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Engaging with Dutton's rhetoric is a slippery slope

Somayra Ismailjee |  19 May 2016


Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton made headlines this week for comments rehashing blatantly racist and xenophobic stereotypes; among them, that refugees are 'illiterate and innumerate', unskilled and lazy, both unwilling to work and threatening to steal Australian jobs.

Image from the I Came By Boat campaignIn response to Dutton's comments, asylum seeker advocates promptly filled social media with refugee and migrant 'success stories' — positive images of refugees who have become doctors, lawyers, engineers or aid workers.

The I Came By Boat campaign is one such example, featuring the stories of refugees who have built successful, highly regarded careers in surgery, dentistry, teaching, law and medical science after settling in Australia.

Similarly, popular culture website Buzzfeed posted an article listing '11 Refugees Who Are Definitely Not Illiterate and Innumerate', seeking to dispel stereotypes that have long surrounded asylum seekers.

The irony of trying to negate these stereotypes is that in doing so, we are still cheapening asylum seekers to political tools, stripping them of their humanity and multiplicity. Aiming to counter such rhetoric as Dutton's with stories of high-achieving refugees plays into a toxic game that legitimises the same negative stereotypes by engaging with them, as if these are ideas that truly need to be disproved.

Negative stereotypes often gain traction through the underrepresentation of people seeking asylum, their lives and stories made invisible. However, just as invisibility dehumanises them, so does the hypervisibility we attribute to a select few stories.

There is no singular asylum seeker narrative, and the ones we preference to represent asylum seekers provide an insight into our national values. While the achievements of refugees are often truly exceptional and worth celebrating, the fact that we only celebrate, or even acknowledge, refugees in high-earning fields speaks volumes.

For the majority of society, one's worth is not dictated by the legitimacy of their future profession. For refugees, however, we demand excellence in return for the most basic human rights.


"We exercise a tendency towards welcoming refugees through the advantages they can provide us, rather than any advantage we can provide them."


By making the only acceptable image of an asylum seeker one that becomes a doctor or a lawyer or any other role with a substantive service to the very society that oppresses them, we have created a cruel and superficial metric for freedom.

This doesn't hold up alongside the reality of many refugee backgrounds. A lack of education, ability or health should not be a source of shame for any population, let alone people we knowingly and continuously subject to physical, sexual and emotional trauma, alongside medical neglect.

Asylum seekers are subjected to both physical and abstract forms of regulation. While we detain, brutalise and police their bodies, we also create barriers that are cultural, spiritual and psychological. Our xenophobia ensures that their cultures are framed as alien and their religions a threat, while physical borders are reinforced by a deeper divide rooted in notions of inferiority. The worth of an asylum seeker is never shown as intrinsically valuable, but expendable, through the policies we enact to keep them away at any cost.

This doesn't end when refugees reach the mainland. Instead of connecting to them through a shared humanity, we rationalise our acceptance through commodification. Justifying the lives of asylum seekers solely with their potential for productivity is a degrading, yet all too common, practice. Much of the national discourse focuses on self-sustaining, entrepreneurial and agricultural refugees, such as the Karen Burmese communities of regional Western Australia. These stories are offered as a counter to negative perceptions of refugees 'burdening' the general population, demonstrating how they can benefit this nation economically instead.

We exercise a tendency towards welcoming refugees through the advantages they can provide us, rather than any advantage we can provide them. Similarly, we argue against internationally condemned detention centres not for a commitment to human rights, but for the money we might save by closing them.

In Australia, the refugee body has been instrumentalised into a tool for economic contribution, from proposals suggesting asylum seekers be allowed passage into the country only for work in regional areas, to the detention industrial complex that turns in billions for private contractors making a profit from arbitrary suffering.

Current debate around asylum seekers is largely reductive and often reflexive, leaving little room for nuance or critical examination of the systems at play. If we refuse to acknowledge the reduction of refugees to political tools in all levels of Australian society, we risk ignoring the roots of their dehumanisation. With two incidents of self-immolation by asylum seekers detained on Nauru just this month, it's time to move beyond considering the same old racist tropes, and look to the reality of our actions.


Somayra IsmailjeeSomayra Ismailjee is a Perth-based writer. She was the recipient of Eureka Street's inaugural Margaret Dooley Young Writers Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter @somayra_



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Submitted comments


Irfan Yusuf 20 May 2016

1. A basic principle in the discipline of economics is that, in this world, wants exceed the resources required to fulfil them. Wants have to be trimmed and/or resources rationed. Humans are not omnipotent; we must bow to realities. 2. Societies/nations are often symbolised as boats (think of the boat-shaped island in Lord of the Flies). The ballast of a nation is a thrifty, industrious and self-restrained middle class, gainfully employed at wages sufficient to give the worker and dependents a reasonable hope that future expectations are fulfillable. The scarce resource, sought both by natives and new arrivals, is a seat in this middle section. The larger the middle class, the more stable the boat. 3. Since Thomas Hobbes, we know that a person lives in a society because he always get more from it than he returns. An immigrant does not 'deserve' to live in Australia because he will never contribute more to it than he receives. A native-born does not 'deserve' to stay living here either for that same reason. The ethic is what a person who is merely lucky that God has ordained him to be here should say to someone who doesn't deserve to be here.

Roy Chen Yee 20 May 2016

Thank you Somayra for your thoughtful piece. It was refreshing to read a comment that avoided the knee-jerk responses we often see in the media. Some reasoned discussion about this difficult issue of refugees in particular but also the ongoing parallel of our First Nation people, would be welcome. What a change that would be to the 'tough guy' rants of Dutton, Morrison, Hansen et al.

Brian Larsson 20 May 2016

Thanks, Somayra, for a most perceptive, careful and compassionate analysis of the diverse strands of the asylum-seekers discussion.

Gerard Rummery 20 May 2016

Your article is very one sided. You think the Australian government has unending tax payers money to support the so called illegal migrants, most of whom are not refugees. I fully support what Dutton says, and most Australians feel so.

Stanley DCruz 20 May 2016

Your thoughts on this issue are welcome to me and reassuring. I work with African refugees who being first generation, will never be able to compete in markets and workplaces that are incomprehensible and impenetrable to them in almost every way through no fault of their own. To assess the 'merit' of refugees by reference to their probable social and financial success makes a mockery of the philosophy of human rights underpinning international refugee policies and plays into the hands of community fear that refugee arrivals are akin to some kind of 'invasion'. I am tempted to sing the praises of the women I work with every week who work tirelessly to learn English, who strive for a sense of belonging and who share the same aspirations for their children's futures as all concerned parents do. But again, raising and lowering a moving bar like this introduces subjective measures that are worryingly dangerous in their outcomes.

Helen 20 May 2016

This is a very difficult situation. The risk of changing the debate from what asylum seekers can do/have done for us to what we can do for them feeds into the perception that they are needy (and therefore expensive and the kind of people we don't want). My experience of people from refugee/asylum seeker backgrounds is that because they are so pleased to be safe, they are firstly prepared to take jobs that Australians don't want in places that Australians don't want to be; and secondly they want to do whatever they can to give back to the communities that welcome them. The thing that I find so very difficult about our current policies is that they make us, as a nation, look inhumane and I seriously hope that we are never treated the way we have been treating these people. I would hope that being able to convince more people to put themselves in the shoes of others might help change our attitudes.

Judy Redman 20 May 2016

Many years ago a member of the Federal Parliament of Australia is quoted as saying that, "you can never underestimate the voting intelligence of the Australian public". Conversely, it appears that there are no depths to which a Federal Member of this Australian Parliament, indeed a minister of this Parliament, will not sink to gain or maintain office".

Deena Bennett 20 May 2016

Stanley Dcruz, “so called illegal” is well put. They are “so called” by our government eager to denigrate them. And, it seems the government’s repetitive name-calling works. Many people in Australia actually believe in this word “illegal”. In fact, those who arrive by boat or plane and ask for asylum are obeying the law. The law enables them to do that. The people who ARE here illegally are those who arrive on tourist or working visas and overstay. I have read that many of them are from Britain, the USA and China. I don’t think these are the people who are usually mentioned in statements that denigrate asylum seekers. Thank you Somayra Ismailjee for your article.

Janet 20 May 2016

"'illiterate and innumerate', unskilled and lazy, both unwilling to work and threatening to steal Australian jobs." The same could be said about new-born babies. If we embrace those criteria, perhaps a new 3 word slogan will soon emerge; 'Ban all Babies'. The difference, of course is the presence or absence of Love. When God said, 'Let there be Light', what was meant was not just optical light, or the light of reason, but also the Light of Love, which 'changes everything'. This is what distinguished the early Christians, and the lack of which degrades our claims to be a 'Christian Nation'. As Bob Hawke reminded us, 'If we acknowledge God as 'Our Father', we must accept the brotherhood and sisterhood of all others', and recognise 'economic rationalism' as a malignant spin to promote group-greed and group-selfishness.

Robert Liddy 20 May 2016

This is an important and vital article. Thank you. You point out the need for a different discourse on the challenging issues around asylum seekers and refugees. And you point the way: irrespective of education, skills, gifts or abilities, human beings are human beings. To base our response to vulnerable and desperate people conditional on anything other than our shared humanity dehumanises us all. Our language betrays us: the language we use, the language of economics, of `currency`, `value`, `worth` - all part of the old paradigm, the old discourse. Modernity has had its day. Life is so much more complex and requires thinking, conversation, action and policy altogether more imaginative and creative; more thoughtful, more compassionate, more reasonable - more human.

Fiona Winn 20 May 2016

Dutton has the mind of someone from 1900 rather than 1950 as that was when Australians generally believed that the white race was superior to all others. Dutton was also the one member of parliament who did not attend the apology by Rudd to Indigenous Australians.

Henk 20 May 2016

Mr Dutton's statements about illiterate refugees, clogging job queues, stealing jobs, etc, is actually a valuable contribution to the discussion. For too long we have assailed with pious claims that our "tough but fair' asylum seeker policy was all about defeating the people smugglers. Here is a definitive statement of the real purpose and reason for it: we (Dutton and his privileged cohort) don't like them. They are different. They don't speak English and didn't even go a private school!

Vin Victory 20 May 2016

Fine, except for you using the term 'racist'. That is the one word that is completely unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Australians and definitely helps the Liberal Party win elections!

angela 20 May 2016

Stanley DCruz, your comments are not just offensive; they are, like Peter Dutton, just plain wrong. 1. International law says it is not illegal to seek asylum. 2. According to the Australian Parliament website, about 90% of asylum seekers are classified as refugees. 3. A survey just this week of 27,000 people found that 70% of Australians believe we should do more to assist people fleeing war and persecution. Where do you get your "facts" from?

Nils 20 May 2016

An insightful article Somayra. Howard started the demonising of asylum seekers at the time of the Tampa crisis and the claim was made that asylum seekers were throwing their children overboard. Abbot, Morrison and now Turnbull and Dutton, and even Shorten and Marles, have continued with the same cruel asylum seeker policies that have recently resulted in murder, depression and lately self-immolation. The end doesn't justify the means. When this sad chapter in Australia's history concludes, we will be roundly condemned as a nation for such brutality. It's time to vote for minor party politicians and independents who value life, not political expediency. Surely only a mentally deranged person or a psychopath could support such brutality as that on Nauru and Manus Island!

Grant Allen 20 May 2016

Wonderful piece. Thank you.

Xavier Smith 20 May 2016

I have sympathy with this argument, but I also find it problematic. I don't think it helps our cause to refuse to confront false economic premises for fear of 'cheapening' refugee lives. Refugee supporters naturally talk about human lives as intrinsically valuable. It reflects our central motivations and values. And yet, in Australia the whole discourse suffers from maintaining a false distinction between worthy refugees and unworthy 'economic migrants'. Migrants - whether documented or undocumented, refugees or 'economic', educated or 'illiterate' - contribute net economic benefits. The case for this is very strong. So when our politicians choose to divert billions from public revenue to keep people imprisoned indefinitely, there are very real tangible costs to our society. When we refuse to talk in economic terms, we let our opponents frame us as 'bleeding heart' moralists, while they can continue to deploy false assumptions that refugees are an economic burden on society. I think that's one of the key differences with Europe, where movement of people has been broadly acknowledged as positive rather than negative. Strong economic arguments (deployed sensitively) help to support effective campaigns for justice and rights not just for refugees but for all migrants.

Karol Florek 21 May 2016

Unfortunately the refugee/asylum seeker debate is not and never will be logical. For many years I taught year twelve English and the most difficult part in the exam for the majority of students was always the logical thinking section. Most people are not interested in logic, they believe what they want to believe and have a very rational avoidance of fear. Simplicity wins out with most every time. This is not to denigrate them. I do not denigrate those who cannot play rugby league, most people are not interested and have a very rational fear of being harmed. For thirty years after Vietnam Australia had a bipartisan, open doors policy for refugees and asylum seekers. We were never swamped. We have always admitted many more people on regular immigration intakes. But we cannot put these facts and logic into a simple three word slogan. I remember well another simple slogan which changed Australia forever; “It’s time!”

Bruce 21 May 2016

Question: When was the last time Minister Dutton spoke off the cuff? Answer: When it was Prime Minister Turnbull's. In an election campaign where every word, gesture and promise are carefully scripted, and sometimes even rehearsed, it is difficult to believe that Minister Dutton was not given the job of dog-whistling on the subject of refugees. Maybe as counterpoint to Anna Burke's plea for a rational debate about refugees. Little hope of that during an election campaign where the votes of the extreme right have to be garnered.

Uncle Pat 21 May 2016

This is a very thought-provoking article that is also a powerful plea for suffering humanity. Why would anybody be surprised by Peter Dutton rehashing blatantly racist and xenophobic stereotypes and claiming that refugees are 'illiterate and innumerate', unskilled and lazy, unwilling to work and threatening to steal Australian jobs? We have come to expect such demonising of asylum seekers by a long line of LNP and ALP ministers for immigration. This behaviour is callous, inhumane, ignorant and arrogant and shows that Peter Dutton knows very little about the people that come under his portfolio. It is unworthy of a person holding such an important position. Many of the people who have come to Australia as refugees are here because they are escaping wars started by the US Military Industrial Complex or repressive regimes put in place by the CIA - policies supported by supine LNP and ALP governments, And many have played a very positive contribution to Australian society. For the sake of the welfare of asylum seekers, their needs and the standing of Australia in the eyes of the world, it is to be hoped that the voters in Peter Dutton's seat of Dickson and other electorates elect candidates who show a strong commitment to human rights, compassion, kindness and progressive politics

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 22 May 2016

Nothing amuses me more than the naive optimism of the proponents of multiculturalism and mass Muslim migration. The fact is that previous migrants to this country, especially post WW2, shared a common western heritage. There were language barriers but most had come from states where there was a tradition of representative government and Judaeo-Christian or Enlightenment values. Not all the migrants from the Middle East will fit in so easily. Some do not want to. For the various posters here who cry for facts and logic, read the article below via the link. It shows that Germany is not such a safe place after for some Christians who have fled the Middle East. Their former persecutors have followed them to Europe and their intolerance and thuggery were not left at the border. http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/05/10/40000-christians-harassed-muslims/

Brian Pollock 22 May 2016

I know cases of many illiterate and uneducated migrants to Australia who went on to be successful doctors, university lecturers and artists. The fact that many of these "illegals" have gone to such desperate lengths to escape their situation and find a better life shows their fierce tenacity. It's not the unskilled jobs they'll be taking for very long. Isn't this Turnbull Government meant to be all about "innovation".

AURELIUS 23 May 2016

Dutton merely told it like it is; the facts are facts. Rates of illiteracy are relatively high, people of Middle Eastern origin statistically have poorer English and are more likely to rely on welfare even a decade after settling in Australia. To decry someone for speaking the truth is shameful, to ignore the facts is stupidity. The debate should be about how we address the issue, rather than how best to ignore it.

Paul Triggs 23 May 2016

Thank you Somayra for spelling this out. I thought it was just me. Whilst happily re-posting heartwarming stories of those who transcended hardships, It worried me that many more made very ordinary lives, like mine, and simply kept society functioning equably. It is a risk that some might think "what about me" but somehow I don't think they will. I think the tall poppy thing is peculiar to a small demographic, at least I hope so.

Roma Guerin 23 May 2016

Thank you so much for beautifully articulating what we are thinking (or should be thinking!)

Eliza 23 May 2016

The only onshore asylum seekers to be reasonably expected by Australia, geographically separated from the trouble spots of the world by moats of water beyond which is a ring of stable nations, are occasional individuals claiming to be persecuted in those stable countries, Indonesia, Timor Leste, PNG, and the nearby Melanesian nations, or people who arrive here legally but whose circumstances change and they cannot expect political protection from their home nation. Australia is by dint of geology rarely a natural country of first asylum, which means that most claimants for asylum bypassed other natural countries of first asylum. Many of the claimants may be seeking economic rather than political haven. No nation can claim to be independent of the will of other nations if it has a porous border because it will forever be paying off other nations to accept 'turnbacks' (as Australia to Indonesia and Europe to Turkey) or to host offshore detention. Australia cannot expect natural countries of first asylum to be sympathetic to Australia because first asylum brings the host nation big problems. Australian national self-sufficiency requires strong borders and onshore detention. Some compassion can be threaded through these basic considerations, but basic considerations they are.

Roy Chen Yee 23 May 2016

The only onshore asylum seekers Australia, geographically separated from the trouble spots of the world by moats of water beyond which is a ring of stable nations, should reasonably expect are occasional individuals claiming to be persecuted in those stable countries, Indonesia, Timor Leste, PNG, and the nearby Melanesian nations, or people who arrive here legally but whose circumstances change and they cannot expect political protection from their home nation. Australia is by geology rarely a natural country of first asylum, which means that most claimants for asylum bypassed other natural countries of first asylum. Many of the claimants may be seeking economic rather than political haven. No nation can claim to be independent if it has a porous border because it will forever be paying off other nations to accept 'turnbacks' (as Australia to Indonesia and Europe to Turkey) or to host offshore detention. Australia cannot expect natural countries of first asylum to be sympathetic to it because first asylum brings problems to the host nation. Australian national self-sufficiency requires strong borders and onshore detention. Some compassion can be threaded through these basic considerations, but basic considerations they are. Dutton's words ignore compassion; this article ignores the basic considerations.

Roy Chen Yee 23 May 2016

Aren't all people measured by their worth? Isn't that why, when someone hits rock bottom for whatever reason it can be made almost impossible to lift themselves up? Wonderful article!

Pat Firkins 23 May 2016

Good points - it should not be about what they can do for us, but what we can do for them, I agree. But general public in Australia is not ready for that sort of a debate. You have to start somewhere with people whose perceptions of refugees are as negative and hateful as they often are. I Came By Boat campaign aims to celebrate all asylum seekers and their varied contributions, not just highly skilled ones. We photographed a doctor and a dentist, but also a factory worker and a kitchen hand. Your article seems to have deliberately left that out, picking out parts of our story that suit your argument, rather than looking at it as a whole.

Blanka Dudas 23 May 2016

Brian Pollock, your post is confused, transparently prejudiced, as well as factually incorrect. There is no 'mass Muslim migration' to Australia occurring. And it doesn't logically follow that supporting the cause of asylum seekers in general is equivalent to support for (such described) migration in either intent or outcome. Furthermore, values of the 'Judaeo-Christian', 'Enlightenment', or even 'Australian' varieties, are not wholly and exclusively restricted to any particular religion or region of the world. You may find an historical reading of the contribution of Islam to Christianity's emergence from the dark ages to enlightenment instructive. Nor did previous migrants to Australia all share a 'common western heritage', the Vietnamese being a large example. And the converse of your other claim is equally true - i.e. not all non Middle Eastern migrants have easily fitted in, and not all have wanted to. But the most ironical contradiction in your contentions lies in the fact (of which you appear to be completely unaware), that most Arabs in Australia, i.e. 'migrants from the Middle East', are Christian. What 'traditions of representative government' and 'values' do such migrant (Christian) Arabs possess that their migrant (non Christian) neighbours don't?

Rashid.M 24 May 2016

Angela...why do you object to the use of the term "racist"? The same issue was at play in the Adam Goodes saga and I fail to understand why Australians react so strongly to it when it is so obviously what is at play. Could it be that it strikes a nerve? Perhaps we (Australians) need to become more self aware

Melanie 24 May 2016

It's good to reread this very fine article from Somayra. And the varied responses to it. As Irfan Yusuf says "magnificent" Somayra. I find it ironic, and sadly illuminating, that a country that still needs to take responsibility for it's past treatment (which includes invasion and dispossession) of Indigenous peoples, is now repulsing refugees who travel here by boat. Valuing each person for his/her intrinsic worth should be the basis of all our human interactions.

Pam 14 July 2016

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