In an attempt to "call a spade a spade", Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has instructed his department to replace the phrase “irregular maritime arrival” with “illegal maritime arrival”, and to replace “client” with “detainee” or “transferee”.
Much more is at stake than political correctness when the Government chooses to present to Australians a very narrow version of what is an unavoidably complex issue.
Labelling asylum seekers as “illegal arrivals” because they have come by boat, is like drawing attention to the illegality of trespassing when someone flees their burning house through the neighbour’s garden.
That is why context is so important — context that this language ignores by criminalising asylum seekers who, until processing stalled last year, were found to be genuine refugees 90 per cent of the time.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has defended this language by saying that the UN Refugee Convention defines illegal entry as people who come without a valid permit for entry into the country.
But the convention also guards the right to seek asylum — by boat or otherwise — in international law, and requires that no refugee be penalised by states for doing so.
Globally renowned refugee law expert, Professor Jane McAdam, gives much-needed clarification to the term:
"Article 31 of the Refugee Convention — the very provision on which the government bases its use of the word ''illegal'' — says that actions that would otherwise be illegal, such as entering without a visa, must not be treated as illegal if a person is seeking asylum. This is because the drafters of the Refugee Convention recognised that the very nature of refugee flight may mean that people arrive without travel documents."
Minister Morrison himself accepts that the right to seek asylum is not illegal — so why the demonising language?
On the other hand, the minister’s honesty in calling clients "detainees" is exactly what human rights organisations like Amnesty International have been saying all along — innocent people fleeing violence and persecution are now detainees. Some have now been detainees for more than four years and groups of vulnerable asylum seekers, including children, are being detained indefinitely when they have done nothing wrong.
Facing such complex issues, clarity and transparency are needed now more than ever. Australians are looking to the Government to provide real solutions to the real concerns around human trafficking, which has tragically led to the loss of lives.
In a global refugee crisis, what are we doing to help the more than 15 million refugees worldwide, including the millions fleeing the worsening situation in Syria? While other developed countries continue to increase their humanitarian intake, our Government has said it will reduce ours back to 13,750.
What are we doing to raise human rights standards in the Asia Pacific region where we know asylum seekers and refugees are being persecuted?
While other countries share the refugee burden, we offload our international obligations on to ill-equipped countries like Papua New Guinea and Nauru. What is being done to ensure that conditions in these offshore facilities meet basic international standards?
On home soil, more time is being spent debating the use of the term "illegal" than over last week’s reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), which risk stripping genuine refugees of their human rights protections.
In its report earlier this week, the Australian Human Rights Commission pointed out the multiple international human rights breaches in Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policies. The Government must provide a genuine response to a global problem which is consistent with our obligations, rather than disappointing, distracting rhetoric.