Back Issues


Refugee Policy: A highly charged political issue


32 [3]



The challenge to humanitarianism posed by the vexed question of refugees and asylum seekers lies at the core of articles in this issue. In Western nations its demise is dramatic. Fanning the flames of xenophobia and racial prejudice to deflect attention from political issues is now a common ploy of governments. The problem is such that in 2012, The Council of Europe passed a resolution concerning the portrayal of refugees during election campaigns. The resolution noted Europe’s long history of emigration and its need for immigrants at a time of population ageing and a general public perception that refugees erode European cultural traditions. The Assembly regarded xenophobia to be responsible for ‘challenging democratic principles and respect for human dignity’ and felt that a strategy was needed to combat xenophobia during election campaigns. The problem was the habitual tendency of some candidates and political parties to present ‘migrants and refugees as a threat to and a burden on society’ (Parliamentary Assembly 2012). The Assembly also pointed out that the use of racist representations as an election ploy encourages the rise of xenophobic populist parties and feeds into more radical government anti-immigration policy. The resolution called for an ‘enhanced ethics in politics to help reduce racist tendencies in society’ (Parliamentary Assembly 2012) and urged politicians to take responsibility for the elimination of negative stereotyping and the stigmatisation of minority or migrant groups in political discourse and election campaigns.

That the Council of Europe, a leading human rights organisation which includes 47 member states, should feel it necessary to comment on the tendency of governments and politicians to incite and inflame irrational fears during election campaigns is indicative of a shameful abdication of political responsibility. In a world where countries with far fewer resources than Western nations host far more refugees and asylum seekers, and where the only long term solution to refugee crisis is the resolution of those conflicts that result in large scale population displacement – making political capital out of misery is simply indefensible.

‘Refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’ are emotive terms in many nations, and refugee policy is a highly charged political issue. In Australia, as in other industrialised states, refugees and asylum seekers have come to represent a whole gamut of fears and insecurities including threats to cultural identity, threats to immigration control, threats to jobs, and threats to nation-state sovereignty. Unfortunately governments, politicians and campaign strategists frequently fail in their ethical duty to maintain human rights and the rule of law. The 2001 Tampa affair in Australia is a case in point. The government of the day failed to provide truthful and factual information about asylum seekers and refugees to the general public and played on xenophobic rhetoric to secure and retain political power. The political controversy over the Tampa affair is mentioned in several articles in this issue of Social Alternatives. Suffice it to say here that the Australian government’s decision to turn back the Norwegian ship MV Tampa carrying rescued Afghani refugees prompted legal changes and the creation of the Border Protection Bill. Government policy and practice negatively informed public opinion towards refugees arriving by boat and led directly to the re-election of the Howard Liberal-Coalition government (who incidentally were trailing in the polls before the election). Since that time, neither an Australian Liberal-Coalition or Labor leader has spoken out on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers. Nor has any political leader sought to challenge the damning labels such as ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘illegals’ used by the popular media to refer to those who arrive on Australian shores by boat.


To be able to access this issue you must sign up and pay the subscription fee to the Social Alternative website.

If you already have an account, please log in here.