Tony Abbott keeps telling us that boat people are illegals and by inference, criminals. John Menadue

Apr 29, 2013

Last week on radio Tony Abbott was at it again, repeatedly referring to illegals and illegal boats. It cannot be ignorance to keep calling asylum seekers illegals. He must know they are not illegals, but by using this language he inflates fear and hatred of people in distress.

We cannot presume that boats are illegal because they are exercising passage through our territorial waters. The Law of the Sea makes that clear. And people seeking asylum are not illegals because of our commitments under Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.

The Centre for Policy Development has just published ‘Refugee Facts’. It includes comments by the Australian Press Council to guide journalists about the use of terms such as ‘illegals’. It draws particular attention to some of the gross incitements to fear that New Limited publications have consistently used. See

Ethical journalism on refugee issues

 The Australian Press   Council notes:

“The legal status of people who have entered Australia by boat without a visa is complex and potentially confusing. Their entry is not legally authorised but is not a criminal offence. The Australian Government usually refers to such entrants as “unauthorised boat arrivals” or “irregular maritime arrivals” but they are also “unlawful non-citizens” under the Migration Act.”

Read the complete guidelines here

Journalists are advised to avoid describing people who arrived by boat without a visa in inaccurate terms. This can arise, for example, if the terms can reasonably be interpreted as implying criminality or other serious misbehaviour on the part of all or many people who arrive in this manner.

Depending on the specific context, therefore, terms such as “illegal immigrants” or “illegals” may constitute a breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice on these grounds.

Several recent adjudications by the Press Council have upheld complaints about the treatment of asylum seekers by media outlets.

On 26 November 2011, The Daily Telegraph ran the following headline on its front page: ‘Open the Floodgates – Exclusive; Thousands of Boat People to Invade NSW’. The Press Council was asked to make an adjudication on this and concluded ‘that the use of the word “invade” was gravely inaccurate, unfair and offensive because of its clear connotations of forceful occupation’. It upheld the complaint for ‘an especially serious breach of its principles.’ The Council also concluded that use of the words “open the floodgates” and “deluge” were inaccurate and unfair.

In adjudication number 1498 in June 2011, the Australian Press Council (APC) considered complaints about three opinion articles by Greg Sheridan that appeared in The Australian on 23 and 28 October 2010 and 5 March 2011.

The APC upheld the complaint. The adjudication included the following comments on use of the term ‘illegals’:

“The Press Council’s Guideline (No. 288) notes that the descriptor ‘illegal(s)’ is very often inaccurate and because it typically connotes criminality, it is unfair. It recommends that the use of the term ‘asylum seeker’ as a widely understood descriptor and generally a fair and a sufficiently accurate one. The Australian acknowledged that it was aware of this suggested usage. Indeed, the Council upheld a similar complaint against The Australian as recently as July 2009. Despite that, the disputed expression appeared in the three articles subject to this complaint. … The fact that some people may use what may be considered inaccurate terminology should not be used to justify inaccuracy or unfairness in reporting. The Council holds the view that opinion articles are no different to other articles in their need to ensure accuracy and to avoid unfairness and that these articles failed to do so. Accordingly this aspect of the complaint is upheld.”

An article headlined ‘Boat people in our suburbs’ that appeared in the Herald Sun on 26 November 2011 was the subject of an adjudication in April 2012. The front page had a pointer to the article reading ‘Revealed; boat people to flood our suburbs’.

The APC upheld this complaint. The Council concluded that “the words ‘flood the suburbs’ connoted an overwhelming, widespread and adverse impact on the general community. The implication was misleading and unfair, especially when made so boldly in the front page pointer and so prominently in the opening sentence of the article.”


The APC guidelines are a vital point of reference for journalists and editors covering refugee and asylum seeker issues. As these recent adjudications make clear, the Council is inclined to take a dim view of sloppy and unethical reporting of asylum seeker issues, with a particular focus on terminology.


Like Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott seems to have little concern for the “stranger” and the injury and injustice he inflicts on vulnerable people. I suggest that before he utters another word on asylum seekers and illegals, he reads

The Refugee Convention Article 31 that makes clear that penalties should not be imposed on people who enter another country, seek asylum and do so expeditiously

The APC guidelines and adjudications on the term “illegals”

He might also look at Matthew 23 ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’.

We are in for a very ugly political period…

John Menadue

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