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A day after his article about the “refugees” picked up by the Tampa, Darrin Farrant picked up Ruddock’s criticism. “Refugees, asylum seekers or suspected illegal immigrants? Even finding an accepted definition for the 438 people picked up by a Norwegian freighter off Christmas Island this week has become part of the contested territory in Australia’s refugee debate,” he wrote. “It is much more than just a matter of words. The terms you choose identify the position you take and help shape the way people making their way here are treated.”

The same edition of the paper featured a discussion of the issue in the education section. “What is the difference between asylum seekers and refugees?” it begins. “Refugees and asylum seekers are people who have a well-founded fear of persecution for social, political or racial reasons and have fled from their country of origin. Refugees have been granted protection … Asylum seekers have come via their own means, rather than via a refugee program, have applied for refugee status and are awaiting determination of their status.”

By the first anniversary of the Tampa episode, The Age was fairly consistent in its use of the term “asylum seekers” to describe people arriving by boat and seeking permission to stay. Curiously, only in the headlines did “refugee” appear regularly. At the Herald Sun the confusion over language seemed unresolved. On 16 August, Mandi Zonnevelat discusses youth attitudes towards Australia’s immigration and refugee program, consistently using the term “refugee” to describe those in detention and seeking to come to Australia via unofficial channels. Tony Rindfleisch uses “refugee” and “asylum seeker” interchangeably in an article on 11 August. And on 22 August an article headlined “Plea for refugees in limbo” appeared, but the journalist refers to them throughout as “asylum seekers.”

If the issue of language remained contentious in Australia, no such confusion existed in political circles in Papua New Guinea. ABC journalist Shane McLeod interviewed the new Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, on 13 August this year. “The other issue that looms over the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship is that of asylum seekers and Papua New Guinea’s role in Australia’s Pacific Solution by hosting a processing centre at Manus Island,” said McLeod. But Sir Michael uses much blunter language. “We will maintain that until such time as the refugee centre in Manus has Australian government see fit to start taking people into Australia then that may be the end of it. As long as we don’t have any more boat people.”

It is easy to draw parallels between the situation in 1977 and the events that resulted in the “Pacific solution.” In both cases fears of an invasion by uninvited arrivals, of a threat to the nation’s integrity underlie the political rhetoric. The same fears prompt calls for the boats to be turned back. But in the intervening 25 years, it is not only the terminology that has changed. Australia was very much a part of the region that was the origin of the Indo-Chinese refugees. We had been involved in the Vietnam war. Neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Thailand that bore the biggest burden of refugees, were states with whom we had to maintain strategic relationships. But the people

© Helen Cronin 2002

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