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Thinking about "People Smuggling" and Taking Care of Our Language

Monday, 5 September 2011  | Doug Hynd

The term "smuggling" as it is normally used carries connotations of attempts to conceal the items being smuggled from the relevant authorities. The use of the term "people smuggling" with reference to the activities of sailors bringing boat loads of refugees, seeking asylum, seems to me to be totally inaccurate and misleading as an account both factually and morally of what is taking place when a boatload of refugees arrives at Christmas Island. 

Those bringing the people to Australia in those boats do not seek to conceal their arrival from the authorities - the point of their arrival is to bring the presence of the refugees to the attention of the authorities at the earliest possible moment after their arrival, so as to make their claim for asylum. 

The use of the term "people smuggling" it seems to me is designed to ensure that the activity is judged to be morally obnoxious before the debate even starts. The moral status of the activity of the people supplying transport to asylum seekers needs some careful analysis. The activity may be illegal, it may be reckless, but that does not automatically make the activity immoral, let alone evil. It is difficult to see how the later characterisation could stand, considering that from the point of view of the law, if a person's claim to asylum is acknowledged by the Australian authorities to be a valid one, the means of entry to Australia is not regarded as illegal. 

How the activity of assisting refugees to make a valid claim for protection can be regarded as an evil is something I struggle to understand. The activity may be illegal, disruptive of Australian Government policy, reckless of human life, and disorderly. It may indeed be any, and all of the above. But evil? 

The other issue that emerges from paying attention to the language and focus of the public debate, is that we are now not discussing the question of how we can achieve a compassionate and just policy with respect to refugees seeking asylum. The policy debate is now framed almost entirely with respect to the effect of policy decisions on the activities of those termed "people smugglers". 

The obsession of the Australian Government, media and public at large with this group of people is indeed amazing to behold. The concern with their activities has so hi-jacked the policy debate that we have lost focus on the underlying realities that are driving refugees to seek asylum. 

Giving the attention being paid to this group it seems strange that we do not yet have a "Minister for 'People Smuggling'" because that is what the Minister for Immigration seems to have in fact become.

The national obsession with this relatively small group of people is now bordering on the bizarre, in terms of the actual numbers involved and the impact of their activities on the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia, in terms of both absolute numbers of those who seek asylum in Australia and as a proportion of the total of long term arrivals in Australia under the various immigration programs. We are now spending large amounts of public funds on a range of "non-solutions" that are totally unnecessary. 

In such a situation how might Christians respond? We should start with trying to examine carefully the language of public debate and begin unpacking the truthfulness of the assumptions that are embedded in it and the accuracy of the accounts of the policy and moral issues that form much of the media debate around asylum seekers. The call to truthfulness and care in our speech demands no less. Beyond that we can get involved in our local community with groups that seek to meet the needs of asylum seekers and refugees. Get to meet refugees and asylum seekers, listen to their stories, and begin to understand a little of how they see the world.

Doug Hynd is a former public servant, now working on a PhD in Public Policy and Theology at the Australian Catholic University.


Tom Mayne
September 6, 2011, 1:58PM
Thanks Doug for your comments. Here's another thought. When people complain about boat people being queue-jumpers ask them how one fronts up to the Australian High Commssion in Afghanistan when its location is not only secret but may move for security reasons?

Geoff Leslie
September 9, 2011, 11:59AM
You could have included the terms used to describe asylum seekers as part of the tendentious discourse: illegal immigrants, boat people, refugees, asylum seekers, illegal aliens, etc Every term already defines where the speaker will probably stand. But good point about the 'refugee assisters' who are labelled as smugglers.
Alasdair Livingston
December 7, 2011, 9:32PM
Yes indeed. The obscene manoeuvres of Howard's government, with the apparent aim of pleasing a xenophobic public, was one of the most depressing features of the later part of his time in office. Now we are incarcerating Indonesian teenagers whose "crime" was to join the crew of a refugee boat. We are the criminals! Putting children in the clink is illegal. But I wish I thought either the present government or the Opposition were any better than Howard's.
Alasdair Livingston
July 9, 2012, 8:57PM
I've changed my mind. Whether we call them "people
smugglers" or something else seems rather unimportant. Those who offer transport to a country made to seem
more congenial to potential travellers, take $10000 from each one, and put them on unseaworthy and overloaded boats, 200 at a time, are undoubtedly criminals and evil men. Once the money is in their hands, why should they bother whether or not the boat gets to its supposed destination? From a profit of $2m the price of another boat and the hire of a teen-age crew is just small change. The problem will not be solved until the perpetrators are tracked down in the transit country (in our case, Indonesia) and put in jail. The rest of my comment stands.

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