Tuesday, May 25, 2010

They Are Not Asylum Seekers

By now you would have heard that six asylum seekers have escaped from the Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney, and three more were apprehended by police in the attempt. It has been widely reported by all media since mid morning that the escaped asylum seekers have so far eluded detection and remain at large. Upon hearing or seeing these reports, many people may feel naturally alarmed at what they perceive as a threat to public safety, and be left with the impression that these asylum seekers are in some way dangerous. The only problem is that it’s just not true. The fact is that they are not asylum seekers.

The initial report distributed by the Australian Associated Press quite clearly and categorically states “The escapees did not arrive in Australia by boat and are not asylum seekers”. However this unambiguous statement of fact seems to have escaped the nation’s newshounds with some reports labeling them as “asylum seekers”, and at least one referring to them as “refugees”. The Sydney Morning Herald website reported that “Police are on the hunt for six asylum seekers who have escaped…” Even the Australian Newspaper website, usually a reliable and factual source of reporting, fell for the mistake of publishing the AAP report without reading it properly and giving it a headline which said “Asylum-seekers escape from Villawood”, even though the text beneath the headline contradicted it.

This kind of shoddy reporting and sub-editing not only perpetuates the demonization of people who genuinely seek asylum, a basic human right which belongs to all of us, it also erodes the reputation of journalists and the news media generally. It is sad enough that we have to suffer some sectors of the media having set themselves up to be arbiters of moral standards as we witnessed last week, but now we can no longer depend on the media to be bothered with maintaining standards of accuracy, let alone grammar, punctuation or spelling. For a business which is supposed to be all about communication, some of the practitioners appear to have a slender grasp of the tools required for the task.

As might be expected, the Federal Opposition has not been slow in laying the blame for the escape at the feet of the government either. Shadow Minister Scott Morrison claims that the increased pressure in detention centres is directly caused by the increased numbers of boat arrivals. While it is clear that there are more people now behind the razor wire, the fact is that there are more than 50 000 foreigners who overstay their visa every year who are the real illegal immigrants. Those are the people who are far more likely to pose a threat to national security, if one exists at all, and the continued demonization of asylum seekers and refugees will do nothing to change that.

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