When it comes to ‘boat people’, majority Australian opinion is in check with government policy and government policy is in check with majority public opinion which holds that boats should be turned back, and anyone who gets through should be sent to mandatory indefinite offshore detention.
Verification of this claim is readily at hand. Simply poke your head out of your terrace house window and ask a passer-by, or stop the next car you see on the main drag of your town, or ask the bloke next door mowing the lawn. People are willing—eager, even—to express their opinions on ‘boat people’.
More rigorous data tells the same story. A Scanlon Foundation survey found that 41% of people surveyed wanted to either turn back the boats or keep the asylum seekers in permanent detention pending removal. Another 30% would allow only for temporary residence in Australia (the instability caused by temporary visas has been shown to cause serious mental health illnesses). Just 24% would allow for permanent residence.
Similarly, a Lowy Institute poll on asylum seekers found that 71% of people thought the Australian government should turn back boats when it is safe to do so, and, failing that, 59% wanted offshore processing. Most polls are broadly consistent with these findings.
However, to confuse the situation, a poll by Essential Research found that 49% of people think boat people should be allowed to stay in Australia if they are found to be refugees—a minority of respondents, but still a significant level of support given the ongoing climate of antipathy.
This raises an important question: what percentage of ‘boat people’ seeking asylum in Australia are subsequently found to be refugees? Historically, the figure has varied year-to-year, but the range tends to stick within 70–95%. That is, the overwhelming majority of all ‘boat people’ are refugees.
Add these facts and poll findings together and a contradiction seemingly appears: most Australians support turning refugees away—the unavoidable consequence of turning boats back when most the ‘boat people’ are refugees—but a portion of those very same Australians think the ‘boat people’ (the ones they want turned back) should be allowed to stay in Australia. Welcome them on one hand, send them packing on the other.
Here’s how the discrepancy makes sense. The Essential Research survey found that 43% of people think most ‘boat people’ are not genuine refugees, and a further 25% don’t know one way or the other. In total, 68% of people are in the dark about the single-most important fact about the asylum seekers who come by boat—that most of them are refugees.
Consider this correlation: 61% of people think that the government’s approach to ‘boat people’ is either just right or too soft, and 68% of people are ill-informed about who ‘boat people’ are. This is not a coincidence.
What is clear is that Australians do not like ‘boat people’. But that finding is very specific and comes with a caveat: it turns out they have little issue with refugees generally. In fact, an overwhelming majority of Australians support the Australian refugee resettlement program that takes refugees who are assessed and placed by the UNHCR.
The Scanlon Foundation found that between 2010 and 2012 support for the program increased from 67% to 75%. To be clear, resettlement refugees come by plane, not boat.
What gives? Well, our politicians have known for years. It’s the boats, stupid.
Australians don’t fear refugees. They fear ‘boat people’. And if you want to know why—read this.