As part of the final semester of my journalism degree, my broadcast class changed the usual curriculum of practicing live-crosses and auto-cue reading, to producing a cohesive two hour radio program on refugees in collaboration with the ABC and Canberra Refugee Support.
Working in pairs, we set off to discover the untold local refugee stories in an attempt to cut through some of the stigma and political rhetoric that currently surrounds refugees and asylum seekers in Australia. I teamed up with Joe Prevedello with an aim to find a political angle of asylum seekers and refugees that isn’t heard in the mainstream media.
As a videographer in the Press Gallery, I have been present at countless press conferences this year where the discussion of asylum seekers and refugees was completely de-humanised. There was a lot of talk of numbers, figures and ‘processing’ them like they’re a piece of meat, but hardly any of names, occupations or their reasons for leaving their countries.
I’ve been frustrated and angry with the politicians arguing about the Malaysia ‘Solution’ or the Naru ‘Solution’, like the legal arrival of these people seeking safety to our shores is a ‘problem’ that needs to be fixed. The Government’s plan this year was instead of handling the ‘problem’ of these ‘nasty queue jumpers’ ourselves, we’ll pay millions of dollars to ship them off to Malaysia, who haven’t signed the UN Refugee Convention, for them to deal with. Thankfully, in my opinion, the plan was foiled by a High Court challenge meaning asylum seekers will now have to be ‘processed’ in Australia, albeit in detention centres instead of being released into the community.
A recent study done by Monash University ‘It Would Be Okay If They Came Through the Proper Channels’: Community Perceptions and Attitudes Towards Asylum Seekers in Australia’ (2011, Mckay, Thomas, & Kneebone) found that “calling asylum seekers ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’ dehumanises people and their experience”.
Furthermore, The Refugee Crisis and Fear: Populist politics and media discourse (2004. Gale,P.) says that “while representing boat people as ‘queue jumpers’ engenders public support for a policy of mandatory detention, such a policy is also seen to breach international human rights standards.”
You don’t have to think back too far to remember when these racial tensions spilled over into violence, the 2005 Cronulla Riots is a perfect example of racial vilification in Australia.
Both of these articles argue that the language that politicians and media use to describe asylum seekers and refugees sub-consciously de-humanises refugees and instills in the public that these are people to fear, promoting the fallacies of an ‘orderly queue’ and ‘process’ that many Australians believe. These beliefs were documented by ‘Go Back To Where You Came From‘ (2011, SBS) where Australians were challenged on their beliefs about the refugee process.
I personally hadn’t had much face to face contact with refugees, but there was a large population of refugees at my high school, and I remember a Sudanese girl reading a haunting poem about her life in year 10. It brought most of the class to tears and provided a harsh reality check for me, whose biggest problem at the time was whether a boy liked me or not.
On Assignment for #reportingrefugees
Joe and I decided that we would try to find a politician that came to Australia as a refugee and do a profile piece on them. It was a harder task than expected, as refugees are under-represented in politics. Eventually we decided on Steve Doszpot, who is a local Canberra politician who came to Australia from Hungary in the 1950’s as a young boy. I didn’t know much about the history of Hungary after World War 2, and was surprised and alarmed at the number of people that left Hungary during the revolution, estimated to be over 200, 000.
It was interesting to listen to Steve’s story and how his family adjusted to life in Australia, and the struggle to ‘fit in’ without being able to speak the language. The majority of my classmates had recent refugees as their talent, so I found it interesting to hear these same themes being repeated in almost all stories. It shows that as a society, we haven’t progressed beyond the racial discrimination towards immigrants that has plagued our country since federation.
I was surprised to discover the restrictions placed on journalists who wish to visit detention centres, and the length that the Department of Immigration goes to to ensure that the people awaiting security checks and clearances in the centres do not contact the media. They argue that is due to their responsibility to protect the privacy of those seeking asylum. On the other hand, the media argues that these restrictions violate the freedom of the press, and the freedom of speech of the asylum seekers and that the conditions placed upon journalists wishing to go inside detention centres are worse than those of Guantanamo Bay.
Lessons from the field.
I think Joe and I were in a lucky position compared to our classmates that over fifty years had passed since our talent was a refugee, and his memories weren’t as fresh or as confronting. This meant he was more comfortable to talk about his experiences, and he didn’t have to worry about the safety of any remaining family members overseas like some of the other talent involved in the project. This allowed for a very candid interview, and Steve was able to go into a large amount of detail about his family’s escape from Hungary.
Where it became challenging for us was trying to get past the Liberal Party lines about the current refugee policies in Australia. We had made it clear to Steve that we were also going to be discussing that issue, and it was disappointing that he stuck to the political rhetoric instead of addressing it on a personal level. Finally towards the end of the interview he gave us some more open answers about his personal opinions of the current policies, but I don’t think we pushed him far enough on that.
I found it was important to just let the talent tell their story, instead of continually interrupting with questions. It resulted in a more natural story line, and allowed the subject to add bits that they may have forgotten. I do think this was helped by Steve’s political media experience, so a less willing interview subject might have had to be probed a bit more. As a journalist it is easy to fall into the trap of ‘grab chasing’, and I learnt that the most important thing is the story behind the ‘grab’, not just the grab itself.
It was also frustrating that our interview with his wife and daughter wasn’t up to broadcast quality, as I think that other element to the story would have improved our final story immensely.
Overall, I really enjoyed working on this project. It has made me a more informed citizen, a more compassionate Australian and hopefully a better journalist. I think Australia needs to move away from the hype surrounding asylum seekers and refugees, and just get on with helping these people find a safe and happy home.
The Refugee Crisis and Fear: Populist politics and media discourse (2004. Gale,P.) Journal of Sociology
It Would Be Okay If They Came Through the Proper Channels’: Community Perceptions and Attitudes Towards Asylum Seekers in Australia’ (2011, Mckay, Thomas, & Kneebone) Journal of Refugee Studies.
Go Back To Where You Came From‘ (2011, SBS)
Let’s follow Guantanamo’s lead (2011, Sales, L.) ABC
United Nations Refugee Convention (1951, United Nations)