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could conveniently say their life would be threatened if they returned home. The term “quasi-refugee” was coined to cover those who fell outside the UN definition.

A common fear underlying all the coverage was that Australia would be inundated by “hordes” arriving from the north. There are constant references to a “swelling tide”, a “potential flood” of refugees, an “armada” of boats sailing to Australia, an “invasion” by refugees. But through all, everyone still referred to the arrivals as refugees.

In April 1990 the navy intercepted a boat off the coast of Broome. The people on board claimed they were from Cambodia and were eventually taken to Enterprise migrant centre in Springvale to have their claims assessed. Now they were referred to by the media as “boat people”. The term “refugee” is not applied unquestioningly. One’s refugee status must now be proven. The Government referred to them as “unauthorised arrivals”. A 1994 book, Racism, Ethnicity and the Media, traced a shift in language of the coverage that it claimed “reflect[ed] the increasing control of the agenda by the Immigration Department.”

Then, some ten years later, boats carrying mainly people from the Middle East began arriving regularly at Ashmore Reef and Christmas Island. The political panic resulted in the Tampa episode and the so-called “Pacific solution.” In August 2001, the new language is already apparent, but it is confused and the terminology interchangeable. “Refugees stranded at sea” announced The Age headline on 28 August 2001. “More than 430 refugees were stranded at sea last night after the government took the unprecedented decision of refusing the asylum seekers permission to land,” the article begins. Throughout the article they are referred to alternately as “refugees” or “asylum seekers”. Another article on the same day by law reporter, Darrin Farrant, discussed the legal options open to the Government and the people plucked from their sinking boat. He consistently referred to them as “refugees”.

The Herald Sun had also adopted the term “asylum seekers” and used this alternately with “boat people”. But it had a wider vocabulary than The Age referring to them as “illegals”, “illegal immigrants” and “illegal boats”, even coining such awkward constructions as “would-be illegal immigrants” and “would-be asylum seekers.” This sort of language is more consistent with the Government’s line. In media releases for the preceding four years, the Minister for Immigration, Phillip Ruddock, never used the terms “refugees” or “asylum seekers”. They were “illegal immigrants” or “unauthorised arrivals”.

The confusion of language attracted Ruddock’s attention. The same day the Government refused the arrivals permission to land in Australia, the Minister for Immigration criticised the use of “refugees” and “asylum seekers.” “We are not dealing with refugees,” he reportedly told ABC radio. Neither should they be labelled asylum seekers. “We don’t know that either. What we know is there are people on a boat wanting to come to Australia,” he is quoted by The Age as saying. Language had become a site for struggle for control of the issue.

© Helen Cronin 2002

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