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Immigration, asylum and Aussies

In June of 2011 SBS broadcast Go Back to Where You Came From, a three part documentary that saw six Australians sent on the reverse journey taken by hundreds of refugees who come to our country. The series generated a great deal of interest in the Australian media (mainstream and social), with comments and reviews on commercial and ABC radio & television, and in The Australian, The Age and on the Amnesty international website. SBS also reported that set new records for online performance on their website. Within 24 hours of the first episode being broadcast the SBS website had received almost a thousand comments relating to the show, more than a ten fold increase on the average comment rate for an SBS program. The series was also a ratings success, delivering the network their highest ratings of 2011.

The idea for a television series focusing on immigration came after SBS commissioned the Ipsos-Eureka Social Research Institute to conduct a study and produce a report, a national attitude research project to explore and contrast the Australian public’s attitude to immigration and their perception of Australia’s immigration history. The Institute summarized its findings in the Ipsos Mackay Report. The research study for the Report was conducted in late 2010 before SBS aired Immigration Nation: A Secret History Of Us and prior to Go Back to Where You Came From was broadcast.  It would be interesting to see whether the screening of Go Back to Where You Came From shifted public opinion.

The week after the program was broadcast, SBS held a discussion program hosted by Anton Enus where the series participants spoke of their attitudes. But did the attitudes of the wider Australian community change as a result of Go Back to Where You Came From?

The answer may be an interesting one considering the controversial issues of the refugee swap deal with Malaysia, combined with the further arrival of boats from Indonesia, and difficulties for Julia Gillard’s government. This also coincides with the 10th anniversary of the Tampa incident, which led to the Howard government implementing the controversial pacific solution, a policy aimed at deterring asylum seekers from attempting the voyage to Australia.

Overall the Report concludes that support for asylum seekers has declined over the last decade, whilst support for skilled migration has increased. Currently there is only moderate support for the idea that Australia should accept the current number of asylum seekers, with the majority of participants wanting to see an overall decline.

Of the 1375 people who participated in the study, the Report notes 22% with strident anti‑immigration views, not just hostile to asylum seekers and refugees but all migration into the country, even if it would be beneficial to Australia’s economy. Reasons cited for their views included the racial make-up of new arrivals, the availability of jobs and housing, terrorism and a general distaste for the salaries and superannuation received by politicians.

At the pro-immigrant end of the report, 28% of those surveyed showed strong support for both asylum seekers and acknowledged the positive effects of immigration. This group cited racism and a lack of tolerance as a problem in Australia and prioritized other concerns such as housing and the cost of living.

In between these two groups came a range of opinions on immigration and asylum that couldn’t be defined as exclusively pro or anti-immigration and asylum. Whilst many accepted that legal immigration was advantageous to the Australian economy, there was considerable concern about the impact that immigrants and asylum seekers would have on Australian culture, the strain on government services and whether they could integrate into society.

Many of the survey’s findings will come as little surprise. Following on from the Tampa incident and the 2005 Cronulla riots, it is clear that a section of Australian society is suspicious of both asylum seekers and different ethnic groups in general. More startling however is how consistently the same concerns about immigration have risen in Australian society. As the Report notes, over the last three decades, the issues surrounding immigration remain a high concern for Australian, despite the fact the worst fears about what migrants might do is rarely realised.

It is interesting to note the shift in the language used to criticize asylum seekers. In the 1980’s and 90’s, fear of asylum seekers related to the belief that they would take Australian jobs. Now, in a time of near full employment and the rise of skilled migrants the focus has shifted to asylum seekers as queue jumpers who will be reliant on welfare from the government. It seems those critical of asylum seekers are happy to shift their rhetoric to suit their preconceived notions rather than change their opinions to match the facts.

It should also be re-iterated that nearly a quarter of Australians have expressed views opposed to migration that would be beneficial to the countries economy. This is a staggeringly large percentage of the population willing to support positions that go against their own interest. Concerns about asylum seekers also appear to link into wider concerns about the Australian government and are used as evidence that it isn’t listening to the general public, prioritising the wrong issues and is wasting public funds. Perhaps it is unsurprising that many politicians see this as an issue that should be avoided as it is laced with pitfalls and ill feeling. Perhaps of more concern to SBS in terms of the role of the media, all phases of the research showed reasonably low levels of trust in the information gleaned by media, with 58% of participants trusting the media ‘only slightly’ or ‘not at all’.

Despite these concerns the Report finds reasons to be optimistic. It notes that resistance to particular ethnic groups clearly and quickly break down over time. There is also much belief in the tolerance and adaptability of the young generations, recognition that Australia should remain multicultural and that immigration has enriched many aspects of Australian society. Overall, SBS had good reason to be pleased with Go Back to Where You Came From in terms of production values, ratings and the discussion the series generated in the media and online. The findings of the Ipsos-Eureka Social Research Institute shows that further output relating to immigration and asylum would be welcome.

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