Sorting out asylum seeker opinion

Opinion polls haven’t always been helpful in sorting out three distinct issues

1) whether we should take asylum seekers at all (and if so, how many);
2) whether or not asylum seekers who arrive by boat without prior approval should be accepted;
3) whether there are groups we should not take at all, regardless of how or why they come.

Refugee advocates have tended to think that opposition to refugees is motivated by 3, (‘xenophobia’), or to be more precise opposition to Muslim migration and perhaps other groups with a history of political violence (such as Tamils, though I doubt knowledge of the Sri Lankan civil war is widespread in Australia). As refugees tend to be disproportionately from supposedly disfavoured groups, opposing asylum seeker arrivals is a way of keeping them out.

The recent Morgan poll confirms an Essential Research finding last November that there is plurality support for taking asylum seekers. Morgan found 50% support, 41% opposition, and 9% ‘can’t say’. Essential’s figures were 45%/25%/30%, suggesting a lot of ‘soft’ opposition. The differences can probably be explained by polling methods. Essential’s surveys are online, so there is an explicit ‘no answer’ option. Morgan used a telephone poll where only support or oppose were directly offered, with ‘can’t say’ recorded where the respondent couldn’t or wouldn’t choose. If pressed, people with weak opinions tend to go negative.

However, on a separate question about boat arrivals only 26% supported the current system, and 64% of respondents believed that asylum seekers should be ‘returned and apply through normal refugee channels’. Taken together, the two Morgan findings support the view that (1) and (2) are distinct issues, with the method of arrival an important separate issue.

Morgan also had a question on whether Muslim migration was supported or opposed. 55% of respondents supported Muslim migration, while 36% were opposed. (This is higher than the 24.5% opposition found in a 2007 poll, but the questions are so different that it’s hard to know whether there is a significant change.)

Opposition to Muslim migration (proposition 3) could help explain attitudes on (1) and (2), but doesn’t explain majority support for the overall migration program, the route through which the vast majority of Muslim migrants come. While there may be ‘xenophobia’ behind some people’s refugee attitudes, it under-explains the observed pattern of opinion.

14 thoughts on “Sorting out asylum seeker opinion

  1. 1) It does not suit the skills I have.
    2) Even for people with the skills, most political careers do not achieve a lot in the end.
    3) The lifestyle is pretty bad.
    4) I have various chronic health issues which are easier to manage with the more flexible work I have now.


  2. Thanks for the response Andrew. I am sorry to hear about #4, but I suppose if you have personally judged #1, #2 and #3 to be the case then it really isn’t something that is worth the price that many pay to be in parliament. I suppose this topic reminds me of how Hockey was pretty candid the other day on the radio about giving it all up for his wife/son etc.

    Back on topic, what are our actual international legal obligations w.r.t asylum seekers, if any? This fact is interpreted in many ways and I think many Australians are unaware of the facts on this matter.

    Also, it seems that these asylum seekers each pay up to 20k to be transported here. That is really and truly ridiculous. Why do they not simply fly here by plane and apply for asylum in that way as most do?


  3. Rationalist – I don’t know enough about the asylum laws to answer your first question. As to the second, probably because it is hard to get to an airport in most cases, but in any case airlines won’t let you board unless you have the relevant travel documentation.


  4. Don: not quite the right link, I believe.

    I have always felt the opposition to boat arrivals was a “same rules for everyone” notion combined with “I want a say”. Illegal immigration deprives citizens of any say in migration policy: boat arrivals make that explicit. So people are generally in favour of Australia being a migrant destination for asylum seekers, just not in a way the citizens get no say over and which go against everyone having the same rules.


  5. It’s an interesting issue and even with the statistical analysis it’s more complex than I fully understand.

    It seems that there are implications to the international conventions that we have agreed to, in particular the 1951 refugee convention, that many people don’t like, particularly the idea that we must grant protection to those that arrive and are shown to be refugees onshore even if, at least in theory, there are many others in more desperate need offshore. I also know that some are offended when they hear claims of how brave and courageous the boat arrivals are when it’s also true that the vast majority of the world’s refugees lack the financial means to give it a shot using that means of entry and thus resent the implication that those that don’t arrive by boat (i.e. almost all others) lack that same courage.

    I think we can confidently conclude that it is not an issue of ‘compassion’ versus ‘toughness’, though, as each position has its winners and losers.


  6. Tysen

    I hardly think that unilateral actions of the executive – on foreign soil – which are neither communicated to, debated by, nor legislated by the parliament, let alone US, constitutes “international conventions that we have agreed to.”

    The fact is, these “international obligations” have never been sanctioned by the electorate, so the executive has no right to tell us now that “we” must do as we are told!


  7. Yet not long ago we took a far bigger cohort of boat people without serious political upset. But then those people were not the subject of partisan dog whistling – they were fleeing the dreaded commos, not traditional ethnic enemies.

    Sorry, but from speaking to a lot of ordinary Australians I can’t help thinking that if these people were white Zimbabwean farmers we’d be hearing a lot more about their desperation and their enterprise and a lot less about “queue-jumping”. That “64% of respondents believed that asylum seekers should be ‘returned and apply through normal refugee channels’” also shows just how the questions have been framed in the service of politics – what “normal channels”?.


  8. DD – “not long ago we took a far bigger cohort of boat people without serious political upset”.

    There was some political upset:

    By HENRY KAMM Special to The New York Times

    December 14, 1977, Wednesday

    CANBERRA, Australia, Dec. 12 The arrival on Australia’s northern coast of a sudden rash of fishing boats carrying Vietnamese refugees in the last few weeks has provoked unusual xenophobia in a country that, since the end of World War II, has become accustomed to receiving large numbers of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants.,4091377


  9. DD: So, your position was that yellow boat people were fine but it would make a difference if the current boat people were white rather than brown? I suspect that, if there is anything about the composition of the boat people which matters, it is being disproportionately Muslim rather than race which might be an issue.
    In fact, there was a lot of resistance to the Vietnamese boat people too. Complicated by the fact that there was a sense of specific moral obligation due to the Vietnam War. Or, on the left, a sense of moral repulsion due to the Vietnam War: much explaining they were “economic refugees” and opposition to “the new Balts”. (I still remember a meeting to commemorate the Vietnam Moratorium being marked by participants having to run the gauntlet of a very angry demonstration of Vietnamese refugees who had a very different view and were forcefully expressing it.)
    Given I am not aware of any Western democracy where “just letting people in” has popular support, I retain the view that it is a sense of control and say (or lack thereof) which is the big issue.
    A pertinent comment on the racist! racist! “dog whistling”:
    The whole of Australia was aware of the burgeoning multi-ethnic melting point Australia had become. …
    So when all these white middle class people who read
    The Age like The Bible start jumping up and down about how racist Australians are, the rest of the country looks around their suburb, their shopping centre, their place of work, their customers, their clients, their deli workers, their buses, their trains, their spouses, their in-laws, their school playgrounds, their university lecture halls, their doctors, and says “WTF are you talking about”.


  10. Whoaa…..Lorenzo….biggest smashing since the James Spader days on The Practice!
    That said, I would prefer Zimbabwe farmers to Afganis. Who wouldn’t. One lot are productive, civilised hard working people who are likely to integrate well into Aussie society. The other…ahh….ummm…..well….are not.


  11. Some 1970s polls, which as now suggest sensitivity to the question asked:

    What should the government do about refugees who come by boat from Vietnam without special permit, and land at places like Darwin

    Take a lenient view and allow
    them to settle here 29
    Take a hard line and send them
    back 39
    Make special efforts to get some
    other country to take them 27

    Gallup Poll, 1978

    …about the refugees coming to Australia by boat. Do you feel our government should accept those refugees arriving in Australia by boat, or put those boats back out to sea?

    Accept 53
    Put back out to sea 28
    Undecided 19

    Morgan Gallup June 1979


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