Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Afghan Hazaras Responses to the Asylum Seeker Debate in the Australian Media

by Heidi Hetz


In May of this year, Heidi Hetz from the Hawke-EU Centre for Mobilities, Migrations, and Cultural Transformations, Hawke Research Institute, University of South Australia visited GRAMNet. In this post, Heidi, a research student at the Centre, contributes a write up of a seminar paper she delivered, as well as some reflections on her time with GRAMNet.


Australia’s response to asylum seekers has been described as ‘particularly parochial’ (Neumann 2014). It is important to note that Australia is one of the main resettlement countries for refugees and last year agreed to take an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees, on top of its yearly intake of about 13,000 refugees through the Humanitarian Program. However, in recent years, Australia has responded to asylum seekers with the implementation of various harsh policies aimed at deterring boat arrivals, and with a debate that has been defined by the politicisation of asylum and by the demonization and marginalisation of asylum seekers.


Australian Government poster. Source: Australian Embassy, Afghanistan.

Australian Government poster. Source: Australian Embassy, Afghanistan.


One of Australia’s main policy responses to boat arrivals has been the implementation of mandatory detention in 1992. More recently, Australia has implemented a third country processing regime in 2012 with offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and an aim for third country resettlement, followed by Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013 which aims to turn back asylum seeker boats at sea. Since 2015, the Border Force Act imposes up to two years of imprisonment for anyone who discloses what is considered protected information from within a detention centre. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (2016), as at November 2015, 1,852 asylum seekers were held in immigration detention; out of these numbers, there were 543 asylum seekers, including 70 children, in the Nauru detention centre, and 926 asylum seekers in the Manus Island detention centre.

The political debate which has accompanied these policies is led by the two major political parties and supported by the mainstream media as well as large sections of the population. From John Howard’s 1996 election campaign, verbal and visual representations of asylum seekers have been used to support the government’s policies aimed at their deterrence. The first lexico-semantic strategy is the use of terms such as ‘queue jumpers’ or ‘illegal arrivals’ rather than ‘refugees’ (Clyne 2005, pp.182 – 185) as well as ‘derogative designations’ such as ‘floods’ or ‘tides’ to refer to perceived numbers, terms such as ‘illegal immigrants’ to describe their legal status, and ‘abstract technical language’ such as ‘SIEVs (suspected illegal entry vessel)’, ‘IMAs (irregular maritime arrivals)’, and ‘unlawful non-citizens’ (Bleiker et al. 2013, p.400). The second strategy are allegations of criminal behaviour linked to asylum seekers’ use of assistance from people smugglers (Clyne 2005, pp.183 – 184). The third semantic strategy is the focus on ‘border protection’ (Clyne 2005, pp.185 – 187) which moved the discourse away from an emphasis on the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers, to a focus on national security and sovereignty (Bleiker et al. 2013, p.413).

The verbal representation of asylum seekers has been mirrored by their visual representation in the media. Research has found that most photographs depicted asylum seekers as medium to large groups and that there was a high frequency of photographs of boats, mostly seen from a distance (Bleiker et al. 2013). Consequently, ‘[w]e see no faces, no real people. We see just anonymous masses. We see an abstract and dehumanised political problem’ (Bleiker et al. 2013, p.411).

My PhD research seeks to analyse how this debate impacts on individual refugees and asylum seekers, especially in regards to their own storytelling and upon their identity, memory and sense of belonging. It is based on in-depth, semi-structured interviews with former Cambodian refugees and former Afghan Hazara asylum seekers in Adelaide. I have selected these two case studies to allow a comparison of the changing political and community responses to refugees and asylum seekers. The Cambodian arrivals in the 1980s were part of the second ‘wave’ of asylum seekers, following the arrival of the Vietnamese. Those Cambodians who arrived by boat were the first cohort to be placed into detention, with most of the boat arrivals later returned to their country of origin while a much larger cohort was accepted as refugees through the UN. The Afghan Hazara asylum seekers are part of the fourth and most recent ‘wave’ of arrival, following the third ‘wave’ of arrivals from China, and have experienced some of the harshest policies towards asylum seekers in Australia to date.

The interviews explored the experiences of becoming refugees, of settling in Australia and the participants’ exposure to and engagement with the Australian asylum seeker debate. My preliminary findings from nine initial interviews with former Afghan Hazara asylum seekers suggest that the majority of these participants were aware of the debate in the media. As one participant stated, he is always following the news in the media and on Facebook and observed that ‘they don’t have any very positive thinking about refugees. […] They don’t have positive thinking’. The emotional responses of these nine Afghan Hazara participants were divided between the decision to ignore the debate and feelings of distress. One participant who chose to ignore the debate stated that he is trying to think positively and explained that ‘I don’t really remember the negative things and… actions. So… I’m really trying not to think about those things’. Another participant who also tried to ignore the debate stated: ‘I put my head down’. However, some participants also disclosed that the debate negatively affected them, with one participant explaining that ‘that’s […] putting us… in pressure and stress’. Another participant spoke about the experience of seeing a demonstration on TV: ‘they say, go back to the country, I don’t want him, they are, they are, uh, terrorist’. He said that this made him feel very sad and that he was unable to sleep: ‘Every hours I… when I go to sleep, I saw that on my… brain’.  

Throughout these nine interviews, there were two themes that came up repeatedly in response to some of the prejudices that are often voiced about refugees and asylum seekers. Several participants referred to the perceived link between Muslim refugees and terrorism. One participant explained that no Afghan Hazara has so far joined a terrorist organisation and felt that organisations such as Islamic State are using Islam as a pretext. This participant also explained that the Koran prohibits murder: ‘If you kill one person, is you mean, is mean you killing all the human in the world’. One the topic of refugees’ perceived reliance on the welfare system, several participants argued that Afghan Hazaras are hardworking. One participant explained that many of those who had arrived in Adelaide from the early 2000s had already bought houses and were employed either on farms or running their own businesses such as tiling, painting, or operating a small shop. He explained: ‘So it is, because they trying, they not lazy’.

In moving forwards, I aim to explore the participants’ exposure to and engagement with the debate in the media in more depth. My analysis will also explore how both participant groups experienced their one-on-one interactions with the Australian-born population during settlement and post-settlement. Further, my analysis will seek to answer the question of the ongoing importance of the refugee experience, especially whether / how the participants remember these experiences and whether / how these stories are shared with others.


Heidi reflects on her time with GRAMNet


In May this year, I was privileged to receive a travel and training grant from the Hawke EU Centre for Mobilities, Migrations and Cultural Transformations at the University of South Australia to visit GRAMNet at the University of Glasgow.

During my two weeks at the University of Glasgow, I had the opportunity to meet with GRAMNet academics and research students. My favourite part was hearing about everyone’s research – it was so valuable to hear about refugee and asylum seeker issues within the European context and to hear that so many people are committed to making a difference through their research and community engagement. I was also able to discuss my own research project formally and informally through a presentation and workshop and during personal conversations. Everyone I met was very generous with their time and advice, and each of these interactions provided me with new ideas and insights.


Camas. Photo: Giovanna Fassetta.

Camas, Isle of Mull. Photo: Giovanna Fassetta.


As part of my visit, I was also able to participate in the GRAMNet retreat at Camas on the Isle of Mull which was an amazing experience. I loved seeing such a pretty part of Scotland and the retreat was both relaxing and inspiring. For four days, we got plenty of fresh air and long walks as well as a freezing cold swim in the sea (see picture). In the afternoons, we had some very engaging workshops on vicarious trauma and self-care (Rachel) and on explorations of our sense of belonging through photo-elicitation (Ruth). The best aspect of the retreat was the opportunity to get to know (and share lots of cups of tea with) some of GRAMNet’s PhD students and members, including Alison and Giovanna. Everyone made me feel so welcome and I left feeling inspired and motivated by everyone I have met – their commitment and creativity have been contagious.

On a more personal level, my visit to Scotland was a great opportunity to re-connect to my own European heritage. This was my first visit to Europe after moving to Adelaide, Australia, almost ten years ago – I was born in Germany and lived there for the first twenty years of my life. This is also the reason why Ruth’s workshop at Camas on belonging really resonated with me as I did feel a strong sense of belonging upon being surrounded again by lovely Europeans and by European flora and fauna, especially chestnut trees and daisies. This was an interesting experience as I am looking at the issue of belonging in my PhD research and it prompted me to reflect on my own belonging and migrant identity.

I would like to thank GRAMNet and the Hawke EU Centre for enabling my visit and I hope that the relationship between the two universities will continue to develop. I also hope that the relationships that I was able to build will continue and that we can keep exchanging ideas and motivate and inspire one another.


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This entry was posted on August 2, 2016 by in Academic seminar and tagged , , , , , , , , , .