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Engaging with Dutton's rhetoric is a slippery slope

  • 20 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.

In 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,