Fear and Loathing: Australia’s fear of the ‘immigrant other.’

Yesterday’s Guardian featured an excellent comment piece from Saman Shad on the experiences of migrants in Australia. If you follow coverage of asylum and immigration related news stories, it is painfully clear to see that certain sectors of the Australian media are obsessed with the supposed ‘threat’ posed by migrants to the country, especially the asylum seeking ‘boat people.’ My google alerts, emails highlighting any news stories that feature asylum or immigration key words, mainly come from Australian media sources and are often the source of much of my anger.

Featuring much of the inflammatory language and vitriol that we at Press Gang try to confront, the Australian media and government have created what Shad defines as a ‘hazy line’ between refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. Rather than trying to shed light on the reality of the situation in Australia, this murky approach only works to heighten an unsubstantiated fear of a generalised immigrant ‘other’:

Most migrants arrive in Australia through approved channels and not all asylum seekers are boat people. Of the 11,491 people seeking asylum in Australia in the period of 2010-11, 6,316 arrived by air. This means less than half arrived by boat. In fact, asylum seekers arriving by boat make up just 2.7% of the total migrant intake into Australia yet their perceived threat to the community is greatly exaggerated, with 72% of Australians concerned about asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat.

It is exactly this sort of confusion that enables prejudice and bigotry to flourish amongst communities. And it is exactly this sort of confusion that both the government and media should be trying to clarify.

Before the Leveson Enquiry, I’m sure much of the populist British media and government would be quick to saddle the high horse of superiority and laugh at their Australian counterparts. With submissions of evidence from the Migrant Rights Network, Refugee Council and other refugee rights-related organisations highlighting the pertinent issue of poor and inflammatory reportage of asylum and immigration news stories, the British press is hardly free from blame. It only takes a quick search on the Press Complaints Commission website to see the number of cases taken up against the Telegraph and Mail for the misrepresentation of asylum and immigration related stories.

Even comments on stories regarding the rights of asylum seekers in the UK or even more generally, the rights of migrants in Europe, are frequently full of hate-fuelled vitriol that goes unchecked and unchallenged. The ‘discussion’ that ensued after this Sky News article (about the shocking deportation of 100 Tamils to Sri Lanka despite serious warnings from human rights organisations) found itself eloquently expressed in the loaded language that the PCC claims to challenge.

When media outlets become bastions of both the government and corporations, citizens become the victims of a certain level of cultural conditioning; we read off the crib sheets of some of the most privileged members of society who have entrenched ulterior motives. We then find ourselves in a situation where 72% of Australians are concerned about asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat whilst only 2.7% of the total migrant intake into Australia actually arrive by boat; the media has fabricated a terrifying hologram of the ‘asylum seeker’.

If governments and media continue to purport a fear of the abstract immigrant ‘other’, then we must humanise the abstract. Censorship is never the answer. In fact, the only solution can be exposure. Through the real stories of individuals seeking sanctuary, we can hope to dissolve the shadowy spectre of the fabricated immigrant ‘other.’

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