Bans, boats, and the language of borders

by Carys Goodwin

In April 2017, Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton became embroiled in yet another controversy regarding Australia’s offshore detention centres. This scandal involved reports of a shooting – an altercation between local soldiers and detainees on Manus Island that Dutton asserted was linked to asylum seekers bringing a five year old boy into the detention centre.

Papua New Guinea police were quick to point out the inaccuracies in Dutton’s account. They were two separate incidents, and in the latter, the boy was neither abducted nor harmed – he was, according to later news reports, not five but ten, and was asking detainees for food. Yet Dutton refused to retract or alter his account.

There is danger in the way Dutton framed the incidents. He told Sky News, “I think there was concern about why the boy was being led, or for what purpose he was being led, away back into the regional processing centre. I think it’s fair to say that the mood had elevated quite quickly. I think some of the local residents were quite angry about this particular incident and another alleged sexual assault.”

The implication from this statement is that the shooting – which Buzzfeed reported to have terrified refugees and asylum seekers – was a response to detainee wrongdoing; a nuance designed to cast them as dangerous and at fault. The reality, of course, is considerably more complex.

Australia’s ‘Stop the Boats’ policy and maintenance of offshore detention centres – on Nauru, Manus Island, and Christmas Island – have long been the subject of criticism by human rights organisations and frustrated Australians. The conditions are deplorable, and have been described as tantamount to ‘torture’ in a recent Amnesty International report into conditions at the Nauru centre. Accounts of abuse are rife. It is difficult to capture the depth of the despair that hangs over the centres in so few words, but reports of suicides, assaults, rapes, disease, and protest abound.

Why, then, have these offshore detention centres remained open? Why have the policies remained a staple of Australia’s political conversation for more than two decades?

The answer lies in the power of language, and the capacity for falsities and extremism to become normalised.


‘FAKE NEWS’ is the phrase of the hour. Since Trump’s election last year, nestled amongst conversation of the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and neo-Nazism has been one about the proliferation of false news websites – and about the way that Trump frequently dismisses real news as fake. The French election has been a particularly worrying case – the Independent reported that “a quarter of political stories shared on Twitter were based on misinformation.” When Peter Dutton described his version of the circumstances around the Manus shooting, he, too, was accused of fake news.

Whatever the intention of fake news – be it rage or advertising and click revenue – it has an effect. It speaks to the extent of the social media echo chamber, where your own views are reinforced by the people you follow on Twitter or Facebook, and you never see the opposition to your political views that undoubtedly exists. It speaks, too, to the strength of the algorithms behind the echo chamber, and the slow-burning impact of only engaging with a particular type of content in curating a Newsfeed full of articles you will already agree with.

It is a difficult spiral to break – fake news puts out articles that people believe because the news aligns with their views; and they believe Trump when he dismisses truth as fake. Despite lying, point blank, on a number of issues, a dramatic number of people supported Trump for not being afraid to ‘tell it like it is’. What he actually managed to do was capture a hive of dangerous fears and mumblings and frame them into an attack on immigration and terrorism. The language of terrorism, which is abstract, heavily racialised, drenched in old colonial rhetoric, and speaks to an ambiguous fear of violence, has been at the tip of America’s tongue since 9/11; Trump’s success shows just how powerfully this language has infected the American psyche.

It is easy to think of Trump, Brexit, and 2016 as a point of origin – the year where it all began and the world appeared to fall apart. Yet while it is certainly a moment in history, it is not new.

The way politicians and the media frame immigration and refugees has always been important for understanding how policies like Trump’s proposed ‘Muslim Ban’ and Australia’s ‘Stop the Boats’ arise. It is not just terrorism – which sticks to people from the Middle East and Africa like a toxic glue – it is the very way white British people are considered ‘expats’ when they move abroad, while the reverse delineates people as ‘migrants’. It is the way refugees are framed as a ‘crisis’, an amorphous mass or flood, which is designed to evoke the imagery of a tidal wave leaving chaos and damage in its wake. It is the cherry-picked statistics that see ‘the Chinese’ being blamed for the housing crisis in Auckland, New Zealand. It is the perception that ‘Mexican illegals’ in the US are ‘stealing jobs’. It is the fake news that report false terrorist attacks to drum up fear.

It is also Peter Dutton reframing refugee abuse as their own fault, as the backlash against a sexual assault that has no basis in fact.

The result is the dehumanisation of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. By painting them with one brush – by referring to them as I am now, as a clump or pack, rather than individuals or even as citizens of particular countries – it is easier to think of them as a problem, rather than people.

When they become a problem, it is easier to think of a wall or a ban as a solution.

In February there came reports of the dramatic phone call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The argument they had was over refugees – specifically, the 1250 refugees and asylum seekers that Obama had organised to take off Turnbull’s hands and resettle after more reports of their abuse on Nauru and Manus came to light.

It was shocking. Two world leaders – two old, white men – had an argument over who had to take the refugees. The refugees were the subject of a trade deal, a diplomatic faux pas, their fates tossed around in the same way a country might discuss sheep or cows.

In answering why Australia’s offshore detention centres have remained open, language and framing is key. It is too simple to attribute it to policy popularity, we must look at why these policies are popular. The reason, in part, is the normalisation of extremism – of the language that ostracises refugees and of the way this leads to accepting the physical removal of refugees from Australian soil.

Discussion of ‘higher purpose’ and ‘end justifying the means’ – of terrorism fears and the perception that refugees will suck up public funding institutionalise the existence of the policy. It becomes part of the political landscape, as normal as tax policy or healthcare; something else for the politicians to tinker with.

Australia’s offshore detention centres are, undeniably, atrocious. The human rights abuses are ongoing, and seem unlikely to end under the current Coalition government. Even as more evidence comes to light, against the relative censorship that has aided in keeping the full extent of the violence under wraps, the policy remains almost intact. Years of rhetoric have accumulated in the collective Australian psyche.

The result is an unhappy one – it is easier for a populace to accept these human rights abuses when they no longer see refugees as human.

2017 will be a particularly telling year in terms of seeing just how dramatically this language has sunk in internationally. Language and rhetoric have always been the core of political discourse, but the proliferation of fake news and the spotlight given to immigration policy in the last six months will make for particularly charged elections around the world.


The anxiety fuelled by fear mongering has had disastrous consequences, leaving refugees and asylum seekers living in conditions tantamount to torture. The election results of the next few months will reveal if this is enough to turn people away from the extreme right – or if the anxiety itself will prevail.

About the author

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Carys Goodwin is a recovering New Zealand parliamentary staffer, and is currently completing an MPhil in International Relations and Politics at the University of Cambridge. She is passionate about all things climate change (except its consequences).
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