'The most brutal immigration regime in the developed world': International Media Responses to Australia's Asylum-Seeker Policy.

Author:Laney, Hannah M.


Despite intense media coverage of Australia's asylum-seeker policy, there is minimal attention to structures and processes that influence international media perspectives. This article explores international media responses to Australia's policy using a mixed-method approach. Our research focused on twenty-five articles from international media outlets surrounding the 2014 "riots" at Manus Island Regional Processing Centre. Three major themes (political relationships, domestic policy and practice, and treatment of asylum-seekers) highlight some key trends in international media representations of this event as an example. We discuss the implications of such findings for the production, representation, and reception of international media stories.


Malgre une couverture mediatique intense de la politique australienne concernant les chercheurs d'asile, il y a tres peu d'attention portee aux structures et processus qui influencent les perspectives mediatiques internationales. Cet article etudie les reactions de la part des medias internationaux concernant la politique australienne en utilisant une approche a methodologie mixte. Nos recherches se sont portees sur 25 articles emanant de diffuseurs de medias internationaux autour des > de 2014 au Manus Island Regional Processing Centre (centre de traitement regional pour l'immigration de l'ile de Manus). Trois themes principaux (Relations politiques, Politique interne et pratiques, et Traitement des chercheurs d'asile) mettent en valeur des tendances cles dans la representation de la part des medias internationaux de cet evenement particulier en tant qu'exemple. Nous abordons une discussion des implications de ces recherches pour la production, la representation et la reception des actualites mediatiques internationales.


Between 16 and 18 February 2014, a range of Australian media sources, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the Sydney Morning Herald, the Special Broadcasting Services (SBS) and the Guardian Australia reported on "riots" that erupted at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, an immigration detention centre for processing asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea, operated on behalf of the Australian government. The reported "riots" resulted in around sixty asylum-seekers being injured and the tragic death of a twenty-three-year-old Iranian asylum-seeker, Reza Berati. (2) The violence that ensued following the news of his death once more pushed the issue of Australia's mandatory detention policy and the conditions under which asylum-seekers live in offshore processing centres into the international spotlight.

Domestic and international media attention to Australia's policy of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers is not new or unusual. Mountz, for instance, suggests that on the international scene, Australia is perceived as having "endless creative capacity" when it comes to the harshness of its asylum-seeker-policy. For instance, in November 2014, the United Nations Committee against Torture strongly criticized the government's handling of asylum-seekers in offshore detention centres; subsequently, Australia's Human Rights Law Centre stated, "On asylum-seekers, Australia is acting in absolute defiance of international law and is being condemned on the world stage for doing so." (3) This suggests that Australia's ability to meet its international obligations to refugees and to implement humane asylum-seeker policies are constantly under scrutiny.

Prior to the 2014 events on Manus Island, Australia had experienced two decades of mandatory detention and offshore processing. (4) First accounts of what the Australian government would today classify as "unauthorized" boat arrivals commenced around 1976 and continued until 1981, carrying Indochinese asylum-seekers following the aftermath of the Vietnam War. During this time, 2,069 asylum-seekers were met by a mainly sympathetic reception from the Australian public, and as these arrivals were perceived as "genuine," asylum-seekers were granted refugee status relatively quickly. (5) However, between 1989 and 1994, another thirty-six boats carrying 1,688 asylum-seekers arrived, and the previously welcoming Australian public questioned their legitimacy as "jumping the immigration queue." This attitude was fuelled by public and political discourses that saw these new asylum-seekers as a threat to the economy and security of Australia. (6) In 1992, the Keating Government (Australian Labor Party) responded to such public perceptions, with bipartisan support, by introducing mandatory detention for any non-citizen arriving in Australia without a visa.

Deterrence measures increased in September 2001 under the Howard Government (Liberal-National Coalition) through the "Pacific Solution," particularly in reaction to the well-documented "Tampa Affair." (7) Asylum-seekers arriving "unlawfully" were sent to Australian-funded detention facilities on nearby islands, namely in Nauru, Manus Island, and Christmas Island, where they remained indefinitely until their claims were processed. Those recognized as refugees were resettled in Australia or a third country (the preferred option). In 2008, the Pacific Solution was formally ended by the Rudd Government (ALP), which saw the closure of offshore processing centres and the removal of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVS). However, this policy stance was seen as unpopular and was consequently reinstated by the succeeding Gillard Government (ALP), who, from August 2012, oversaw the reintroduction of offshore processing in Nauru and on Manus Island. (8)

As discussed further in the literature review, the current predominantly negative public perceptions of asylum-seekers in Australia not only have the potential to influence how government policies are designed, but can also be employed by government as a "tool" to legitimate policy changes. (9) Recent research suggests that most perceptions stem from erroneous or misleading beliefs, where asylum-seekers are socially constructed as "illegal" and "non-genuine." (10) More recently, Australian asylum-seeker policy has embraced a focus on border protection, (11) indicating a shift to a militarized and securitized model. In September 2013, following the election of Tony Abbott as prime minister, the coalition government's policy aptly entitled Operation Sovereign Borders (12) was introduced, shaped by constructions of asylum-seekers as the threatening "other." (13) The policy comprises a task force headed by an Australian Defence Force (ADF) general and is granted the ability to "turn back" suspected "illegal" entry vessels (SIEVS) and their passengers to countries of origin (including Sri Lanka and Indonesia). (14) This strategy has caused significant political tension between Indonesia and Australia, as the Indonesian government has yet to agree to either the incursion of the ADF in Indonesian territorial waters or to co-operate with the turning back of the vessels seen to be "illegal." (15)

In addition, Operation Sovereign Borders includes the denial of permanent protection visas to asylum-seekers arriving by boat, the reintroduction of TPVS, and the increased capacity of offshore detention centres, The militarized aspect of the policy has also affected the level of access to details on the "operation," as the previously held weekly media briefings from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection were discontinued in January 2014. (16) The media blackout was justified by establishing Operation Sovereign Borders as a "war" on people smugglers with Prime Minister Tony Abbott stating, "If we were at war, we wouldn't be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves." (17) As a result, media access to detention centres, whilst already constrained, has been heavily restricted, (18) and the introduction of the Australian Border Force Act 2015 has compounded the issue, as it makes it a criminal offence for workers to disclose any information about detention centres--those who do, risk facing up to two years" imprisonment. (19)

Representations of Asylum-Seekers in the Media

Despite the pervasive media commentary on Australia's refugee and asylum policies, there is surprisingly little critical analysis of such commentary, but the growing body of research on how asylum-seekers are imagined and socially constructed in the Australian media predominantly suggests undue government influence on the reporting of asylum-seekers. (20) In particular, there has been minimal attention to the social and cultural practices and conventions that influence perceptions of Australia's asylum-seeker policy from an international media perspective. The aim of this article is to look at trends in media representations in international reporting using the Manus Island "riots" as one key example, to contribute a critical perspective on what drives international media reactions to Australia's asylum-seeker policy. In the context of a small social policy research project at University of New South Wales Australia, we sought to explore the following question: How is the Australian asylum-seeker policy socially constructed within the production, representation, and reception of four international media organizations? In this article, production refers to institutional procedures for gathering, selecting, writing, and editing news. (21) Representation highlights the schematically organized ways to convey information. (22) Finally, reception refers to potential interpretations and comprehension of information offered in news stories. (23)

First, our article briefly discusses key debates on public perceptions of asylum-seekers in Australia, particularly domestic media representations of asylum-seekers, and the inter-textuality of media and the state. While the focus is on international media, we outline these debates as background to...

To continue reading