Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over seeking asylum in Australia

   Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over seeking asylum in Australia

by Ben Doherty    Ben Doherty 1

The issue of mass irregular migration – of people seeking sanctuary in a country not their own – will be one of the planet’s great challenges of the 21st Century.

Already, more people are currently displaced from their homes that at almost any time in human history, and continued political instability, widespread poverty, and climate disruption insist the issue will grow rather than diminish.

Discussion of asylum seekers is discussion of some of the most vulnerable, disenfranchised, and voiceless communities on earth.

Governments should speak dispassionately when they discuss the policies and politics of asylum seekers. The media should report critically, objectively, and factually. Their publics, whom they both exist to serve, will be better served for it.

Read Ben’s paper: Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over seeking asylum in Australia:


Ben Doherty is immigration correspondent for The Guardian Australia, based in the Sydney newsroom. He was formerly the Bangkok-based Southeast Asia Correspondent for The Guardian, and South Asia Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in New Delhi. He has reported from more than 20 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and throughout the Asia-Pacific.

Ben has twice been awarded a Walkley Award, Australia’s highest journalism honour, most recently in 2013 for a six-month investigation into sweatshop labour conditions and worker deaths in the Bangladeshi garment industry. He has written extensively on, and has a particular interest in, the issues of child and forced labour in developing economies, and the movement of refugees and forced migrants.

Ben was the Walkley Young Australian Print Journalist of the Year in 2008 and has been a finalist in the United Nations Media Peace awards, and Amnesty International Media Awards.

Ben holds a Master of International Law and International Relations from the University of New South Wales.


Ben Doherty, a journalist with the Guardian in Australia and a Thomson Reuters fellow in Trinity term 2015, has written a comprehensive – and very readable – review of the way governments and the media in Australia have changed the narrative and language around people arriving by boat in his country.

Here’s part of the abstract from his paper Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over seeking asylum in Australia:

Since the arrival of the first post-colonial ‘boatpeople’ on Australian shores in 1976, the language used by governments and media to discuss those who arrive ‘irregularly’ by sea has changed dramatically. From earlier descriptors as “refugees” and “boatpeople”, asylum seekers who arrive now in Australian waters are officially referred to in government statements as “illegals”, ministers have publicly alleged they “could be murderers [or] terrorists” and report “whole villages” are coming to Australia in uncontrollable “floods”. Prime Ministers are reported in the media condemning asylum seekers as opportunists who “jump the queue”, and “throw their children overboard”, while discussion of Australia’s policies regarding asylum seekers is now framed as a matter of “border protection” from “threats to national security”.

While these discursive changes have attracted public, media, and academic attention, this paper seeks to ask where has this semantic change come from? What forces have driven it, and why? What impact has this changed rhetoric had on public opinion and understanding of asylum seekers? And what responsibility rests with those who report these words and these phrases about these people?

The paper also questions to what extent these changes in rhetoric have been deliberately constructed for political aims. It asks how changes in language have been adopted, or challenged, by Australia’s media, and if and how those semantic shifts have impacted upon the Australian public’s perception and understanding of asylum seekers and refugees. Finally, the paper compares the Australian experience with international situations, understanding the global context of what is, by definition, a trans-national issue. It concludes with some notes of observation for Australian journalism.