The reality is that most everyday Australians currently support our nation’s heavy-handed and dehumanising approach to dealing with asylum seekers.
This means that for those of us seeking to bring a change to this, the first step to sustainable policy reform is to change the conversation.
As Getup idenitfied on the eve of the last Australian election, First Home Project (pictured above) is an example of changing the conversation. Love Makes A Way is an example of changing the conversation. Welcome to Australia is an example of changing the conversation. Children are in integrated schools in the US now, because the civil rights movement, changed the conversation.
Time and time again, people-powered movements have created a more just world, which gives me hope that in Australia, we can play a major role in welcoming asylum seekers who deserve to live without fear of punishment and persecution.
3 Steps to changing Australia’s conversation on asylum seekers
1.) Don’t reinforce the wrong narrative
If you don’t want people to think you are a criminal, holding up a sign that says ‘I am not a criminal’ isn’t going to help.
Professor George Lakoff, Cognitive Linguist and ‘Framing’ specialist, knows the immense power certain words have in debates like this one.
And there is no more powerful word in the debate on asylum seekers than the word “illegal.”
Research indicates that the vast majority of hostility towards asylum seekers in Australia stems from one basic misconception: that seeking asylum is illegal, and those who arrive by boat are breaking the rules.
From this misconception flows a multitude of responses that justify current policies such as, “People who act illegally and break the rules are criminals or ‘queue jumpers’ and so we must deal with them harshly”.
What this means is that when those of us with positive agendas say, “It is not illegal to seek asylum”, even though the statement is true, simply placing the word ‘illegal’ in the same sentence as ‘asylum seekers’, conjures up the wrong narrative that has become so deeply entrenched in our society.
Instead, we should present the positive case: “People fleeing persecution have a legal right to seek asylum”. Do you see what I’m saying?
Many Australians do not know that all people have a legal right to seek asylum, regardless of how they arrive. Sharing this simple truth in a positive way will start to unravel the false premises that bind together a suite of dehumanising attitudes.
2. Use stories, not stats
Stories eat stats for breakfast.
Have you ever thought, “If only we could reach those who disagree with us with the stats, then we would change their minds”?
I know I have, but that approach in itself is starting to sound like an anthem for failed social movements.
Being a ‘factivist’ can increase your credibility and confidence but a large body of research indicates that stats seldom change beliefs. Stats often fail because they only speak to the head.
Stories, however, don’t just engage the mind, they communicate values and speak to the heart. Engaging the heart creates the emotional empowerment to change attitudes and move people to action. Learning how your story can inspire action for the common good is one of the most powerful tools you have as a change maker.
But telling stories is an art. Some people have this gift, but if you’re like me, it’s not natural and takes some practice.
How can you get better at telling your story?
One of the world’s foremost Community Organisers, Marshall Ganz, has developed a helpful framework for telling stories that has become a core practice for change-makers around the world.
3. Learn to ‘reframe’ the conversation
People fleeing persecution have stood up to their oppressors to give their families a chance at life – more than anything else they should be known for their courage.
Messaging research from ‘Welcoming America’, a U.S. refugee advocacy organisation, points us in the direction of how we can ‘reframe’ the conversation so that Australians will see the positives that asylum seekers can bring to our lives and our nation.
Let’s focus on reframing our conversations so that:
Asylum seekers are defined less by their struggles and more by their strengths, not for what they lack but for who they are and what they have done.
Asylum seekers are not seen as a burden, but as a blessing in our country.
Asylum seekers who reach our nation’s shores are seen not as victims, but as survivors.
Bringing it all together – The story of Nga “Nahji” Chu
Nga Chu came to Australia after escaping the Pethet Laos Regime in 1975. Nga changed her name to “Nahji” to gain acceptance because being Vietnamese in Australia in during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s was quite unwelcoming. With next to no money in her pocket, Nga started making her Aunty’s rice paper rolls, selling them wholesale to caterers… and they loved them! With the money Nga saved, she set up her first ‘Tuckshop’ in 2009. Misschu, Nga’s chain of Vietnamese restaurants, are now flocked to by thousands of people from around the world, all looking to sample the delicious treats of the woman known as “The Queen Of The Rice Paper Rolls”. Go into one of Nga’s Tuckshops today, and you’ll see her staff wearing the shirts printed with ‘Dumplings Not Detention’, with Nga watching over everything with a look of pride and satisfaction.
Nga’s story combines all of the elements that we’ve been talking about. It focuses on personal testimony, avoids tapping into the ‘wrong narrative’ and is surprising in the way that it reframes Nga’s struggles as an asylum seeker with ‘foreign’ foods and cultures, and demonstrates instead the contribution Nga has been able to make to Australia’s culinary scene as a result.
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- Apply to attend a Marshal Ganz ‘Public Narrative’ workshop here
- If you feel led to take nonviolent love in action, register for Love Makes A Way training here
- Reach out to one person or community group and start a conversation about asylum seekers. Share your story or amplify the stories of others by hosting a screening such as ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ or ‘Mary Meets Mohammad’.
QUESTION: How do you think the conversation on asylum seekers needs to change in Australia? What will it take to make this happen? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.