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With so much controversy in the media surrounding asylum seekers, refugees and boat people, an inquiry into whether or not we should let boat people into the country seemed appropriate. The point of this inquiry is not to debate the merits of the government systems put into place to deal with asylum seekers, but to talk about the prevalence of boat people in the media and dispel some of the myths surrounding the issue. When looking at the issue, it is important to understand the distinction between asylum seekers, refugees and boat people.
An asylum seeker is someone who says that he or she is a refugee but whose claim has not yet been assessed. A refugee is someone who has been assessed by a national government or an international agency (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008). A “boat person” can be defined as a person arriving to Australia by means of irregular maritime travel.
A person meets the criterion for refugee if he or she is outside their own country and cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1967).
There are, as of the Twenty Seventh of August 2010, 4,670 asylum seekers, 4,430 of which are irregular maritime arrivals or boat people, in detention facilities. Compare this to the planned level of immigration to Australia (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2010) which is currently at 168,700 immigrants with a further 13,750 places allocated for the humanitarian program. In contrast to a total immigration program intake of 182,450, the 4,430 boat people will make up below 3% of our total immigration intake, assuming of course that all claims are found to be genuine. You have to be left wondering why there is such a high prevalence of boat people in the media when the figures comparatively speaking are very small.
One such explanation for this is the sensationalised presentation of boat people through the media. With claims such as we are being inundated by boat people, claims that are completely unfounded and statistically unsubstantiated (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2010), one could rationalise that there is, on mass, hot cognitive processing taking place. People are forming opinions of boat people using hot cognitive processing which is not always conducive to form a sound base to form ration opinions. Instead of forming opinions based on facts and statistics, people are falling prey to the sensationalised media reports of swarms of boat people looking to take over the country.
This sensational presentation of the issue by the media is a clear example of playing on judgement heuristics. Due to the sensationally small amount of immigrants that come to Australia by irregular maritime travel, the general public simply does not gain exposure to boat people but from media reports. So with the constant over reporting by the media of boat arrivals, available heuristics dictates that people will compare this current arrival to the previous and start to believe that there really is a migration crisis. What isn’t reported is the other 178,020 people that are arriving to Australia by other means which could have a significant bearing on how people would view this issue.
Further to this notion of the media distorting judgement heuristics is the suggestion that boat people are illegals or cue jumpers. The constant bombardment that boat people are illegals or cue jumpers by the media, could have led to people believe that all asylum seekers arriving by boat are illegals, jumping official mediums to arrive in the country legally. This irrational and over reported representative heuristic is in no way indicative of the truth of the matter; they are well within International and Australian legal rights to come to seek asylum by irregular maritime means (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1967). A more accurate representative heuristic would portray people fleeing from worn torn, politically and socially corrupt countries seeking refuge by any means.
Then there is the notion of boarder protection and the threat, as Wilson Tuckey (2009) describes as terrorist on boats. There is a strong tendency, epitomised in Tuckey’s views on boat people, that if we let in people who come seeking asylum via boat without official documents and without proper immigration papers, we are increasing the risk of allowing terrorist to gain access to Australia by the same means. This is a clear example of hot cognitive processing because if you look at it rationally, without the terrorist sensationalisation, you’ll notice that boat people undergo rigorous interview processing, some taking up to months to complete (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2010). There has not been a single documented case of a terrorist being smuggled in on a boat, any alleged terror suspects were born in Australia or came via plane with official visa (Edmund Rice Centre, 2010). But to assert, as Tuckey does, that there are high levels of terrorist being admitted via boats (Farr, 2009) doesn’t really make sense; the people who are fleeing a terrorist regime in fear of being killed are in fact members of that regime simply because they are coming from that area; highly absurd. Gilovitch (1993) in this instance would say that in order to understand the situation, people are seeing patterns that simply aren’t there.
Further to this idea of pattern seeking tendencies, there is the notion that a weakening in boarder policies, such as the dismissal of hard line policies the pacific solution, which aimed at intercepting vessels and processing asylum applications offshore and temporary protection visa, visa which diminished the rights of the person holding it and only lasted 3 years, has led to the increase of boat people. Again Gilovitch (1993) would argue that, in order to understand the situation, people are seeing patterns that simply aren’t there. If you look at trends rates of asylum seekers over the past 20 years you’ll notice that asylum seekers increase and decrease in accordance with escalating and cessation of violence within war torn parts of the word (Edmund Rice Centre, 2010). That is not to say that there is only one reason for increases and decreases in the level of asylum seekers to say that would be wrong, as Gilovitch (1993) tries to point out, there are many different variables impacting any other one variable at any given time.
Another thing to take into consideration here is base rates, since World War two and the establishment of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1951, there has always been a need to regulate displaced people. That is that there have always been refugees, as such Gilovitch (1993) would suggest to look at base rates. People tend to attribute increases and decrease to causal factor, failing to take into consideration regression to the mean. Perhaps the level of boat people is higher this year than other years, but is it isn’t necessarily significantly so. Gilovitch (1993) would argue that people often infer causality, when in reality the likelihood of, for this instance, the increased number of boat people, could well be within the parameters of chance.
When you start looking at the numbers and trying to understand this issue from a cold cognitive perspective, it suddenly becomes very clear. Currently the Department of Immigration and Citizenship say there are 4,430 people who have arrived by boat to Australia seeking asylum and are in detention centres from this year. If you were to take this notion of increased violence as a predictor for increased asylum seekers, which, isn’t too much of a stretch, then you can look at previous statistical data and see if current trends map on. In 2001 there were 5,516 boats that came to Australia (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2010) during a period of fierce fighting in the Afghan region. This is similar to the current situation with fierce fighting occurring once again in the Afghan region. When looking at the data you can see, of the 4,670 asylum seekers in detention, 1,886 of them are Afghan refugees.
Similarly, as previously mentioned, when you take into consideration that of the predicted 182,450 migrants to the country, the 4,430 boat people will make up below 3% of our total immigration intake, assuming of course that all claims are found to be genuine, you really need to start to question the merits of the debate at all.
This issue is such an emotionally charged issue, to say ignore hot cognition when making an opinion on it would be folly; but to base your opinion solely on hot cognition would be the ultimate folly. You have to really sit and ask yourself, what is it that I really believe about boat people anyway? Is it that they are illegal terrorists, trying to circumvent the system for their own benefit to wage war on Australia? Or perhaps they are humans that undergo vast atrocities to their rights of freedom and are just looking for somewhere to be safe, making up the vast minority of migration to the country of Australia.
How well based is my opinion on boat people anyway? Do I have all the facts, or is my opinion based on hot cognition alone? How good are the data I have on boat people? Have I checked into the statistics on migration and the percentages of boat people compared to the rest of other immigrants or have I relied solely on media reports on the issue? Do the current data really contradict what I really believe about boat people? Are they really surging to Australia at rates which will allow them to inundate the country, or are they a small percentage of the people who do migrate to Australia?
If the current evidence is not sufficient to change your mind on boat people, what evidence would be enough? If rigorous security and identity checks on a person were not enough to set your mind at ease about whether or not they were a terrorist, what would suffice? If below 3% wasn’t small enough for you, what would be small enough? Can you think of anything that would change your mind on the issue?
Is it worth finding out about this Boat People in Australia, does it really affect you? Perhaps you need only look at your neighbour and see if it affects you. Perhaps after you find out about the torture and persecution they suffered just to arrive in a place where they wouldn’t be persecuted for being pro-democracy in military ruled junta you might realise why they are so happy all the time. Or perhaps Gilovitch (1993) put it best when he says try to look at things from all the differing perspectives. Just imagine for a moment that you were in a situation where you had to flee your home for fear or torture or death. The only means of escape was to be smuggled on some dirty, stinky barge that you had to stay on for weeks on end, with too many other people to maintain a decent level of sanitation. You finally reach a place where you can apply for asylum and try to escape this terrible fate, would you want to be denied, simply because you arrived on a boat?
Australian Human Rights Commission. (2008). Face the Facts. Australasia: Paragon Printers.
Community and Detention Services Division. (2010). Immigration Detention Statistics Summary. Canberra: Australian Capital Territory.
Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2010). Fact Sheet 2- Key Facts in Immigration. Retrieved October 7, 2010, from http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/02key.htm
Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2009). Fact Sheet 16- Immigration Research. Retrieved October 7, 2010, from http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/16research.htm
Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2010). Fact Sheet 20- Migration Program Planning Levels. Retrieved October 7, 2010, http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/20planning.htm
Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2009). Fact Sheet 60-Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program. Retrieved October 7, 2010, http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/60refugee.htm
Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2010). Fact Sheet 81- Immigration Detention. Retrieved October 7, 2010 http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/82detention.htm
Edmund Rice Centre. (2010). Debunking the Myths about Asylum Seekers in 2010. Just Comment, 12(5).
Farr, M. (2009, October 23). The Opposition attack on the Government’s handling of boat people has been sidetracked by claims that terrorists are hiding among the asylum seekers. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/terrorists-hiding-with-boat-people/story-e6freuy9-1225790211002
Gilovitch, T. (1993). How we know what isn’t so: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press.
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