Working Paper

Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over seeking asylum in Australia

Published 9 September 2015 / By Ben Doherty

Back to Publications

Since the arrival of the first post-colonial "boatpeople" on Australian shores in 1976, the language used by governments and media to discuss those who arrive "irregularly" by sea has changed dramatically. From earlier descriptors as "refugees" and "boat people", asylum seekers who arrive now in Australian waters are officially referred to in government statements as "illegals", ministers have publicly alleged they "could be murderers [or] terrorists" and report "whole villages" are coming to Australia in uncontrollable "floods". Prime Ministers are reported in the media condemning asylum seekers as opportunists who "jump the queue", and "throw their children overboard", while discussion of Australia’s policies regarding asylum seekers is now framed as a matter of "border protection" from "threats to national security".

While these discursive changes have attracted public, media, and academic attention, this paper seeks to ask further: where has this semantic change come from? What forces have driven it, and why? What impact has this changed rhetoric had on public opinion and understanding of asylum seekers? And what responsibility rests with those who report these words and these phrases about these people? In assessing these questions, this paper will rely on primary sources – the Commonwealth Record, government statements, cabinet minutes, and interviews with key policy and political figures – and secondary sources – media reportage, published papers and analyses. This paper will seek to critique the changes in rhetoric used by governments and media to discuss boat-borne asylum seekers in Australia, specifically examining four distinct, and crucial, periods in the development of Australia’s asylum seeker policy and political debate, ranging from the first "wave" of post-colonial "boat-people" to Australia to the election campaign and government of Tony Abbot and its policy of "stopping the boats".

This paper will further question to what extent these changes in rhetoric have been deliberately constructed for political aims. It will ask how changes in language have been adopted, or challenged, by Australia’s media, and if and how those semantic shifts have impacted upon the Australian public’s perception and understanding of asylum seekers and refugees.

Key Words

Asylum, Migration, Rhetoric, Media, Government


Ben Doherty, Thomson Reuters Fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Email:


Download as PDF

If you do not have Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is required to read this document, you can download it for free from the Adobe website.