Boat people, asylum-seeker, refugee – changing debates about immigration are often reflected in language.

What’s in a name? In late 2013, not long after the Coalition won power, Federal Immigration Minister Scott Morrison changed the policy of calling people who arrived in Australia by boat from Irregular Maritime Arrivals – the preferred terminology of the Labor government – to Illegal Maritime Arrivals.

Critics quickly condemned the use of such a label for people who were seeking asylum in Australia and who had arrived by boat.

The Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Stephen Ames, decried the use of such dehumanising labels as well as the implication that such people were presumed to be ‘illegal’, but Scott Morrison defended his rejection of what he considered ‘politically correct language’.

The debate over Australia’s policies on refugees is reflected in debates over the language that is used to describe policies, people and actions.

The use of terminology such as Illegal Maritime Arrival, abbreviated in government documents to IMA, is indicative of the jargon often used by government.

But these are just the latest in a range of terms that have been used over the years.

The first was boat people.

Two of six Vietnamese refugee boats that docked in Darwin on 21 November 1977. Photo: Australian National Maritime Museum Collection/Michael Jensen

First used of refugees who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, this was a transferred use of the much older sense of boat people, ‘a community of people who live solely or mainly on boats’.

These refugees from Vietnam fled on a variety of boats, many barely seaworthy, and sought refuge in countries such as Australia and the United States.

Asylum-seeker became the preferred term in the 1990s, after the introduction of mandatory detention under the 1992 Migration Reform Act.

Only occasionally mentioned before that period, asylum-seeker became far more commonly used in the 1990s, and ubiquitous in debates over immigration policy in the 2000s.

It was in the 2000s that asylum-seeker overtook refugee in public discourse reflecting the fact that government policy implied that no asylum-seeker was a refugee until proven to be so.

Arguably, refugee has cultural connotations that can engender sympathy for the person in a way that asylum-seeker does not (and Illegal Maritime Arrival even less so).

It just goes to show that the power of language is an important player in the debate over immigration policy.

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