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Australian Current Affairs

Australian immigration minister orders asylum-seekers to be called “illegals”


Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison

Let us call a spade a spade shall we, Scott Morrison? Your edict, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, that detention staff and members of your department now refer to asylum seekers as “illegal maritime arrivals” is shameless and shameful.

It is a brutish manipulation of language to suit your, and your government’s, political purposes.

This week The Sun-day Age published an email written by a department official to detention centre staff that states: “The department has received correspondence from the minister clarifying his expectations about the department’s use of terminology.” People who arrived by boat were to be referred to as illegal maritime arrivals. Those held in detention centres were to be known as “detainees”, rather than “clients”.

The minister subsequently said he wouldn’t apologise for “not using politically correct language to describe something that I am trying to stop.”

“I’m not going to engage in some sort of clever language to try and mask anything here,” he said. “I’m going to call a spade a spade. People who have entered Australia illegally by boat have illegally entered by boat. “I’ve never said that it is illegal to claim asylum. That’s not what the term refers to. It refers to their mode of entry.”

Morrison has been consistent if nothing else in regard to the last matter. In speeches in Parliament over the past few years, he has reiterated that it is not illegal to seek asylum. How you get here, however, is the rub. In 2010, in also alluding to queue jumpers, he said: “Those who arrive by air typically have a valid visa for entry and only a small minority arrive illegally without documentation. I am yet to learn of an asylum seeker who has perished on a 747 heading for Australia.”

Two years before that, speaking on the global “responsibility to protect” those who cannot do so themselves, he said such a responsibility “must be more than warm and fuzzy rhetoric; it must be a promise upon which hundreds of millions of marginalised and oppressed people throughout the world can rely”.

Well, refugees trying to arrive by whatever means you can, heed this: the tide has turned. You thought you were human. Sorry. You thought you would be granted a little sympathy. Sorry. You thought there might be a trickle of compassion for your plight. Sorry. You are now shipping news.

Compare the two phrases: “asylum seekers” versus “illegal maritime arrivals”.

The conjoining of “asylum” and “seeker” is evocative. Who seeks asylum? A human in danger, distress and despair; someone who is hoping to survive on the lee shore of kindness. “Illegal” + “maritime” + “arrivals” = the draining of the human. It is using language to drive and empower ideology. Language shapes public policy and discourse.

By changing the terms of reference, Morrison is trying to control the debate. Kon Karapanagiotidis, chief executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, believes the change in terms is “profound” and that Morrison is “deliberately trying to dehumanise asylum seekers by making them less than human”.

This battle of terminology and ideology, however, is not fought in just one country. In the US, debate over the term “illegal immigrant” rises and falls. This year the news service Associated Press banned its use in copy and politicians of both sides of the divide have had to defend their labelling of non-citizens.

Jonathan Rosa, assistant professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, says such phrasing “is more about signalling one’s political affiliation than about trying to describe immigration”.

Linguist professor Geoffrey Nunberg, of the University of California, has written that “it’s only your immigration status that can qualify you as being an illegal person, or that can earn you the honour of being ‘an illegal’ all by itself. That use of illegal as a noun actually goes back a long way. The British coined it in the 1930s to describe Jews who entered Palestine without official permission, and it has been used ever since as a way of reducing individuals to their infractions.”

As it is in this country. The semantic solution is to reduce the person to a point where they are nigh invisible, while their infraction, their violation, expands and overshadows all else. The two become one – because the government and its servants label them so. Say a phrase often enough and it attains a patina of truth. Say a shovel is a spade long enough and it becomes true.

Language in politics is never neutral. We do not live in the Switzerland of semantics. Words are weapons. They can be launched as invective across the chamber or they can be deployed through ministerial commands.

Morrison in his maiden speech to Parliament in February 2008 cited John Howard as Australia’s greatest prime minister since Sir Robert Menzies and, in his reversion to the phrase “illegal maritime arrivals”, Morrison is invoking the Howard era.

Australians like to think of themselves as individuals, independent of spirit and mind. They call a spade a spade because that’s what it bloody well is. Yet in the hands of a powerful institution, be it governmental or corporate for that matter, the judgment and inclination of people can be subtly turned. It’s never a big thing; an emphasis here, a nuance there. The power of language is thus the language of power.

And that spade is really just digging a hole for the truth.

Source: The Age – The minister for debasing the language

About Craig Hill

Teacher and Writer. Writing has been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and others.

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