Australian immigration staff and those working in detention centres have received instructions to refer to asylum seekers as ‘illegal’. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison earlier this week sent a written directive that all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat be referred to as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’. Asylum seekers held in detention centres in Australia are to be called ‘detainees’ instead of clients, and those being held on Nauru or Manus Island are to be called ‘transferees’ instead of clients.
In 2007 the Labor Government stopped using the term ‘illegal maritime arrivals’, instead calling them ‘irregular maritime arrivals’, in recognition of the fact that it is not illegal under Australian or international law to seek asylum. The new directive from Immigration Minister Morrison will see a return to the language of the Howard government.
Many asylum seeker groups are unhappy with the change in language. Chief Executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Kon Karapanagiotidis, has said that the language change will shape the public debate over asylum seekers. “He’s [the minister] deliberately trying to dehumanise asylum seekers by making them seem less human… They’re ‘detainees’, not people, and that suggests criminality. And calling people ‘transferees’ suggests they have no rights; they’re a package, a parcel, in transit.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten has said that Labor does not agree with the new terminology. “I do believe that we’re an immigration nation. Other than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we’re all boat people or plane people. We are the nation of the second chance and we have been since European settlement.”
Mr Morrison has defended his decision to direct public servants to refer to asylum seekers as ‘illegal’. “I’m not going to make apologies for not using politically correct language to describe something that I am trying to stop,” he said. “I’m not going to engage in some sort of clever language to try and mask anything here… I’m going to call a spade a spade.”
When questioned about his use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe asylum seekers, Mr Morrison explained, “People who have entered Australia illegally by boat have entered illegally by boat. I’ve never said that it was illegal to claim asylum. That’s not what the term refers to. It refers to the mode of entry.”
Find out more about Mr Morrison’s new directive at the Sydney Morning Herald.
There are so many problems with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s new directive I hardly know where to start. I believe his language decisions are wrong on a moral, human level, and his justification is so technically flawed as to render it invalid.
I will start with the technical problems and work my way backwards. Mr Morrison has claimed that the term ‘illegal maritime arrivals’, which is to be used to describe individual asylum seekers, does not describe those people as illegal. It simply describes their mode of entry as illegal. On a purely grammatical level, Mr Morrison’s justification is wrong. The word ‘illegal’ in this phrase describes the ‘arrival’. By describing asylum seekers as ‘arrivals’ of any kind, the word ‘arrival’ stops meaning ‘a mode of transport’ and is instead simply another word for ‘asylum seeker’. If an ‘arrival’ is the same as an ‘asylum seeker’ then, grammatically, calling them ‘illegal maritime asylum seekers’ is just as correct as calling them ‘illegal maritime arrivals’. Mr Morrison is calling asylum seekers illegal, even if he doesn’t mean to be. If he wanted to refer to their mode of transport as illegal, he would need to call them ‘fellow human beings who have illegally arrived by boat’.
Technicalities aside, I think it is just plain wrong to dehumanise those who seek our help. To make the treacherous journey to Australia by boat, a person would need to be truly desperate. I think that locking these people away in detention centres is bad enough. Mr Morrisons insistence that we refer to them as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’, ‘detainees’ and ‘transferees’ simply adds insult to injury. Manners don’t cost anything, and acknowledging with our words, if not yet our actions, that asylum seekers are human beings should be a given.
As important as I think it is to use the correct language in any situation, at the end of the day this is an argument about semantics. All the hype over the word ‘illegal’ creates one more distraction from the bigger issue, which is that Australia’s asylum seeker policy is putting us at risk of breaching our signed agreement with the UN to provide assistance to genuine refugees.
Finally, I would like to put a question to Mr Morrison and to each of you. If it is not illegal to seek asylum, but it is illegal to arrive in Australia by boat, how else are they supposed to get here? Are they supposed to swim?
What do you think? Is the new term ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ more correct? Or is it dehumanising and wrong?