SSI’s third Speakers’ Series event for 2014 explored the theme: Perception is reality: How do we form our perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers?
SSI CEO Violet Roumeliotis explained the significance of the theme. “In recent years we have seen a hardening of views, particularly towards asylum seekers, and the existence of these negative views has resulted in refugees and asylum seekers experienceing discrimination, isolation and not feeling safe in their communities,” Ms Roumeliotis said. “So SSI is committed to understanding public opinion and undertaking initiatives to influence and to try to change negative perceptions. To address these negative perceptions we need to understand how they are formed: to what extent are these negative views shaped by political discourse, media or by our own values as Australians?”
The panel discussion featured three experts with experiences in three different social institutions: academia, the media and the police. Professor Andrew Markus, a refugee himself who came from Hungary as a boy in 1957, is a lecturer at Monash University and head of the Scanlon Foundation Social Cohesion Research program. He presented research to the audience of 80 or more from his longitudinal studies on perceptions of migration found in the Foundation’s Social Cohesion reports. Following the keynote presentation, Professor Markus joined a panel with journalist and author Chris Rau, NSW Police Superintendent Mark Wright, and discussion mediator Oliver Laughland, journalist for The Guardian.
Some intriguing points from Professor Markus’s recent research included:
- 25 per cent of Australians think the government’s asylum seeker policies are “too soft”
- 22 per cent think they are “too tough”
- Most people agreed the policies are about right
- Yet 79 per cent of respondents support humanitarian resettlement in Australia
Does support for resettlement of people judged refugees off-shore contradict perceptions of asylum seekers who come by boat and policies affecting them, Professor Markus asked. He argued that Australia’s unique geography that isolated the population, combined with the fact immigration had always been controlled by governments, were significant influences on the hardline stance of Australians against boat arrivals.
Professor Markus said longitudinal survey results suggested Australians had more positive views about multiculturalism generally than other national populations. He proposed that neither media nor politics drove these views but rather social values and people’s own lived experiences of multiculturalism, which were generally positive.
A lively debate followed, with Ms Rau, Professor Markus and Superintendent Wright challenging each other’s understanding of these perceptions, where they came from and how, and if they could be changed. The whole event was streamed live on UStream and an edited version will be published to SSI’s new YouTube channel soon.