The First Fleet were ‘Boat People’, too: Xenophobic Media, a susceptible Population, and how a Forgetful Nation is embarrassing Itself


by Kasey Lanyon


Executive Summary

  • This article reflects on the nature of the establishment of a British colony in Australia, contrasting it with the nation’s paradoxical intolerance of ‘boat people’.
  • It analyses aspects of Australian popular media demonstrating bias, intolerance, the falsification of facts, and promoting hysteria in regards to refugees, asylum seekers, and ‘boat people’ via programmes such as Today Tonight and A Current Affair.
  • Myths within Australian society fed by popular media are contrasted with the facts regarding refugees, asylum seekers, and ‘boat people’.
  • The article takes into consideration Amnesty International’s 6 facts regarding asylum seekers.
  • It questions how ‘multi-cultural’ Australian society really is, given the level of intolerance regarding cultures of ‘boat people’ in question.
  • It examines the Australian media’s need to re-evaluate depictions of refugees, asylum seekers, and ‘boat people’. Simultaneously, the hysteria caused by this within Australian society is questioned as to the willingness of the Australian population to adopt a stance of over-sensationalist patriotism resulting in racism.
  • It concludes that Australia has gone backwards early in the twenty-first century, causing embarrassment on the international stage.

“Why does a nation of immigrants get so upset over a few hundred or even a few thousand unauthorised boat arrivals?”

Jonathan Holmes, Media Watch Presenter, 2010


The First Fleet: Australia’s original feared ‘boat people’?

Following the Agrarian Revolution in Britain and poor living standards, crime escalated in the cities and jails soon filled with petty criminals. Given the American War of Independence, Britain did not have the option of sending additional convicts to across the Atlantic, resulting in the decision to begin transporting inmates overseas to form a penal colony in what would become Australia. The First Fleet arrived in 1788, with eleven ships under Arthur Phillip establishing a colony that would change the land and the occupants of that land forever. The raising of the British flag for the first time on January 26th has been celebrated annually since 1818, and since 1946 the federal and state governments agreed to unite the celebrations nationally as ‘Australia Day’. But what have we, as Australians, really been celebrating?

For many Indigenous Australians this date marks the greatest loss in their history, with January 26th symbolic as ‘Invasion Day’, the ‘Day of Mourning’, ‘Survival Day’, or ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty Day’. Prior to 1788, Australia is estimated to have had a population of over 250,000 Indigenous people who are believed to boast a cultural history spanning 40,000 to 50,000 years. Today, the Indigenous population makes up only around 2 percent of the entire Australian population, which remains dominated by British descendants. Indigenous Australians are perhaps the single most disadvantaged group in the country.

But when concern is expressed throughout the Australian population regarding the loss of ‘old Australia’, what, exactly, is being referring to? Unfortunately, it is not Australia’s Aboriginal past and culture but rather concern regarding refugees and asylum seekers and the adverse effects they supposedly have upon Australia economically, politically, socially, and culturally. Following the devastation caused by Britain’s invasion via boats in 1788, however, surely it is more than a little hypocritical for contemporary Australians to fear the invasion of ‘boat people’ in recent times. As the term ‘boat people’ refers to refugees who have fled their country of origin due to war, persecution, or natural disaster in order to seek asylum, where has the negative connotation surrounding these people emerged from within Australia?

Australian media: searching for truth or promoting hysteria?

Polls conducted by NewsPoll and published in The Australian in 2001 showed an alarming 50 percent of Australians believed all boats carrying asylum seekers should be turned back once in Australian waters; a mere 9 percent believed all boats should be allowed into Australia. With such intolerance surrounding asylum seekers within Australia, despite its immigrant history, logically it is difficult to understand such prejudice. Writer Saman Shad told popular morning program Sunrise that ‘Australia has an unhealthy fear of “boat people”’ induced by the topic’s negative domination in media headlines. Is this true?

An episode of channel seven’s high-ratings programme Today Tonight featured a segment dedicated to how the Australian government was ‘putting out the welcome mat for refugees’ as they were housed in ‘four-star luxury’ accommodation and costing Australian tax payers a small fortune. The segment, however, grossly overlooked the conditions of detainment that a majority of unauthorised arrivals are housed in whilst waiting for their asylum status to be processed — a course of action that typically takes months if not years. Furthermore, as stated by Sandi Logan of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship:

A place of alternative detention is selected based on what is readily available, readily accessible and suits the department’s needs at the time for long-term accommodation for families and unaccompanied minors.

This clarifies that, in fact, these particular housing methods were resorted to only in the case of minors, although children still are being housed in detention centres, with 400-500 minors in detention centres in 2012 according to writer Saman Shad. Today Tonight’s implication that unauthorised asylum seekers were living in a state of luxury is an unprofessional and grossly misleading act on behalf of the media. Furthermore, the footage used in this segment condemning asylum seekers at the Virginia Palms Hotel for the apparent cost to tax payers was filmed a year before its use, as no asylum seeker has been housed there since June 2011. Later in the segment, a man was shown apparently stating that he is given ‘about $400’ a week from the government. In reality, however, that man was being secretly filmed by a journalist who did not reveal themselves as such, an immense breach of the journalist code of ethics. He also was referring to the just over $400 that he received from Centrelink every fortnight, exactly the same as any other Australian citizen on Centrelink benefits. When Today Tonight Executive Producer Craig McPherson was contacted regarding this false implication, he claimed it was merely ‘an error in the editing’. But, later on in the segment, pensioner Margaret Thomas was interviewed expressing her anger and concern regarding the ‘$400 a week’ received by refugees. This highlights the fact that Today Tonight deliberately staged this portion of the segment, and even went as far as to feed false information to an interviewee so that they could air her emotional response in order to give substance to their attack on asylum seekers. When Thomas was contacted, she revealed that she had in fact been told this information by Today Tonight, and did not know the man in question was only getting $400 a fortnight; she then described this as ‘very sad’ and added that she ‘would have preferred to have been told the truth’. Clearly, popular media within Australia must come under harsher scrutiny.

Unfortunately, however, a segment featured in an episode of Channel Nine’s A Current Affair titled ‘Asylum Seeker Heaven’ only served to reinforce such stereotypes. Labelling asylum seekers ‘one of the most divisive issues facing this country’, the segment predictably focused on the supposedly luxurious lives led by asylum seekers housed in detention centres and the ever-looming tax payer-funded bill as the dreaded ‘boats keep on coming’. The segment also described the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat as ‘massively on the increase’, and yet failed to acknowledge that since 2009 refugee numbers have increased globally and are not targeting Australia explicitly. Specifically, the piece covered the detention centre in Woodside, on the outskirts of Adelaide. Again, the programme failed to mention that this particular detention centre is family-orientated in an attempt to keep minors out of the traumatic environments of standard detention centres. Also, the phrase ‘illegal entries’ is used to describe asylum seekers, fuelling false notions of illegality regarding the right to seek asylum. The cherry on top, however, was interviewee and concerned local Briohny Pitts, declaring:

The people smugglers must be printing brochures. Honestly! They must be printing brochures.

With this overwhelming display of ignorance aired during prime-time viewing, it leaves much to be questioned regarding the integrity of Australian popular media. The reporter then mocked Canberra’s stance on unauthorised media visits, seemingly oblivious to the devastating impact that ‘exclusive reports’ can have by disseminating among an ill-informed public such negative connotations regarding refugees. With the Australian popular media bent on airing biased segments regarding the misleading concept that asylum seekers in Australia are benefitting more than the average Australian citizen—and at the expense of said Australian citizens—courtesy of the federal government, what is the popular sentiment regarding asylum seekers within Australia?

Some Australian myths: Amnesty International sorting media-fed fiction from fact

Australia, tragically, appears to be far from short of misconceptions regarding asylum seekers — or the ever-feared ‘boat people’. Myths within the Australian populace derive from concepts such as the term ‘illegal asylum seekers’ as well as the notion that Australia is being overrun by refugees. Furthermore, specious claims suggesting that tax payers are suffering in order to benefit these refugees are ubiquitous, alongside notions of ‘terrorists’ entering Australia as refugees and the ridiculous overstatement often thrown about that Australia accepts more refugees than anywhere else in the world. Fortunately, Amnesty International is working fervently to help clear up Australian misunderstandings in order to reverse the negative hysteria surrounding ordinary people in need in an attempt to encourage positive policy alterations. Listed here are facts available on the Amnesty International website, addressing six common ill-informed assumptions regarding refugees and therefore ‘boat people”.

Fact #1:

It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, even if arriving by boat. (1958 Migration Act.)

Fact #2:

In Australia, there is 1.1 refugee for every 1000 people.

Fact #3:

In 2010 5,500 asylum seekers arrived in Australia. That’s only 5.5% of the seats in the MCG.

Fact #4:

Australian Centrelink benefits for a refugee single mother: $611.90.

Australian Centrelink benefits for a non-refugee single mother: $611.90.

Australian Centrelink benefits for an asylum seeker: $0.

Fact #5:

The number of refugees who have arrived by boat who have been terrorists = ZERO.

Fact #6:

In 2009, 8,427 people sought asylum in Australia. (Compared to 45,197 in the United Kingdom; 38,080 in the United States; and 33,970 in Canada.)


Clearly, the reality of the situation is far from what is paraded throughout the Australian media. Given the truth, not only numerically but also economically, it can be difficult to understand news programmes such as those mentioned above in terms of their jargon, incentives to instil fear, and hostility towards ordinary people merely seeking help from a tragic situation. Dr. Keith Suter, Foreign Affairs Editor, argues that Australia’s invasion-fear tendencies are ill-warranted. He suggests that the security of Australia should be emphasised, as opposed to its vulnerability, due to how difficult Australia is to reach.

Australian solution: tolerance in the twenty-first century

Popular media needs to re-evaluate its stance on refugees and asylum seekers coming to Australia. Given Australia’s immigrant history, the hypocritical nature of such negativity regurgitated when discussing ‘boat people’ within the media is appalling. Amnesty International’s Dr Graham Thom describes Australia’s current tendencies towards asylum seekers as ‘embarrassing internationally’. Although the level of bias and outright falsifying of accounts within some aspects of popular Australian media is abhorrent, perhaps what is more alarming is the large proportion of the Australian population’s apparent willingness to be brainwashed by the nonsensical fears of this ‘invasion of boat people’. For a supposed ‘multi-cultural society’ it is essential that nationalistic/jingoistic and sensationalised views depicting those who in reality are fleeing their homeland due to horrific circumstances, as Centrelink-hungry, job-stealing terrorists plotting to slowly overrun Australia, are strongly reconsidered. When media representation, unfortunately, can be quite the opposite of what is actually occurring, such a highly xenophobic media and popular attitude are embarrassing Australia within the international community. In the twenty-first century, it is well beyond time to embrace people of all cultures, in particular those in need. In a country that people risk their lives at the opportunity to obtain asylum, it is time that Australia welcomed refugees as a united nation. Beyond that, the citizens of Australia need to become conscious of how fortunate they are to be born free of civil war and persecution; realising that, by comparison to the war-torn Middle East and various other situations creating a populace of refugees, they most definitely are the ones living in ‘luxury’.





Selected further web-based reading:

About NSW, Aboriginal Settlement, About NSW Site, date unknown, retrieved 8 October 2012,  http://about.nsw.gov.au/encyclopedia/article/aboriginal-settlement/

Amnesty International, The facts on refugees and asylum seekers, Amnesty International Australia, 2011, retrieved 24 September 2012, http://www.amnesty.org.au/refugees/comments/24506/

Amnesty International, Refugees’ real stories, Amnesty International Australia, 2011, retrieved September 24 September 2012, http://www.amnesty.org.au/refugees/comments/24438/

A Current Affair, Asylum Seeker Heaven, NineMSN, 2011, retrieved 24 September 2012, http://aca.ninemsn.com.au/video.aspx?vq=boat%20people

Sunrise, Are we Scared of Boat People, Yahoo!7TV, 2012, retrieved 26 September 2012, http://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/video/-/watch/29280506/are-we-scared-of-boat-people

Creative Spirits, Australia Day – Invasion Day, Creative Spirits, Jens Korff, 2012, retrieved 8 October 2012, http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/australia-day-invasion-day

Crock, M., Scapegoating boat people a true-blue Australian tradition, The Age, 2010, retrieved 10 October 2012, http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/scapegoating-boat-people-a-trueblue-australian-tradition-20100809-11tzl.html

Dunn, C. & M. McCreadie, IFHAA Shipping Pages; The founding of a nation; Australia’s first fleet – 1788, Internet Family History Association of Australia, 2006, retrieved 5 October 2012, http://www.historyaustralia.org.au/ifhaa/ships/1stfleet.htm

Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community Education, Debunking the myths, boat-people.org, year unknown, retrieved 28 September 2012, http://www.boat-people.org/?page_id=148

Media Watch, Queuing Up For The Facts, ABC1, 2010, retrieved 4 October 2012, http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s2977986.htm

Newspoll, Opinion Polls, Newspoll, 2006, retrieved 27 September 2012, http://newspoll.com.au/cgi-bin/polling/display_poll_data.pl

PALS, Aboriginal People Today, Government of Western Australian; Department of Indigenous Affairs, retrieved 27 September 2012, http://pals.dia.wa.gov.au/en/Resources/aboriginal-people-today/

26 January 1788 – Origins of Australia Day, The Dirt On The Rocks, 2011, retrieved 20 September 2012, http://thedirton.therocks.com/2011/04/26-january-1788-origin-of-australia-day_17.html

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Kasey Lanyon, The First Fleet were ‘Boat People’, too: Xenophobic Media, a susceptible Population, and how a Forgetful Nation is embarrassing Itself. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/the-first-fleet

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/the-first-fleet