When “… language itself becomes a weapon” Guest blogger: Professor Ian Webster.

Nov 8, 2013

When “..language itself becomes a weapon.”[1]

“I know they’re rorting the system; I’ve seen it in the source countries; and I’ve seen it in my own electorate.” It was a party stopper from a Member of Parliament speaking informally with a group attending a meeting about preventing suicide.

The two words “refugee” and “asylum seeker” provoke private and public dissonance. The criminalisation, the “otherness”, in the way we speak about refugees and asylum seekers stands in stark contrast to our attempts to prevent discrimination against ‘others’ in Australia – people with disabilities, those with mental disorders, suicides and attempted suicides, and others outside the mainstream, and their families. Governments legislate to prevent discrimination and they aim to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

But refugees and asylum seekers are another matter; they’re fair game. The contrast in these public stances – one of kindness and the other of rejection could not be more extreme.

To suffer is to be harmed or to fear harm. The health and social systems are expected to assess a person’s risks and harms and to respond to their needs; actions endorsed overwhelmingly by society. Refugees and asylum seekers fear harm and seek protection.

In the emergency departments of our public hospitals, in our public health services and at the front-line of primary care, treatment is provided according to a person’s needs without moral judgement. It is expected. It is a proud tradition which can’t be reconciled with the way Australia responds to the suffering of those who seek sanctuary.

Imagine arriving at an emergency department with distressing chest pain and having to demonstrate that you were in genuine need of help, being sent elsewhere to check your credentials and to wait.

It is an irreconcilable paradox. We expect humane and moral responses from human services and our professions, but we adopt an inhumane and immoral stance to the frightened people who arrive from distant lands on our shores.

The misguided focus on criminalisation, mandatory detention and the tricks of excising parts of Australia to circumvent our international obligations are a subterfuge for long-term strategies.

The language and rhetoric of the ‘war on drugs’ has become the driving idiom of the ‘war on people smugglers’.

The former Secretary of the Departments of Defence and Primary Industries and Energy, Paul Barratt, said on Radio National’s Outsiders on 21st July, “It is a failure to reframe the political discussion, to look more broadly at the refugee issue. It is the same as we have seen in the failed war on drugs – instead of dealing with that as a social and medical problem we focus on the people who are smuggling illicit drugs and say that this is a criminal …a game politicians of both parties are assiduously trying to focus on. The problem is that there are people in desperate need who need to be resettled and there are millions of them around the world.”

The same point was made in 1959 by William S Burroughs in the Naked Lunch, “If you want to alter or annihilate a pyramid of numbers in a serial relation, you alter or remove the bottom number. If we wish to annihilate the junk pyramid, we must start at the bottom of the pyramid: the addict in the street, and stop tilting quixotically for the higher-ups so-called, all of whom are immediately replaceable. The addict in the street who must have junk to live is the one irreplaceable factor in the junk equation. When there are no more addicts to buy junk there will be no junk traffic. As long as junk need exists, someone will service at.”

Fiddling with the idea of criminality and imprisoning people smugglers is doomed to failure. Just as the war on ‘drug smugglers’ has failed because it does not deal with the people problems which drive the demand for substances.

It is an unchallengeable fact that problems of population have to be dealt with at source, at the root causes. In public health it is the fence at the top of cliff compared with the ambulance at the bottom

Put simply, the problem of refugees and asylum seekers is not the making of people smugglers but of the oppression and violence against already marginalised people in their countries of origin.

As John Menadue and others have argued, Australia should engage with countries in our region to establish pathways which have predictable outcomes and protection rather than  policies which will escalate even more desperate attempts for asylum.


Professor Ian Webster, Physician and Emeritus Professor Public Health and Community Medicine, University of NSW.



[1] Anderson Scott, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Doubleday, Random House, New York, 2013, p xi.

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