Refugee focus doesn't match the facts: expert

Monday, 2 July 2001

Around 50,000 people - mainly Britons and Americans - purposely overstay their visas in Australia each year and become illegal immigrants.

Some 4000 people arrived last year in Australia by boat - mainly people from non-English speaking countries - and have also become illegal immigrants.

But the Federal Government treats these two groups vastly differently, according to an Adelaide University researcher.

PhD graduate (Politics) Dr Don McMaster, who is also the author of Asylum Seekers: Australia's Response to Refugees, describes the Government's treatment of refugees as verging on "racist".

"When the 50,000 or so people overstay their visas, the Government doesn't put them in an isolated detention centre in the Australian Outback," he says.

"So why are the 4000 people who arrived by boat treated differently?

"I think their place of origin has quite a bit to do with it: those arriving by boat are mostly from the Middle East and Asia, and they quite often can't speak English. This is compared to the vast majority of people who overstay their visas; these people are mostly Britons or Americans who do speak English and who often do have that Anglo-Saxon heritage."

"I believe the Government tries to paint these boat people almost as invaders, it's like a return to the days of White Australia - these people are invading us from the North; if we let these people in too easily then whole hordes will follow, and so on."

Even the Government and media's use of the label "illegal" colours public attitude towards the asylum seekers, according to Dr McMaster; it denotes criminality and is a form of scare-mongering and fear. He argues that there is no middle ground where the public is getting correct and balanced information on the arrivals and conditions in the detention centres from both the government and the media.

"The reality is that over 80% of recently detained asylum seekers have been recognised as genuine refugees," he says.

"So why is Australia, as a so-called civilised country, treating these people so harshly when the majority of them are genuinely fleeing persecution, torture and even death? It is impossible for these people to safely obtain the necessary travel documents, either because no office exists or it simply is too dangerous."

Dr McMaster says he is also concerned the problem of treating asylum seekers poorly will get worse before it gets better.

"The recent outbreaks and protests at detention centres have exposed a system that is mismanaged and in crisis," he says.

"It doesn't matter that there's an election this year and there could be a change of Government. From the research I've done, the two major parties adopt a very similar position to the treatment of boat people and I don't see that changing in the foreseeable future."


Contact Details

Dr Don McMaster
Visiting Fellow, Politics Department
Business: +61 8 8313 4016

Media Team
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 0814

Mr David Ellis
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762