In a throwback to the rhetoric of the Howard era, the Coalition has rebranded asylum-seekers as “illegals”, and people in detention centres are now to be called “detainees”. Those being held on Nauru and Papua New Guinea are now “transferees”, not “clients”. The government has ordered that this terminology be adopted by public servants and government contractors, igniting a maelstrom of controversy from the wider community.

Under the Gillard and Rudd Labor governments, asylum-seekers who arrived in Australia by boat were classified as “irregular maritime arrivals”, and those in detention centres as “clients”.

Australian Immigration minister Scott Morrison defended the move against critics, stating “I’m not going to make any apologies for not using politically correct language to describe something I am trying to stop.”

Newly appointed Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles, has countered by saying that the move to brand asylum seekers as illegals will only serve to demonise them. Human rights activists have pointed out that under Article 31 of the United Nations Refugee Convention – of which Australia is a signatory – actions that would otherwise be illegal, such as entering without a visa, must not be treated as illegal if a person is seeking asylum. Morrison however, has said that his use of the term “illegal” refers to their method of arrival, not the act itself. “Under the people smuggling convention it defines illegal entry as people who come without a valid permit for entry into the country.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has echoed his Immigration spokesman’s comments on the issue, appealing to Australians’ broader humanity. “I do believe that we’re an immigration nation. Other than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we’re all boat people. We are the nation of the second chance and we have been since European settlement.”

According to the chief executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Kon Karapanagiotidis, Morrison’s distinction between the seeking of asylum and their method of arrival is of little consequence. He has been sharply critical of the “profound” change in language, stating that it would fundamentally shift the direction of public debate on the issue.

“He’s [the minister] deliberately trying to dehumanise asylum seekers by making them less than human,” Mr Karapanagiotidis said. “They’re “detainees”, not people, and that suggests criminality. And calling people “transferees” suggests they have no rights; they’re a package, a parcel, in transit.”

The Press Council of Australia recommends that the media not use the term “illegal immigrants” or “illegals”, as it could “reasonably be interpreted as implying criminality or serious misbehaviour.”

As the debate over language on asylum seekers continues to rage, the smuggling trade continues. Only a few days ago, Indonesian police in the province of Banten captured 240 would-be asylum-seekers. Somewhat closer to home, Christmas Island will be converted into an indefinite holding facility for an estimated 400 asylum-seekers, including both adults and their children, where they will stay unless they agree to go home or capacity became available on Manus Island or Nauru, where their claims can be assessed.

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