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Dealing with refugees is one of the most contested political issues in Australia. We examine how media images of asylum seekers have framed ensuing debates during two crucial periods over the past decade. By conducting a content analysis of newspaper front pages we demonstrate that asylum seekers have primarily been represented as medium or large groups and through a focus on boats. We argue that this visual framing, and in particular the relative absence of images that depict individual asylum seekers with recognisable facial features, associates refugees not with a humanitarian challenge, but with threats to sovereignty and security. These dehumanising visual patterns reinforce a politics of fear that explains why refugees are publicly framed as people whose plight, dire as it is, nevertheless does not generate a compassionate political response.
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Australian Journal of Political Science
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The visual dehumanisation of refugees
Roland Bleikera, David Campbella, Emma Hutchisona & Xzarina
a University of Queensland
Published online: 11 Dec 2013.
To cite this article: Roland Bleiker, David Campbell, Emma Hutchison & Xzarina Nicholson (2013)
The visual dehumanisation of refugees, Australian Journal of Political Science, 48:4, 398-416
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The visual dehumanisation of refugees
University of Queensland
Dealing with refugees is one of the most contested political issues in Australia. We
examine how media images of asylum seekers have framed ensuing debates
during two crucial periods over the past decade. By conducting a content
analysis of newspaper front pages we demonstrate that asylum seekers have
primarily been represented as medium or large groups and through a focus on
boats. We argue that this visual framing, and in particular the relative absence
of images that depict individual asylum seekers with recognisable facial
features, associates refugees not with a humanitarian challenge, but with threats
to sovereignty and security. These dehumanising visual patterns reinforce a
politics of fear that explains why refugees are publicly framed as people whose
plight, dire as it is, nevertheless does not generate a compassionate political
Keywords: emotions; images; peace and conict studies; refugees; visual politics
Few issues in Australia are as politically contested, and as emotionally charged, than
that of refugees. For more than a decade, public perceptions and political debates
about the issue have been shaped, at least in large part, by dramatic images of
asylum seekers arriving by boat at Australias shores. Between 1998 and mid-2011
some 575 boats, carrying 33,412 individuals arrived. During this time almost a thou-
sand individuals drowned in their attempts to reach Australia (Australian Government
2012: 70, 75).
Roland Bleiker is Professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland. His main current
research project deals with how images shape responses to humanitarian crises. David Campbell is Hon-
orary Professor in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queens-
land. His research deals with the intersection of politics, photography and new media, and he blogs at Emma Hutchison is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Political
Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. Her research explores the role that
trauma and emotions play in constituting world politics. Xzarina Nicholson recently completed an
honours degree in International Relations at the University of Queensland. She examined visual rep-
resentations of gender issues in Egypt. The research for this essay was supported by a Discovery
Grant (DP110100546) from the Australian Research Council. We would like to acknowledge insightful
feedback by Matt McDonald, Mio Nakatsuji-Mather, two anonymous referees and audiences at the Uni-
versities of Leiden, Manchester, Melbourne, Queensland, Sydney and Zürich.
Australian Journal of Political Science, 2013
Vol. 48, No. 4, 398416,
© 2013 Australian Political Studies Association
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Politicians and scholars passionately disagree with each other about how to tackle
this contested issue. They debate the trade-offs between onshore and offshore proces-
sing, or between mandatory detention versus community accommodation. They
discuss the role of protection visas and Australias international legal obligations.
But few of these studies examine how media images shape perceptions of and respon-
sibilities towards asylum seekers. None of them as far as we are aware does so in a
systematic manner and over an extended period of time.
The purpose and contribution of our article is to begin to ll this gap in scholarly
research and policy analysis. We examine the emotional nature of asylum-seeker
images and the manner in which they frame political discussions on the topic.
Media representations are crucial because all knowledge of political issues is una-
voidably and inherently mediated. A recent survey by McKay, Thomas, and Knee-
bone showed that most respondents had limited accurate knowledge about asylum
seeking issues, with knowledge highly dependent on media reporting(2012: 128).
Images are particularly inuential. They can be thought of as providing snapshots
of the situation: visual quotations(Sontag 2003: 22) that often linger in the mind
of viewers and shape their emotional attitudes. Some commentators even argue
that the very existence of compassion depends on visuals(Höijer 2004: 520), or
that the social realm is itself visually performed (Campbell 2007).
We examine how asylum seekers were visually portrayed on the front pages of two
prominent Australian newspapers: The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald.We
focus on two periods during which the issue of refugees was repeatedly debated: August
to December 2001, and October 2009 to September 2011. Signicant, controversial
events involving asylum seekers marked these periods of time. Both periods also led
up to a federal election, thus guaranteeing major press coverage. We employ a
content analysis, which allows us to examine the role of images more systematically
than other approaches that have looked at visual representations of refugees in Australia
(Gale 2004). This is the case because we can empirically demonstrate the relative fre-
quency with which certain genres of images reappear. Analysing these patterns then
reveals how dominant imagery emotionally frames political discussions on the issue.
During these two periods we examined asylum seekers were primarily represented
as medium and large groups (66 per cent of all images). A frequent visualisation of
boats, mostly from a distance, reinforced these patterns. Particularly striking was the
small number of images that depict individual asylum seekers with clearly recogni-
sable facial features (only 2 per cent of all images). This is politically signicant
because socialpsychological studies have revealed that such close-up portraits are
the type of images most likely to evoke compassion in viewers. Images of groups,
by contrast, tended to create emotional distance between viewers and the subjects
being depicted (see Jenni and Loewenstein 1997; Kogut and Ritov 2005; Small
and Loewenstein 2003).
We thus argue and demonstrate that visual patterns have framed the refugee
problemsuch that it is seen not as a humanitarian disaster that requires a compas-
sionate public response, but rather as a potential threat that sets in place mechanisms
of security and border control. These dehumanising visual patterns directly feed into
the politics of fear that many scholars have already identied as a highly problematic
aspect of Australias approach to refugees (see Burke 2008; Devetak 2008; Gale
2004; McDonald 2011).
Signicant here is that the visual framing of refugees delineates the parameters of
political debates. This is not to claim that particular images directly cause particular
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attitudes or policies. Images work indirectly, by setting what Connolly once called the
conditions of possibility(1991). Images shape what can and cannot be seen and,
indirectly, what can and cannot be thought. They inuence not only what can be
said legitimately in public but also what cannot be said. They help prevent some pol-
itical positions from being established while leaving open a discursive space that can
be occupied by others. This is precisely why, for example, numerous leading com-
mentators and politicians, including the Australian minister of foreign affairs,
could publicly portray asylum seekers arriving by boat as economic migrants,
even though the year before around 90 per cent of them were, according to ofcial
gures, found to be genuine refugees (Taylor 2013). The prevalence of images
depicting asylum seekers in negative terms makes possible a political discourse
that stands in contradistinction to demonstrable evidence. Following Butler we
thus understand images as themselves being made possible by frames of recognition.
The norms that establish these frames enable certain images and operate to produce
certain subjects as recognizablepersons and to make others decidedly more dif-
cult to recognize(Butler 2009: 6). These norms help determine, for instance, whether
or not asylum seekers are recognised as people whose lives are understood as grie-
vableand worthy of compassion.
This article focuses exclusively on the political consequences of this visual framing
process, but we fully recognise that images are not the only factors that play such a
role. Images reinforce how language frames public attitudes and the possibility of
policy approaches to refugees. Particularly problematic is the widespread use of dero-
gative designations for asylum seekers arriving by boat. There are oodsor tides
of refugees and there are illegal immigrantsand queue-jumpers(see, for example,
Clyne 2005; Gale 2004: 330; McKay, Thomas, and Blood 2011: 615). Add to this
that the Australian government uses an abstract technical language that further dehu-
manises refugees, from SIEVs (suspected illegal entry vessels) and IMAs (irregular
maritime arrivals) to unlawful non-citizensas a designation of all people present
in the country without an appropriate visa. But one of the most common problems
of asylum seekers as recognised in the 1951 Refugee Convention is that they
often have no choice but to embark on illegal moves to be able to claim refugee
status (Humphrey 2003: 37; Refugee Council of Australia 2011). There is then no
such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. But the very term asylum seekeralready
suggests people who are needy and an unnecessary burden. This is why we only
reluctantly use the widespread distinction between asylum seekers (those who
claim refugee status) and refugees (those who have legally obtained such a status).
The Australian refugee debate
Debates in Australian public discourses on how to deal with asylum seekers are often
conducted in an antagonistic and emotional manner. Political and media discourses
are located between two opposing poles. We briey identify these two poles, yet
at the same time note that doing so inevitably does injustice to the complexity of
the debates and the numerous commentators who occupy a middle-ground.
The more conservative spectrum of public commentary identies major differ-
ences between current and historical refugee crises. Such is, for instance, the position
of Greg Sheridan, a prominent journalist writing for The Australian. He stresses that
the refugee situation today is fundamentally different from the previous massive
refugee crisis that affected Australia following the Vietnam War. The latter, he
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claims, was a regional crisis that generated authentic refugees whose rescue was coor-
dinated internationally. When Sheridan writes of those arriving at Australias shores
today, he stresses that overwhelmingly, they are not refugees(2011: 16). Rather,
they are illegal economic migrants middle-class people who face no persecution
but are simply desperate to live in rich countries(2012: 12).
For many commentators a reinforcing factor is the perception that newly arrived
refugees refuse to integrate culturally (see McKay, Thomas, and Kneebone 2012:
123). The fear that an inux of such refugees threatens Australian norms and
values is widespread and conrmed by numerous opinion polls by McKay,
Thomas, and Kneebone (2012: 11516). That these refugees arrive illegallyby
boat, rather than by way of a controlled migration programme, also exerted a particu-
larly strong inuence on negative public attitudes towards them (McKay, Thomas,
and Kneebone 2012: 128). Ensuing policy suggestions aimed at preventing the
inux of illegal migration include turning boats away and denying easy access to
welfare privileges. Anything else, Sheridan fears, would be disastrous: Once the
route to Australia is established, the numbers will increase inexorably(2011: 16).
There is, by and large, bi-partisan support for such a repressive approach, even
though the two major political parties disagree on details.
At the other side of the spectrum are human rights advocates and other critics who
strongly oppose such attitudes and policies. They stress that the refugee issue is often
manipulated for strategic political gain (McNevin 2007: 612). Politicians make
highly emotional appeals to their electorates. They do so in full awareness of Austra-
lias long-standing fear of a mass invasion from Asia (Burke 2008; McDonald 2011:
28486; ). For some scholars these borderphobias(Burke 2002) and related prac-
tices of mandatory detention do not just violate international legal obligations and
neglect Australias real security threats (Devetak 2004: 102), but are also linked to
deeper and more problematic roots. McMaster (2002: 27983), for instance,
detects racist tendencies that connect contemporary attitudes towards refugees with
the notorious White Australia Policythat, for several decades following the estab-
lishment of Federation in 1901, restricted non-white immigration to Australia.
Our content analysis focuses on two periods during which these debates were
waged intensively: August to December 2001, and October 2009 to September
2011. We focus on these periods because both lead up to federal elections and fea-
tured signicant, controversial events involving asylum seekers. Issues relating to
illegal immigrationand border control featured predominantly within both election
campaigns, providing us with an opportunity to assess how these issues were depicted
in news media.
August to December 2001
Immediately prior to this period there had been minimal coverage of asylum seekers
on front pages of The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. In August, both
major newspapers reported the sinking of a shing boat carrying 438 asylum
seekers in international waters. The Tampa incident so called for the name of the
freighter that rescued the stranded asylum seekers escalated into an international
controversy following the refusal by the then Prime Minister John Howard to
permit the vessel to enter Australian territorial waters. In the following months, the
Australian government introduced new legislation aimed at deterring asylum
seeker arrivals: the Border Protection Bill, the Migration Amendment, the Pacic
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Solution and Operation Relex. At that time asylum seekers arrived primarily from
Afghanistan and Iraq and public perceptions of them were inevitably intertwined
with the war on terror following the attacks of 11 September 2001. In a speech
marking the launch of his governments 2001 election campaign, Prime Minister
John Howard framed the issue of asylum seekers as one of border protection. He jus-
tied repressive measures by citing Australias sovereign right to determine whom it
would allow entry. He proclaimed: we will decide who comes to this country and the
circumstances in which they come(Howard 2001).
October 2009 to September 2011
This period is symptomatic of how the refugee crisis has become both a human
tragedy and a very divisive political and public issue. The triggering incident
occurred in October 2009, when an Australian vessel, the Oceanic Viking, rescued
78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers inside Indonesias search-and-rescue zone. Despite
the Australian government successfully negotiating with Indonesia to allow the
ship to dock there on humanitarian grounds, a majority of the asylum seekers
refused to disembark into an Indonesian detention centre and instead requested that
they be taken directly to Christmas Island for onshore processing. A major stand-
off followed. Since then, Australias response and responsibility towards refugees
has been an almost constant feature of national debate and social commentary.
During the 2010 election campaign, both major political parties attempted to
assuage voter fears with tough positions towards immigration and people smugglers.
The issue of asylum seekers remained at the forefront even after the election, in part
because the inux of boat people remained high, in part because both major parties con-
tinued to advocate tougher policies on border control. In August 2012, the Gillard gov-
ernment accepted the recommendations of an expert panels report, which included re-
establishing offshore processing facilities (in Nauru and Papua New Guinea) and
increasing the humanitarian intake of refugees (Australian Government 2012). The
most recent, and one of the more dramatic turns towards tougher border-control
measures, was established in July 2013, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced
that asylum seekers arriving by boat without a visa would be resettled in Papua New
Guinea with no chance of ever being accepted as refugees in Australia.
Our purpose is not to enter into the details of these issues and debates or to provide an
up-to-date account of the respective policies. Nor do we pretend to offer a comprehen-
sive engagement with the numerous and highly complex political, historical and legal
dimensions that are part of the refugee issue in Australia. Our analysis focuses on the
important but relatively neglected visual representation of asylum seekers. We admit
that we are driven by an ethical concern for how asylum seekers have been publicly
framed as people whose lives are somehow less grievable. This is why we explore,
in particular, the implications that dominant patterns of visual framing have for how
asylum seekers at Australias borders are perceived, and how this framing establishes
the contours and limits of political discourse on refugees in Australia.
Approaching the issue of refugees through images: method and results
Media images play a central role in framing how refugees are publicly perceived and
politically debated. Nowhere is this more evident than in the notorious children-
overboardaffair. During the early days of the 2001 election campaign, the then
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immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, claimed that on 7 October asylum seekers
aboard a boat heading for Australia threw their children overboard with the intention
of putting us under duress(cited in Kingston 2001). The defence minister, Peter
Reith, conrmed this version of events and the Prime Minister, John Howard,
expressed his anger at the behaviour of those people, stressing that he cant com-
prehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard. Days later, on
9 October, he reiterated that I certainly dont want people of that type in Australia, I
really dont(cited in Kingston 2001).
The key and sole piece of evidence of this alleged blackmail attempt by asylum
seekers were photographs of children in the water being rescued by the Australian
navy. These images were then used to suggest that asylum seekers had intentionally
put Australian ofcials under duress to guarantee rescue and passage to Australia.
The rhetoric used here is emotional. The statements by Howard and other poli-
ticians can be interpreted as a strategic attempt to reach voters thought to be
fearful about asylum seekers and migration issues in general. Independent of the
intentions, the strategy worked. Political commentators largely agree that these
images played a crucial part in the election, which Howards Liberal government sub-
sequently won after campaigning on a fear-driven platform of anti-refugee sentiment
(Gale 2004: 322).
As it later emerged, the alleged evidence the photographs provided was false. A
Senate report ofcially found that no children were thrown overboardand that
the photographs were publicly misrepresented. The photographs were taken the
day after the alleged incident, when the asylum seeker boat sank and those aboard
had no choice but to abandon it (Senate 2002a: xixxxiii). Not all images have the
same dramatic political impact as those of the children-overboard affair. However,
even in more subtle ways, images are a central aspect of how refugees are represented
in Australia.
This is why we now examine the issues at stake through a systematic visual content
analysis of front-page coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.
We do, however, eschew the claims to objectivity that are sometimes associated
with this method (Neuendorf 2002:1012). As scholars who design a research
project, we inevitably make choices that are normative. Content analysis requires
the prior establishment of a precise set of hypotheses. These hypotheses, in turn,
are dependent upon a certain set of assumptions (Van Leeuwen and Jewitt 2004: 6).
Rather than hide our research assumptions, we lay them bare for readers to retrace.
We considered a range of options when exploring possible hypotheses for our content
analysis. One option would have been to code the images for their gendered represen-
tation of refugees. Preliminary views suggested that close-up portrays of asylum
seekers were often women whereas large groups more typically depicted males.
We also considered coding the images according to how active or passive the
asylum seekers were depicted to be. Or we could have coded the facial features of
asylum seekers, exploring whether they suggest fear, anger, desperation, gratefulness
or any other emotions. Other prominent themes that would have lent themselves to
coding categories were the reappearance of barbed wire, detention camps and,
most notably, the visual prominence of boats. All these categories would have
yielded political insight into the depiction of asylum seekers. But given the inevitable
restraints imposed on a short essay we had to limit ourselves to two tests only. Here is
how we set them up.
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The coding categories we established were designed to nd out whether media
coverage portrays asylum seeker primarily as identiable individuals or as anon-
ymous large groups. We took this decision based on both a preliminary viewing of
the visual data and a survey of the relevant literature. Numerous studies in social psy-
chology which we will introduce below suggest that images featuring a single
victim are most likely to evoke empathetic emotions in viewers. By contrast,
images that feature a large number of victims tend to lose their ability to evoke a com-
passionate response. With every additional person, the compassionate effect is said to
decrease. This is why we wanted to nd out to what extent these psychological
dynamics were visually represented in the front-page coverage of asylum seekers.
With these prior insights in mind we coded all images of asylum seekers according
to four categories: (1) individuals; (2) small groups of 23; (3) medium groups of 4
15 and (4) large groups of 16-plus. We coded every image that featured at least one
asylum seeker and appeared on the front page of the two newspapers between 1
August and 31 December 2001, and between 1 October 2009 and 30 September
2011. At times there were several images on a given front page. In total, there
were 87 images featuring asylum seekers. We dened individualsas all images
where there was only one asylum seeker featured, even if there were other people
present, like navy ofcers or guards. We dened small groups as two and three
because this genre was a particularly prominent category, often depicting small
families or women/men and children. Medium groups were dened as 415
because in these situations images of asylum seekers tended to blur so that individuals
no longer stood out as such. Large groups were coded as 16 and more because here
the impression was one of an indistinguishable massof people.
The result of our content analysis is striking, and appears in Figure 1. During the
entire two periods only 6 per cent of all images of asylum seekers depicted them as
Figure 1. Group size of depicted asylum seekers for both newspapers and both periods
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individuals. A total of 66 per cent of images portrayed asylum seekers in either
medium or large groups.
The data revealed only minor differences between the rst period (2001) and the
second (20092011), except that during the second period there were even fewer
images of individual asylum seekers (3 per cent). The data also revealed a relatively
similar pattern for both newspapers, except that The Australian contained a signi-
cantly higher number of front-page images than the Sydney Morning Herald.Not
conrmed was our initial assumption that The Australian, generally known as the
more conservative of the two papers, would visually depict asylum seekers in a
less favourable way.
We then further rened our content analysis through an experiment that explores a
second factor: the issue of facial expressions. We did so because here too social psy-
chology literature suggests that facial expressions in pictures of victims play a par-
ticularly important role in producing viewer responses. We again coded all refugee
images based on four mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories: (1) Single
people with clearly recognisable facial features; (2) groups with all clearly recogni-
sable facial features; (3) groups with a mixture of clearly recognisable and not recog-
nisable facial features and (4) single people or groups without recognisable facial
The result of this experiment is even more striking than the previous one (Figure 2).
The category of images that is most likely to evoke compassion in viewers a single
refugee with clearly recognisable facial features makes up only 2 per cent of all the
We double-coded a signicant part of this experiment and found that coding
reliability was above 90 per cent in most categories. The only divergence occurred
through differences in how coders classied images into groups of 415 and
Figure 2. Visible facial features for both periods and both newspapers
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16-plus, where there was a discrepancy of 14 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively.
This was primarily due to difculties arising when counting the number of asylum
seekers in an image. Differences resulted from judging how much of a body part
(for example, leg, arm and head) ought to be visible to count a person. But the com-
bined count of medium and large groups displayed again an inter-coder reliability of
over 90 per cent.
To explore the political signicance of these ndings, we now discuss a selected
number of images that symbolise the respective categories.
The emotional power of close-ups: representing asylum seekers through
individual portraits and small groups
The most striking result of our content analysis is the distinct lack of images depicting
individual asylum seekers with recognisable facial features. We suggest that signi-
cant consequences emerge from this pattern.
Scholars of visual politics and humanitarianism often point out that images of indi-
vidual victims play a particularly crucial role in the symbolic representation of crises
and the manner in which viewers respond. Dauphinée suggests that images of the
body in pain are the prime medium through which we come to know war, torture
and other pain-producing activities(2007: 139). Images of the body thus come to
stand symbolically for a range of emotions associated with suffering. A viewer
may never directly comprehend the pain experienced by a victim, but practices of
visual representations make the emotional issues at stake a collective, societal
issue (Dauphinée 2007: 150; see also Scarry 1985).
The image in Figure 3 of an individual clearly suffering is one of only a few that we
found during the entire two periods surveyed. It featured prominently on the front
page of The Australian on 24 October 2001.
The woman in this image is visibly distressed, and this distress is recognisable. She
has a name Sondos Ismail and the reader can re-trace her tragic story. Her facial
features make it possible for others to imagine her struggle and suffering; all the more
since the headline I lost everythinginvites readers to do so. This image and its front-
page textual setting have all the classical preconditions to generate empathy in
viewers. But only 2 per cent of all images fall in this category.
The absence of such images of individual refugees and the humanising effect
they could have had is highly signicant and requires elaboration.
Many commentators stress that images of individual sufferers, such as that above,
are particularly powerful because of their explicit emotional appeal. Moeller (1999:
36) points out how a single persons suffering may more readily evoke sympathy
in viewers. Höijer (2004: 52122) speaks of how ideal victims’–the women, chil-
dren and elderly who stare helplessly up into cameras are central to soliciting an
audiences compassion. Evidence from studies in social psychology additionally
suggests that sad facial expressions in pictures of victims produce a more pronounced
response than happy or neutral ones. Small and Verrochis(2009: 778) study of
images of lone victims in charity campaigns found, for instance, that when a
victim expresses sadness, an observer shares that pain. But with each person
added to the image such effects are diluted. A crowd of people in danger is faceless
and can actually numb viewers, rather than evoke a compassionate emotional
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Figure 3. Front-page image of The Australian, 24 Oct 2001
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Scholars such as Small and Loewenstein write of the identiable victim effect,
stressing that people react differently toward identiable victims than to statistical
victims who have not yet been identied(2003: 5). These claims are based on the
psychological intuition that an identiable victim is a more powerful emotional
stimulus than a statistical victim. That, for example, the photograph of an individual
person in distress in any given disaster is more effective than accounts of the millions
at risk or dying from that situation.
Journalists are well aware of this phenomenon. For Brooks (2011)itisinevitable
that, presented with a governing narrative of death and despair, we are attracted to a
single story of life and hope. Numerous experiments conrm this view. Consider just
one of many: Kogut and Ritov (2005) asked participants to donate towards treatment
for either one sick child or a group of eight sick children, with both the individual and
the group represented in photographs. The total amount needed was the same in both
cases, but donations were substantially higher for the individual child than for the
group of children.
The combined emotional and ethical implications are that images of a lone sufferer
humanise a political crisis. This is why the very absence of such images inevitably
dehumanises refugees. Putting a human face to suffering is seen as a key factor in
gaining viewersattention which is, in turn, essential to trigger not only some form
of empathetic affective response but also a willingness to act (Slovic 2007: 83). Sig-
nicantly, the fewer subjects in the image the more attentive are viewers to their
plight and the more able to correspondingly identify with them. Images of small
groups can admittedly still have such an effect, particularly if they show the type
of family settings with which viewers can personally identify. In our survey, a
total of 28 per cent of all images fall into this category. But the potential for mixed
messages already increases here. For instance, images that show small groups of
asylum seekers next to barbed wired fences or anked by uniformed border-
control personnel already promote different and potentially less empathy-generating
themes: those linked to illegality, invasion and potential guilt.
Dominant visual patterns: images of large groups and boats
The emotional dynamics change dramatically when we come to the most common
images of asylum seekers in our study: those of medium and large groups. They
make up 66 per cent of all visual representations during the two periods we examined.
In some of these images facial features of asylum seekers are still fairly visible, thus
allowing the possibility of an empathetic response from viewers. Though, again,
studies show that the more people there are in an image, the less likely this is to occur.
Many of the group images do, however, make it difcult to identify individual fea-
tures. Rather, they suggest the existence of a massof asylum seekers. The main
front-page photograph in Figure 4 is an illustrative example of an image in which
asylum seekers can still be recognised, but only in the context of a large group.
We see a medium-sized boat that carries a group of more than 40 passengers. The
boat is clearly overcrowded and depicted as bursting beyond capacity with men con-
gregating on the deck of the ship.
A large group of mostly young men on a boat presents a different representation of
asylum seekers than a close-up portrait of a female refugee: the former is far less
likely to suggest victimhood and to generate sympathy in viewers. The headline
further underlines this impression: No vacancy for boatpeople. We no longer see
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Figure 4. Front page of The Australian, 14 Oct 2009
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victims who deserve our compassion. In fact, the front page illustrates perfectly how
visual and verbal discourses determine whose lives are deemed grievableand whose
are not. The issue is particularly striking when compared to an accompanying front-
page story, which empathetically presents the delay of compensation to Australian
asbestos victimsas cruel and inhumane. Asylum seekers, who too face cruel
and inhumanecircumstances, nevertheless do not get the same passionate portrayal.
They are seen as a political and security problem.
The constant presence of boats further reinforces prevailing visual and political
depictions of asylum seekers. Boats are everywhere. They are shown at sea,
approaching coastlines, docked, being approached by or interacting with smaller
speedboats, and with several carrying asylum seekers. We did not include them in
our initial content analysis because we focused either on the number of refugees in
an image or the extent to which facial features were visible. Adding boats to these
experiments would have prevented us from establishing categories that are both
exhaustive and mutually exclusive mostly because images of boats often also
feature asylum seekers on them. The ensuing and inevitable double-counting
would have led to either an unreliable or a disingenuous presentation of data (see
Van Leeuwen and Jewitt 2004: 9). But because of the striking frequency of images
depicting boats, we established a simple count that compares them with the types
of images that are most likely to evoke compassion: those of individual asylum
This juxtaposition is rather striking. During the entirety of the two periods exam-
ined, there were 20 times more images of boats than of individual asylum seekers
(Figure 5).
One would, of course, expect many boats in the coverage of a crisis that consists of
asylum seekers arriving by boat. That is the empirical reality and it is visualised in the
media through numerous images of boats, ranging from ramshackle shing vessels to
Figure 5. Comparative count of images of boats and of individual asylum seekers
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passenger carriers and freighters. Yet, at the same time the visualisation of boats is
about far more than the factual representation of the refugee crises than it may at
rst seem to be. For one, boat arrivals have historically accounted for only a minor
part of asylum applications. Between 96 and 99 per cent of asylum applicants are esti-
mated to have arrived by air (Phillips 2013: 6). During the entire period we examined
there was not a single image of such an asylum seeker. This proportion has mean-
while changed, but until very recently boat arrivals still made up less than half of
all asylum seekers.
How dominant depictions of asylum seekers dilute compassion and cultivate a
culture of fear
Prevailing visualisations of asylum seekers are thus both highly selective and highly
political. The majority of images we examined represent asylum seekers as large
groups and through the visualisation of boats. The above sample is only one of
many. In fact, 42 per cent of all images of asylum seekers have no visible facial fea-
tures at all.
The prevailing visualisation of asylum seekers is thus one in which we no longer
see an identiable victim. We see no faces, no real people. We see just anonymous
masses. We see an abstract and dehumanised political problem. Such pictures sup-
press or overlook the types of factors that make people human (Malkki 1996: 388
89). They may lead to what Rosler has termed the revictimisation of victims:by
depersonalising the plight of asylum seekers and rendering them as a faceless
mass, such imagery objecties and generalises the suffering and struggle associated
with seeking refuge (cited in Liss 1998: xiv).
The images that dominate media coverage of asylum seekers are thus unlikely to
evoke the type of compassion in viewers that images of a single victim with clearly
recognisable facial features trigger. Johnson suggests that depictions of catastrophes
that involve large numbersfacilitate situations where public compassion falters and
loses its grip(2011: 622). This study and others tend to draw upon situations of pol-
itical unrest and mass murder to illustrate the waning public responsiveness to distant
calamity (see, for example, Slovic 2007). The psychological dynamics at play bring
considerable insight to understanding how images of large numbers of asylum
seekers shape public perceptions and political attitudes. Images of lone victims
or even of small family groups tend to generate empathy and, in turn, willingness
to help, but each additional life visualised diminishes the apparent lifesaving effect
(Slovic 2007:846). Viewers become less interested and less emotionally responsive
to the struggle and suffering at hand.
The visual dehumanisation of refugees works hand in hand with a long-standing
political discourse that portrays the inux of boats and asylum seekers as a threat
to Australias security and border control (see Gale 2004: 32931; McMaster
2002). Australias refugee problemthus ceases to be a humanitarian issue and
instead becomes one that questions the sanctity of sovereignty.
Prevailing visual patterns feed into and reinforce what numerous commentators
call a politics of fear(Furedi 2005; Massumi 1993). Mobilising discourses of danger
and threat perception are central to such a politics (see Ahmed 2004:6874). Burke
writes of Australias invasion anxiety(2008). Consider, again, our sample image
from above, which depicts a mass of mostly Arablooking men on a boat, thus
feeding into a discourse of fear that portrays asylum seekers of different colours as
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a potential threat to Australias identity and stability (see Gale 2004). This and count-
less similar images are powerful because they bring this fear created and articial as
it might be to life. They provide a visual point of reference towards which viewers
anxieties can be both directed and potentially intensied.
Governmental strategies to visually dehumanise refugees
Backed up by this prevailing visual framing, both major parties have, for over a
decade now, portrayed the issue of asylum seekers as one of border protection and
sovereignty. They differ on specic policy initiatives, but both parties and their
leaders have tried to outdo each other in terms of advocating their ability to strengthen
Australias borders and halt the ow of boats. The underlying theme driving these
policy positions often implicit but at times spelled out is that Australiasway
of life requires protecting from an uncontrolled inux of asylum seekers whose cul-
tural values are not compatible with prevailing social norms.
Government-led visual strategies lie at the heart of such political campaigns.
Indicative here is a detailed Senate inquiry following the Tampa incident of 2001.
The report revealed a tightly controlled approach to the issue of boat people, includ-
ing polices that meticulously regulate what images could be collected and who could
provide public information(Senate 2002a: 22). There were explicit governmental
directives not to personaliseor humanisethe issue of asylum seekers (Senate
2002a: 24, 2002b: 115152). A key reason for the ensuing tight control of photo-jour-
nalists was to ensure that no imagery that could conceivably garner sympathy or
cause misgiving about the aggressive new border protection regime would nd its
way into the public domain(Senate 2002a:2425).
These policy documents suggest clear knowledge of how certain types of images
can generate either compassion or fear in viewers. Close-ups of asylum seekers are
recognised as being humanising, whereas pictures taken from a distance are recog-
nised as not being so. The latter were considered to be better suited to capitalise pol-
itically on widespread popular fears of uncontrolled migration threatening Australia.
Governmental control over images of asylum seekers has intensied in recent
years. In October 2011, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship announced
a new media policy. Designed to control media access to asylum seekers, a key
part of this policy is to regulate the use of images and, in particular, to prevent jour-
nalists from showing the faces of asylum seekers (Taylor 2012: 9). The policy is crys-
tallised in a Deed of Agreementthat is meant to protect asylum seekers and their
families from possible retaliation at home. Such privacy concerns are legitimate
and shared by refugee organisations, which urge photo-journalists to proceed with
caution and sensitivity when publishing images that may identify individuals
(UNHCR 2012: 7). There is, however, more at stake. For one, there is the concern
that identifying specic asylum seekers might give them an undue advantage in
their application for refugee status (Christensen and Taylor 2011: 3). But such sur
place claimsare rare, and if ofcials were concerned about the safety of asylum
seekers they could leave it to them to decide for themselves whether they would
like their portraits made public. This option does not exist, if only because regulations
make it very difcult for media outlets to contact refugees, let alone take portraits of
them (Taylor 2012: 9). Journalists who visit detention centres, for instance, are at the
absolute discretionof ofcials. Each photograph they take is carefully controlled
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and ltered using three options: pixelate/mute/delete(Department of Immigration
and Citizenship 2011: 10).
Policy guidelines provide ofcials with a remarkable level of control over how
asylum seekers are publicly visualised. Privacy issues only partially explain this
unusual exertion of state power. More importantly, even when legitimately
employed, the effects of privacy guidelines remain just as politically signicant:
they interfere substantially with the relationship between images, emotions and
public perception of, and reaction to, refugee crises. Politicians are not alone in
being acutely aware of these linkages. Refugee advocates, too, recognise the
power of visuals, which is why they push for greater and increased access to
asylum seekers, including the ability to portray them as individuals and human
beings. Briskman and Aristotle (cited in Christensen and Taylor 2011: 3, 9) both
fear that when the public does not see the human face of asylum seekers they can
easily become dehumanised and criminalised. By contrast, were Australians to see
more close-ups of asylum seekers it would be signicantly more difcult to ignore
their suffering. It is with this aim in mind that Amnesty International organised a
photographic exhibition, entitled Faces of Asylum, that aims to show the human
faces of the people who seek asylum on our shores. It toured several Australian
cities during the second half of 2011 but was banned from a Western Australian
local library (Amnesty International 2012; Bastians 2012).
Our analysis found that leading national newspapers in Australia visually portray
asylum seekers in very particular, highly political and highly dehumanising ways.
Of the categories we examined, the largest (66 per cent) was of medium- to large-
sized groups. This pattern of anonymous masses is further reinforced through the
consistent visual presence of boats. The category of image that is most likely to
create compassion and empathy in viewers photographs of individual refugees
with clearly recognisable facial features made up a remarkably low 2 per cent of
all images. Almost half of all images displayed no visual features at all.
We have argued that these dehumanising visual patterns establish the conditions of
possibility for political discussions. They determine what can and cannot be seen and
thus inuence what is and is not discussed publicly. The arrival of asylum seekers is
visually framed not as a humanitarian crisis that involves grievable lives requiring
compassion, but primarily as a threat to Australias sovereignty and security. This
pattern is consistent with other parts of the world, where asylum seekers arriving
by boat are now largely viewed as a threat to security and to the identities and pros-
perities of developed countries (Falk 2010: 85; Pugh 2004: 52).
Particularly signicant here is that visual factors help to explain the rather distorted
nature of public discussions of refugees, which are often conducted with a blunt dis-
regard of empirical evidence. What Watson outlined a few years ago is still largely
true: Australia is a wealthy country with an enviably small refugee problem
(2009:9,79113). It is far removed from the major refugee crises in the world.
This geographic distance makes it difcult and rare for refugees to arrive.
Those who arrive are proportionally small in number: about 3 per cent of the
worlds refugees (The Guardian Datablog 2013). There is no evidence to conrm
that asylum seekers pose a security threat to Australia. Even in 2012, when boat arri-
vals further increased to 17,000, the numbers paled in comparison to refugee crises
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elsewhere. Most Western liberal states accommodate far more refugees per capita
than Australia does. In Italy alone 61,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2011.
In the rest of the world refugees are even more common. In the same year, Yemen
had more than 100,000 boat arrivals from Somalia (Phillips 2013: 15).
All this suggests that Australia compared to the rest of the world has an envi-
ably modest and easily manageable refugee problem. And yet, political debates
suggest the opposite. Both major parties explicitly elevated restrictive policies
towards asylum seekers to a principle objective of their election campaigns.
Feeding into and drawing from widespread fear of outsiders, they singled out
asylum seekers arriving by boat as particularly problematic, even though they consti-
tuted, until recently, a minority of overall arrivals. Against available evidence, boat
arrivals are demonised as illegal economic migrants who threaten Australias sover-
eignty and border-control mechanisms.
This article has shown that a critical reading of visual representations of asylum
seekers allows us to both expose these partial political debates and to explain how
they can be conducted and maintained in the face of easily available contradictory
evidence. Images play a key role in this process they lie at the heart of how we
see and understand the world. And this is why an accurate approach to Australias
responsibility towards refugees is not possible without openly discussing in far
more detail than to date how dehumanising visual patterns have framed the
issues at stake and delineated the parameters of political debates. There will never
be neutral ways of depicting refugees or any political issues but greater awareness
of the performative power of images ought to be integral to how mature democracies
approach their difcult political and ethical responsibilities towards refugees.
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... The above was combined with the exploitation of the special privileges of ERT as the only channel having access to the Idomeni evacuation. Although we consider the Arabic news bulletin as belonging to the assimilation narrative, in this case it employed tactics which have also been employed by the narrative of exclusion chosen by governments with xenophobic and racist policies (Bleiker, Campbell, Hutchison, and Nicholson 2013). ...
Full-text available
The very term "refugee crisis" is a construct of the media that does not correspond to a specific scientific terminology, as we are led to believe. In an attempt to connect the media representations with their political corollaries, we will examine the news bulletins in Ara-bic, broadcast by the ERT, the Greek public television. We maintain that, despite their emancipatory potentials, the news bulletins in Arabic constitute a new mode of subordinating the refugees to policies that undermine their basic rights, while infantilizing them.
The chapter explores how the growing presence of digital media, and particularly Twitter, has contributed to reshape how communication is carried out within contemporary societies. Drawing upon the field of Digital Migration Studies, it also discusses the impact of globalizing digital technologies on the communication practices established by asylum seekers and refugees in contexts of escape and resettlement. By reviewing recently published literature, on the one hand, it sheds light on how mobile phones, the Internet and the different digital media platforms have allowed refugees to establish a vast array of transnational networks of communication across the digital landscape; on the other, it explores the constraints of digital media in terms of surveillance and control practices enforced by governments and institutional bodies on forced migrants. The chapter further highlights the importance of expanding the context of analysis of the European-based field of Digital Migration Studies, and of incorporating the perspective of Critical Discourse Studies to investigate the linguistic and multisemiotic resources used by refugees to counter the marginalization and confinement practices to which they are subjected.
The chapter foregrounds the refugees’ imaginaries in the form of visual discursive practices established within the digital landscape under investigation. The Imagining Refugee investigates how refugees use Twitter to articulate their multimodal perspectives while centering their lived and imagined realities in contexts of detention. Considering the lack of refugee-produced visual scenarios within mainstream media, the author sheds light on the representational capacities of refugees, who work towards the appropriation of the visual space where they digitally operate. The aims of the chapter are to explore what kind of visual discourses emerge from the purposively constructed visual corpus, and examine the multimodal strategies used by refugees to articulate their visual discourses on Twitter from within contexts of detention. The analysis explores in detail how refugees appropriate the digital platform of Twitter to signify their multimodal self-representations, formulate their ideological viewpoints, and fulfil their communicative interests. The multisemiotic resources of Twitter are in fact mobilized to document and archive their lived experiences as well as to articulate their own emancipatory perspectives in and from detention.
A detailed account of the research context is provided in the present chapter. Australia’s onshore/offshore mandatory detention policy is discussed from a historical and political perspective, including the 2001 enactment and 2012 reimplementation of the Pacific Solution and the 2013 Operation Sovereign Borders—which established that asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia via sea routes without legal documents would be indefinitely detained in the Manus and Nauru Regional Processing Centers, on the homonymous islands of the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, the chapter describes the physical and mental severe repercussions of the Australian restrictive juridical apparatus on detained asylum seekers and refugees, while arguing that several international declarations and conventions, to which Australia is a signatory, have been contravened to uphold the detention system across the Pacific Region. Facts and figures concerning the externalization and maintenance of the border policy are used as a complementary background information. Lastly, the denigratory discursive practices that have been concurrently produced by mainstream politics and dominant media to illegalize and demonize asylum seekers are explored.
Textual and visual analyses of nation-branding campaigns are rare but highly needed (Bolin and Ståhlberg, 2010; Hao, Paul, Trott, Guo, and Wu, 2019) as online media have become a popular tool for states to shape people’s perception (Volcic and Andrejevic, 2011). In Anholt’s much applied nation brand hexagon (2007), immigration and investment, society, governance, and culture and heritage are, along with tourism and export, the core aspects that build a country’s reputation. As the 2015 refugee peak situation resulted in a more restrictive approach of the Swedish government towards asylum applicants, the country’s brand was put under pressure. How could Sweden’s values related to openness be highlighted while policymakers chose a deterrent road? In this study, we bridge streams of research on nation branding, framing, and migration studies by presenting a multimodal analysis of the “Portraits of migration” campaign as a strategic response to the refugee situation.
Humanitarian actors often present refugees as vulnerable to mobilize support. Their visual framing, in particular, moves refugees’ helplessness to the center. Critical scholars, however, argue that this representation can have exclusionary effects. In this article, we outline a research agenda to examine this claim empirically and provide initial results testing it. Based on a survey experiment, we show that vulnerability representations have significant effects on the perception of refugees as more dependent than refugees in capacity representations. These perceptions are linked to the view that refugees are economically burdensome, which, in turn, is linked to negative attitudes towards asylum seekers.
In this social semiotic analysis, we examined visuals of Rohingya refugees in two U.S. newspapers: The New York Times and The Washington Post. We identified prominent tropes and themes exemplifying those tropes. Visuals connoted refugee vulnerability and subscribed to gender stereotypes. Media also leaned on familiar themes to translate “distant suffering.” Our study has addressed the urgent need to bridge academic/critical work on journalism and journalistic practice in the field. Our hope is that media practitioners will take steps to delink refugees from negative connotations.
The paper is a comparative analysis of two media artifacts from Reuters engaging with the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. One artifact are the ‘traditional’ images that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018; the second is a special report utilising several aspects of new media. Locating the artifacts within humanitarian journalism, the analysis seeks to understand whether emergent media has pronounced gains over traditional media. The study argues that moral connections through technology are not a given and that such relationships between the spectators and subjects of humanitarian communication artifacts must be continually worked on and improved upon through a vigilant media ethics. The paper hopes to contribute to knowledge about new media’s intersections with journalistic refugee representations and to the broad field imaginary of humanitarian communication.
In the growing literature on the visual representations of refugees used by international organisations, only a few studies have examined the representations used specifically to portray the experiences of resettled refugees in the global North. This study’s objective is to address that gap by analysing the use of specific images by UNHCR Canada to illustrate the resettlement of Syrian refugees in that country, in the context of the government’s initiative to resettle 25000 Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2016. Through a content analysis of the visual representations used online by UNHCR Canada, this study aims to explore the specificities of these representations. Results show that preference seems to be given to certain types of representations of refugees, such as images picturing one individual or a small group of easily identifiable persons, images of women and girls taking care of their families, children and infants, and so on. These tendencies in terms of representations may have various effects, including in fostering specific reactions (compassion, generosity, etc.) in viewers. They also serve to present a particular solution over others for the refugees depicted. The analysis aims to explore those tendencies in representation detected in the selected images and their potential effects on viewers.
This article examines the representation of the migrant caravan on Instagram showing how an aesthetics of otherness has prevailed in this representation. Aesthetics of otherness is the result of the interaction between platform users’ selections and platform affordances that creates a gap between the marginalized other and the user. Based on a qualitative content analysis of posts with the hashtags #caravanamigrante and #migrantcaravan, this research reveals that the two hashtags form parallel, although not alike, communicative spaces where migrant caravan representation is mostly mediated by professionals and organizations interested in promoting their own work and not by the migrants themselves. Despite this trend, users posting with #caravanamigrante were less likely to hijack the intent of the public, more likely to reference reasons for migration, and overall less likely to employ the aesthetics of otherness, which point to the possibility of circumventing the role of the platform in shaping the representation of marginalized people and social justice movements.
Full-text available
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.
Illegalized immigration is a highly iconic topic. The public perception of the current regime for mobility is profoundly shaped by visual and verbal images. As the issue of illegalized immigration is gaining increasing political momentum, the authors feel it is a well-warranted undertaking to analyze the role of images in the creation of illegalization. Their aim is to trace the visual processes that produce these very categories. The authors aim to map out an iconography of illegalized immigration in relation to political, ethical, and aesthetic discourses. They discuss the need to project new images as well as the dangers of giving persons without legal papers an individual face. Illegalization is produced by law, but naturalized through the everyday use of images. The production of law, on the other hand, is also driven by both mental and materialized images. A critical iconology may help us to see these mechanisms.
Sontag discusses war and atrocity imagry. "The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images". Meaning and response to a photo depends on words. Photos are useful against an unpopular war but "absent such a protest, the same antiwar photograph may be read as showing pathos, or heroism." Photos help us remember, but not understand. "Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us." "Image-glut keeps attention light, mobile, relatively indifferent to content. Image-flow precludes a privileged image". Images are meant to invite reflection and consideration but "cannot dictate a course of action".
Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are "one of many" in a much greater problem. Why does this occur? The answer to this question will help us answer a related question that is the topic of this paper: Why, over the past century, have good people repeatedly ignored mass murder and genocide? Every episode of mass murder is unique and raises unique obstacles to intervention. But the repetitiveness of such atrocities, ignored by powerful people and nations, and by the general public, calls for explanations that may reflect some fundamental deficiency in our humanity - a deficiency that, once identified, might possibly be overcome. One fundamental mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes of mass-murder neglect involves the capacity to experience affect, the positive and negative feelings that combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions. I shall draw from psychological research to show how the statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers, fail to convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The reported numbers of deaths represent dry statistics, "human beings with the tears dried off," that fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action. Recognizing that we cannot rely only upon our moral feelings to motivate proper action against genocide, we must look to moral argument and international law. The 1948 Genocide Convention was supposed to meet this need, but it has not been effective. It is time to examine this failure in light of the psychological deficiencies described here and design legal and institutional mechanisms that will enforce proper response to genocide and other forms of mass murder.
This book examines how western liberal states are progressively restricting access to refugees and asylum seekers, even though these states have signed international agreements obliging them to offer protection to those fleeing persecution and to advocate the spread of human rights and humanitarian principles. Watson examines how refugees and asylum seekers have come to be treated so poorly by these states through the use of policies such as visa requirements, mandatory detention and prevention/return policies. Providing extensive documentary analysis of debates on 'restrictive' refugee policies in Canada and Australia, the author addresses the relationship between security and migration, an issue of increased importance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the war on terror. He then examines hotly-contested policies such as detention and the forceful return of asylum seekers to demonstrate how attempts to securitise these issues have been resisted in the media and by political opposition. Given the importance of providing refuge for persecuted populations, not only to ensure the survival of targeted individuals, but also to maintain international peace and security, the erosion of protective measures is of great importance today. The book will be of interest to students and scholars of international security, international relations, migration and human rights.