the
terms ‘illegal’, ‘illegal asylum seeker’, ‘boat people’ or ‘queue jumpers’. Some wrote that asylum
seekers ‘cheated the system’, by not following refugee processing procedures in their own countries
before travelling to Australia:
These people should follow due process and not be queue jumpers (Male, aged 46, professional).
Others said that if asylum seekers were genuine, they would not use people smugglers to facilitate
their journey to Australia. Rather, their willingness to use ‘people smugglers’ meant that by
association, they themselves were criminals. For many, this highlighted that asylum seekers were
trying to exploit a system that had been implemented to ensure a fair and just process when
examining claims for refugee status. As such, these asylum seekers were seen to be jeopardizing the
future of refugees who were in legitimate need of protection.
Send the boat people home. They are not genuine misplaced people, if they can pay and organize themselves to
come to Australia illegally. Accept those from refugee camps only!!! (Female, aged 46, professional).
Some respondents said that after meeting a refugee they realized that asylum seekers would seek to
exploit Australia’s welfare system for their own advantage.
I used to feel sorry for them. But that changed when I saw how they milked the system (Male, aged 40, trade
Respondents generally had one of three attitudes as to how asylum seekers should be treated when
they arrive in Australia: 1) With caution, but respect (n=207); 2) With humanitarian values (n=161);
or 3) That they should be ‘sent back’ (n=158).
Those who felt that asylum seekers should be treated with caution but respect stated that
asylum seekers should be treated with fairness, but that it was important for asylum seekers to
follow the ‘proper Australian process’ (n=207). In many cases this included a period of detention at
Australia’s off shore asylum seeker processing facility on Christmas Island, security and health
checks, or some form of reduced welfare access until they ‘prove themselves worthy’ of Australia’s
hospitality. This suggestion was most commonly made by those who were retired (n=86), and those
in professional occupations (n=61), as well as those who were aged 81 and over (n=14). Those
identified as lower (n=56) or middle (n=137) SES were also more likely to suggest caution when
dealing with asylum seeker arrivals.
Other respondents (n=161) wanted asylum seekers to be treated in a ‘humanitarian’ way.
The main point of difference here was that they felt that asylum seekers should be allowed entry
into Australia and given housing, medical treatment, clothing and food, rather than being held in
detention. These respondents stated that asylum seekers should be treated with ‘compassion’,
‘respect’, ‘dignity’ and ‘courtesy’ upon arrival:
The asylum seekers on arrival should be treated with compassion and be provided with shelter, food, clothing
and medical treatment (Male, aged 71, professional).
The remainder of respondents (n=158) took a restrictive approach to how asylum seekers should be
treated. These respondents suggested that all asylum seekers should be ‘sent back’. This suggestion
was more common in male respondents (n=97), as well as people from the conservative Australian
states of Queensland (n=46) and Western Australia (n=14). These respondents were often radical
and extreme in their responses and exhibited extensive hostility:
Turn the boat around and tell them to go back to where they come fromshould they fail to respondfire shots
across the bowshould they fail to respond fire shoot at the ship (Male, aged 61, trade occupation).
Respondents in this category justified their responses by stating that asylum seekers should have
followed ‘proper channels’. Many wrote about wanting to send a signal to other individuals that
were considering ‘exploiting’ Australia, that Australia would not tolerate this behaviour.
Theme Two: Asylum Seekers Threaten Australia’s Values and Culture
Some respondents stated that recent asylum seekers were more reluctant and resistant to integrating
into an Australian way of life than previous immigrants to Australia. Although these individuals
were few in number, the tone of their comments was extreme. These respondents described asylum
seekers who were ‘unprepared’ to change their traditional dress, religious or cultural beliefs, as
individuals who posed an extreme threat to Australian identity and nationhood.
If they’re granted entry into our wonderful country they should become Australians, live and dress like us, and
leave their customs in the country they come from (Female, aged 67, self-employed).
Respondents described a set of basic standards for those even contemplating coming to Australia,
which included ‘bothering to learn English’, ‘conforming to our way of life’, having a ‘high
standard of education’ and employment skills that were relevant to Australia’s economy.
Respondents repeatedly identified Muslim asylum seekers as being the most resistant to conform:
For starters the way Muslim people (not all) carry on with their beliefs, but don’t care about ours (Male, aged
Another respondent stated that she was so concerned about the influx of Muslim asylum seekers
and their values, that she felt that she would soon not be allowed to celebrate Christian traditions in
Why the hell shouldn’t we be allowed to celebrate our Christmas without offending other cultures!! This is
Australia!! (Female, aged 40, professional)
For some individuals, meeting a refugee, or refugees, had strongly influenced their opinions
towards asylum seeking issues (n=119, 20.3 per cent). Most of these had been positively influenced
by this experience (n=72). Individuals in this group had a distinct set of socio-demographic
characteristics. Most were female, in a professional occupation, of middle or high SES, or held a
university or post-secondary education. Some wrote about critically rethinking opinions about
asylum seekers after face to face contact. One woman stated that the insight gained from hearing
about a refugee’s experiences made her feel less fearful, and appreciative of the asylum seeking
[Meeting a refugee] gave me a deep insight into life as a refugee. It was a most rewarding experience as it took
away my fear of refugees (Female, aged 55, professional).
Yet for others, these negative opinions had only been formed after personal contact with a refugee.
Most of these individuals were either retired, or male. One of the most common examples given
was that on meeting a refugee, they appeared to be unable to speak English adequately in their
everyday interactions. Others wrote about refugees clustering in certain areas and only socializing
with one another. For some respondents, this was ‘proof’ that asylum seekers would not be prepared
to change their own culture to become ‘Australian’. Others used examples of media reporting to
justify the unwillingness of asylum seekers to integrate to Australian society:
[The media show me that] they don’t want to integrate in to the Australia way of life. They are just bringing
their problems here and tying [sic] to have a separate community that is just their way of life. (Female, aged
Theme Three: Asylum Seekers Threaten the Security of Individuals, Communities, and the Nation
In this theme, responses fell into two categories. The first was that asylum seekers threatened
national border security. The second was that Australia would be a more violent society with more
social problems should asylum seekers be allowed to enter.
For many respondents, issues of national security were almost exclusively linked to ‘Muslim
extremism’ and terrorism. For example, respondents expressed a ‘genuine fear of Islam’ and were
‘worried about the number of Muslims arriving’.
I am concerned with the ease that Muslims are welcomed into Australia. We are ‘infidels’ to them (Female,
aged 73, retired).
Some respondents’ narratives directly linked the asylum seekers with Islam, violence and terrorism.
However, others (predominantly students, those who were highly educated, women, and those from
high socio-economic areas) challenged this view. They stated that the lack of balance in media
reporting had only served to create ‘fear campaigns’ about the impact that asylum seekers would
have on the Australian community:
They would have us all fearing that we will be overrun by violent Muslim extremists. This makes it difficult to
form a rational opinion (Female, aged 52, home duties).
Others had formed negative views about security, based on their experiences with refugees in their
own suburban areas. For example, a few respondents, who lived in areas with a high number of
refugees, perceived that ‘social problems’ were a result of refugees and asylum seeker arrivals:
We have a lot of problems in our area with refugees forming gangs and a lot of anti-social behaviour (Female, aged
Older respondents (those over 60), were particularly worried that the presence of cultures and
religions from other countries could lead to an increase in violence in Australia. Some wrote about
feeling scared for future generations of Australians:
I do feel for my children and grandchildren in times to come, as violence in Australia has increased. Australia
is a much different place today (Female, aged 68, retired).
It is important at this point to discuss the limitations of this study. As this was a postal survey, the
main issue is with the self-selection of the respondents. It is possible that we received more
responses from those in the older category as they were more likely to have the time to complete
and then post back the survey. Another issue that could be a limitation, but may also be regarded a
strength of the study, is that responses may have been received from people who had a high level of
interest in this issue. As this was a written survey, we may have received fewer responses from
people with a limited education, and as with any qualitative study, the analysis is reflective of the
research team’s interpretation of the responses. While there was consistency of interpretation within
our research team, it may be that others could interpret the data in different ways.
Despite these limitations, this study highlights that attitudes towards asylum seekers were
influenced by a complex interplay between political rhetoric, media reporting, personal experiences,
socio-demographic factors and the way that respondents conceptualized traditional Australian
values, and what could potentially pose a threat to these values. This study provides a critical depth
of information about attitudes and opinions, which complements large scale studies of the
prevalence of these attitudes. Three clear findings emerged:
1. The method by which asylum seekers arrive in Australia had a clear influence on negative
attitudes and opinions.
2. Constructed socio-political stereotypes, particularly around the link between Islam and
terrorism, created the perception that asylum seekers pose a ‘threat’ to Australian national
identity and security.
3. Most respondents had limited accurate knowledge about asylum seeking issues, with
knowledge highly dependent on media reporting of the issue.
Since the mid 1970s, the Australian public has been exposed to negative discourses in the media
and from politicians about asylum seekers, and in particular ‘boat people’. This negative discourse
has firmly constructed asylum seekers as a ‘deviant social group’ . The power of this rhetoric has
been the construction of popularized labels which shift the public view from the structural reasons
for asylum seeking, to the individual behaviour of those who arrive in Australia by boat. This
construction has been formed through an overwhelmingly negative and sensationalized focus on the
method of arrival, and the constant linking of arrivals by boat with labels of ‘queue jumpers’,
‘terrorists’, ‘boat people’ and ‘illegals’. Furthermore, media reports often combine politicized labels
with extreme images of behaviours: ‘unauthorized’ boats, overcrowded with predominantly Muslim
males; reports of the use of criminal gangs and people smugglers to facilitate the journey to
Australia; and extreme protests within detention facilities . As reported by respondents in this study,
this media reporting reinforces the popularized image of asylum seekers as ‘violent’, ‘different’,
‘illegal’ and seeking to exploit the procedures Australia has in place to accept ‘genuine’ refugees.
While there has been some balanced reporting on asylum seeker issues, including reports
concerning the welfare of detainees and conditions in detention centres, as well as a number of
opinion pieces and articles that allow asylum seekers a voice and a venue to describe their
persecution, detailed analysis and international context remain absent. However, the reporting of the
deaths in the waters around Christmas Island in December 2010 went some way in providing
balance to this issue. Despite the somewhat negative public opinion polls, the early media reporting
and community concern included a greater awareness of the humanitarian issues. While there were
some reports that maintained or called for a restrictive or hard-line approach to asylum seekers ,
many reports were sympathetic in tone and provided a humanitarian angle to the story . There were
also calls for changes in the way that Australia deals with the arrival of asylum seekers by boat , and
suggestions of a wider change to the asylum seeking process . While this incident occurred after the
data was collected for this study, and therefore we are unable to suggest how this might change
public opinion in the long term, it does highlight the importance of continued research in this area.
A number of studies have suggested that the media have an important role in influencing public
opinion , therefore this change in reporting may signal a change in community understandings and
opinions about asylum seekers, further highlighting the importance of engaging with the media on
In addition to the influence of media reporting, we also observed that most of those who
held negative views of asylum seekers wrote about the undesirable individual behaviours of asylum
seekers, and the threats they posed to Australian identity, values and culture. Respondents created
this narrative by incorporating the perception that asylum seekers had come to Australia for their
own personal benefit rather than for humanitarian reasons (e.g. for a ‘better life’ or for economic
reasons, rather than fleeing persecution). Implicit in respondents’ narratives was the construction of
a group who they perceived would maintain their own languages, customs and traditions (e.g. not
being able to speak English, unwilling to assimilate to Australian values, exploiting welfare systems
or protesting again detention), and that this cultural diversity posed an extreme threat to Australian
national identity. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that Australians fear
losing their ‘national identity’ by allowing immigrants with other cultural backgrounds to settle in
Australia . Further, attitudes appeared to be particularly extreme when directed towards asylum
seekers from Islamic backgrounds. These asylum seekers not only appeared to be visibly different
from white Australians, but also were surrounded by a political rhetoric of danger and threat
because of a perceived link with terrorism. The overwhelmingly negative discourse which links
asylum seekers, Islam and terrorism means that further research that specifically investigates the
distinct issues around Islam is needed.
In contrast, those who were more sympathetic towards asylum seekers were able to take a
more global, humanitarian, and structural view of the reasons for asylum seekers taking extreme
measures to flee their country of origin. They were able to look beyond individual factors and labels
and were able to engage critically with media reports about asylum seeker behaviours. Socio-
demographic factors appeared to play a role in the formation of attitudes. In particular, younger,
more educated individuals held more positive views toward asylum seekers. This is consistent with
other research focused on racial prejudice, which shows that younger individuals hold more tolerant
attitudes towards minority groups, by association with changing cultural attitudes towards diversity
and ethnicity , and that younger, more educated groups are more tolerant and are less threatened by
a culturally diverse society . This may also explain why this group is less reactive towards asylum
seeker arrivals. While they appear to be aware that not all asylum seekers may be genuine, they are
more supportive of due process to determine who should be allowed to stay in Australia, and who
should be returned.
Altering negative attitudes and opinions regarding asylum seekers will necessarily require a
significant shift in political rhetoric and media reporting. We appreciate that these shifts are not
easy to achieve. Political parties have played a central role in creating these negative public
attitudes, and must now respond to the public’s ideals, opinions, and expectations in maintaining a
‘hard line’ approach towards asylum seekers. These shifts will also be difficult for the media.
However, the inclusion of a humanitarian angle in some of the early reporting of the Christmas
Island tragedy of late 2010 has given us some hope that the media are beginning to provide balance
in their reporting. The future challenge for asylum seeker advocacy groups is to find messages and
strategies which help to uncouple asylum seekers from ‘threat rhetoric’, and replace this with a
broader humanitarian understanding and knowledge of the structural factors that influence asylum
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