It’s terminology the Federal Opposition uses regularly but refugee advocates and experts in refugee law says such descriptions are deliberate misrepresentations designed to create a sense of panic or fear about people who arrive in Australia without a visa.



Greg Dyett reports.


This week the Federal Opposition posed a question which ended up being answered by vandals.


On a billboard in West Perth came the question, how many illegal boats have arrived since Labor took over?


The coalition’s answer was 641 illegal boats.


But within 24 hours after it went on display vandals used spray paint to provide a different answer.


The number 641 was replaced by a zero and the vandals added the words: no crime to seek asylum.


The Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott had travelled to West Perth where he addressed the media in front of the billboard.


“I regret to say that now there have been 641 illegal boats and there have been more than 38 thousand illegal arrivals by boat. It doesn’t matter what this government says, the situation is just getting worse, and worse and worse. As with everything this government does, they make a bad situation worse.”

When taking questions from journalists, Mr Abbott was heckled by someone who took issue with his use of the word illegal.


“When you’ve got the illegal arrival problem that this government has created (Background heckler) They’re not illegal, you’re lying! (Abbott) You can say…(heckler) you know it’s a lie! (Abbott) You can say your piece in a sec, let me say my piece and then you can say yours sir.”


Professor Mary Crock from the University of Sydney Law School is a specialist in migration, citizenship and refugee law.


She too has a problem with the use of the word illegal.


“The complaint being made about the use of the word illegal with an asylum seeker is that it implies that it is somehow illegal to claim asylum in a country and the central point of having signed and ratified the Refugee Convention is that we agree that it is a lawful thing to do for a person to seek asylum in a country. It’s really just about emotion and the use of words here.”

Tony Abbott defends his use of the world illegal by referring to Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.


In part, Article 31 says contracting states shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees.


But Professor Crock says Article 31 is quite clear when considered in its entirety.


“Article 31 operates so as to require states who are parties to the Refugee Convention not to penalise people by virtue of how they come into the country. Now, if you come into a country without a visa, you come without authorisation. That makes you illegal in terms of Australian domestic immigration law, there’s no question about that. But the whole point of the Refugee Convention is that you sign on to agree that even if someone enters the country without authority that they are able to claim asylum and that they should not be penalised by virtue of the fact that they came in without a visa. That’s the central aspect of Article 31. (Reporter) Because it actually says ‘provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence. In other words, to claim asylum, correct? (Crock) Correct, that’s right, that’s right.”


Professor Susan Kneebone from Monash University in Melbourne is a specialist in forced migration, human trafficking and refugee law.


She says Australian law refers to foreigners as either “illegal” or “legal” non-citizens.


That is illegal if they arrive without a visa, or legal if they have a visa.


Professor Kneebone says the term illegal is only referring to someone’s migration status.


“It is not illegal for people to move in international law. People cannot be described as illegal. It’s contrary to the whole concept of the existence of a human being. It’s referring only to their migration status and in Australian law we actually don’t talk about illegals, we talk about persons with a lawful or an unlawful status which is, in fact, recognising the point that I’m making, namely that people are not, as such, illegal, to call a person illegal is to deny their very existence.”


One of the largest media organisations in the world, America’s Associated Press, has just recognised this very point.


Its editorial guidelines now instruct its journalists not to use the terms illegal immigrant or illegal to describe a person.


Instead, it instructs its journalists that illegal should describe only an action such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.


Susan Kneebone from Monash descibes Tony Abbott’s use of the word illegal as dishonest.


“The politicians are exploiting the use of the word and attempting to create a sense of panic or fear or just alienation of people who have come without a visa in the minds of the Australian public that is well documented, well researched and well known. As to whether it’s a fine distinction, I don’t think it’s a fine distinction. I don’t think it’s even a semantic distinction. I think it’s a fundamental distinction between recognising that a person has rights and has rights in international law and that this has to be distinguished from the way that they are described in terms of migration status under the laws of a particular state and as I say, it is dishonest, in fact, for politicians in Australia to be using the term illegal because it’s not in our Migration Act. Our Migration Act talks about lawful and unlawful non-citizens.”


Professor Mary Crock from the University of Sydney says the use of the word illegal is being done with a deliberate, political intent.


“It’s absolute deliberate political play and they’re playing with peoples lives in doing this. And I really think that one of the key features to getting anything like control back into this area is going to be a bi-partisan approach and as long as you’ve got an opposition carrying on like this, it’s virtually impossible to do anything sensible in the area.”


The founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, Kon Karapanagiotidis says the use of the term illegal by politicians and the media amounts to lying to the Australian public.


He says he recently became infuriated after hearing WA Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash using the terminology.


“And they sit there going ‘another boat of illegals, another boat of illegals’ and as long as you’ve got politicians feeding the lies, a Murdoch media reinforcing the lies and you’ve got very little leadership on this issue and very little traction to have a real debate and go ‘actually, seeking asylum is not illegal, actually 90 per cent of these people are refugees and are not economic migrants, actually these people are fleeing for their lives and they’re exercising a human right that Australia actually granted them back in 1951 by agreeing to be part of the Refugee Convention. That’s what’s actually happening but we’re not interested in that debate because there’s not votes in that.”