Why we need to stop talking about refugees

— rethinking the language we use to talk about refugees and people seeking asylum —

It is a truth universally acknowledged that campaigns based on evidence, universal human rights, or even plain common sense, are sadly not guaranteed success.

If they were, Australia wouldn’t have invaded Iraq in 2003, the Greens would probably be in government all over Australia, and people who arrive in Australia by sea, seeking asylum and somewhere safe to rebuild their lives, would be welcomed with open arms and given every support possible to integrate into our communities.

There are so many things that go into a successful campaign, and plenty of people out there who want to tell you how to do it.[i]

In late 2015 I attended a session put on by Australian Progress (a slightly shiny org focussing on ‘building the advocacy capacity of Australia’s civil society’) which presented research commissioned by the tireless Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

The focus of the research was how we (advocates and activists) might shift the way we talk about refugees and asylum seekers. The session contained a lot of excellent information and advice about how to make our communications more effective.


According to the ARSC research, our base (our supporters and advocates) on this issue is generally about 20 per cent of the population. They are typically young, women and interested in current affairs. Conversely, the opposition (ideological opposites) are about 24 per cent of the population. They are more typically older, male and not tertiary educated. The remaining 56 per cent of the population are persuadable on this issue.

While this should be encouraging, it should also be the point where you realise (if you didn’t already know) that the opposition is much more persuasive than us, and has been for some time.

If we want to have a collective impact on the debate, we need to start singing from the same songbook. Or, as one of the researchers – Anat Shenker-Osorio – put it on the night ‘get the choir singing in unison, because the people need a pastor.’

Bear in mind that we’re talking about elevator pitches: the way that we frame that first point of contact. A one-page leaflet, website homepage, door-knocking script, an advertisement. This is usually quite a short amount of time, so make the most of it.


  • Steer away from using negations: Statements like ‘it’s not illegal to seek asylum’ and ‘refugees are not the problem’ appeared to give oxygen to and reinforce opponents’ arguments.
  • Stop using the passive: This is just a good rule generally. Everything that happens has agency. Saying ‘harm is being inflicted’ lets the people and organisations inflicting harm off the hook.
  • Forget about international law: This argument failed to shift anyone. Perhaps because people know that ‘democratic’ countries like Australia, Israel and the United States (list not exhaustive) have been side-stepping international law for years without consequence. Alternatively, because the law is boring.
  • Drop the economic argument: This appeared to backfire big time. Perhaps because an economic argument is a dehumanising one: it puts a money value on a person and begs the question ‘well, how much would we spend?’ There are enough things that are framed in terms of their economic cost rather than their human impact (access to health, education and transport, for example), let’s not add more.
  • Unpleasant facts are a turn-off: The rape of women seeking asylum, the number of children in detention, hunger strikes, these are all horrible and depressing and those responsible need to be held to account, but according to the research leading with these to persuadable people makes them switch off.


  • Say ‘people who seek asylum’: The research found that this was more persuasive than using ‘refugee’ and/or ‘asylum seeker’. Why? We know that labels dehumanise, particularly when imposed from the outside by the dominant culture. Along similar lines, it used to be common to call people with disabilities ‘disabled’ or worse things like ‘spastic’ or ‘retard’. The latter of which have become base insults, much like ‘refo’ has.
  • Humanise the issue: Interestingly, the ASRC research showed that mentioning ‘Australia’ in framing this issue was not helpful or useful. This should make sense too. When we talk about ‘Australia’ we immediate draw a border, creating ‘us’ and ‘them’. Focus more on our common humanity.
  • Change the frame: This is the structure you use for your message. In this instance, people responded better to a Shared Value-Problem-Solution framework than they did to the more commonly used Anger-Hope-Action. [ii]
  • Use the phrase ‘integrate into our communities’: as opposed to ‘be settled in Australia’ or ‘placed onshore’, for example. Most Australians generally embrace the idea of mixed and varied communities, and want to help new arrivals become part of the community and set up new lives.
  • Piss off the opposition: The research showed that overt racism is very unpopular, which means every time a right-wing commentator engages in veiled (or not so veiled) whistleblowing, it increases the chance of persuading people to change their view, provided they are hearing a strong and effective alternative message of course!

The take-home message on language here should be is to make sure that we are focussed on people, not on laws or money or statistics. Also bear in mind that the vast majority of people want to be part of building something better, so give them any opportunity to do that.


[i]  A couple of good places to start are counteract.org.au and plantowin.net.au. If you’re looking for more messaging-specific ideas, check out this site.

[ii] This contradicts typically accepted organising advice, especially in the trade union movement. Perhaps think of Anger-Hope-Action as an effective frame for motivating your base and Shared Value-Problem-Solution as better for reaching persuadable people and thus building your base.


An earlier draft of this piece was published in ‘GreenMail’, The Greens NSW Members Publication, in late 2015.

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