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Asylum seekers, left out 'to dry' when they arrive in Australia under John Howard

Let them stay or send them away?

A paper about attitudes to asylum seekers

False beliefs, nationalism and self-esteem

"...a large proportion of the Perth community expressed negative attitudes toward asylum seekers which appear to be largely based in false beliefs..."

" would appear that a lot of work on preventing misconceptions about asylum seekers is necessary before Australia can call itself a just and accepting multicultural society."

"To do this, we need bottom-up strategies, i.e. individual people speaking up, and also top-down strategies: the support of those in authority."

Project Summary

Let them stay or send them away? Predictors of negative attitudes toward asylum seekers

Anne Pedersen, Jon Attwell, and Diana Heveli

Murdoch University
Perth, Western Australia

Authors' notes

Correspondence should be addressed to Anne Pedersen at the School of Psychology, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150, Australia (email: A.Pedersen(at)

The authors gratefully thank a number of people for their input into the paper, in particular Jaimie Beven, Ngaire Donaghue, Brian Griffiths, and Alex Main for their very useful comments on an earlier draft (although the authors take full responsibility for the views stated herein). Additionally, we would like to thank Merrion Grey for her help in the early days of the project.

For a full analysis of the findings, see:
Pedersen, A., Attwell, J., & Heveli, D. (2005, forthcoming). Prediction of negative attitudes toward Australian asylum seekers: False beliefs, nationalism and self-esteem. Australian Journal of Psychology, 2nd version: July 2003

Background to the study

Over the past couple of years, the issue of asylum seekers has received a good deal of attention in the media and it is a topic that many people feel strongly about. Issues such as mandatory detention and so-called 'queue jumping' have stirred strong positive and negative feelings within the Australian community. The Australian government has taken a strong stance against asylum seekers and placed them in mandatory detention for long periods of time. And how do Australian people respond to the refugee issue? Not well, judging by the number of negative Letters to the Editor in The West Australian newspaper. Not surprisingly, given the recency of events, there is little research examining Australian people's attitudes toward asylum seekers. The research reported here examines the extent to which nationalism, self-esteem, false beliefs, and socio-demographics (gender, age, political orientation, and education) relate to attitudes toward asylum seekers.

Related documents

5 January 2004: 'Boat People are Queue Jumpers' and other statements rebuffed - These are really "John Howard's Myths", keenly peddled by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, the front bench as well as many backbenchers from the 2001 election onwards. Here they are rebuffed by the Edmund Rice Centre.

What we did, and what we found

Section 1: Negative attitudes against asylum seekers

To date, there is no quantitative scale to measure attitudes toward asylum seekers, and we set about to construct one (Attitudes Toward Asylum Seekers scale [ATAS]). There were three steps in this scale construction:

  1. We asked people at three shopping centres (low, medium, and high socio-economic) whether they would comment on their views on asylum seekers. In total, 100 people were interviewed. We planned to use their responses to build scale questions. However, the data did not prove as useful as we had hoped for questionnaire construction with a number of comments such as "Let them in you big meanies". These types of comments - although indicative of particular attitudes - were difficult to translate into survey questions.

  2. Then, we perused 12 months of Letters to the Editor of the West Australian newspaper to establish a broader range of public opinion. Together with some comments from the original 'shopping centre' data collection, 20 statements were deemed satisfactory and covered both positive and negative items. Participants agreed or disagreed to the 20 statements on a 7-point scale.

  3. Questionnaires were delivered to 500 Perth residents; four suburbs were randomly chosen in July 2002. One suburb was low SES, one was high SES, and two were middle SES (more Perth residents are middle SES compared with low or high). There was a 31% response rate; however, the sample seemed fairly representative of the community in general (they came from all walks of life).

Some respondents were sympathetic to the situation of asylum seekers. As one respondent put it,

"Our treatment of refugees is nothing short of shameful..."


"I feel very sorry for refugees - God knows what they have been through. Imagine how awful it would be to be locked up and treated as if you were less than human. This is a worldwide problem; I'm not sure what the solution is but we certainly need to be more tolerant and kind to others".

However, this was not the usual response - the majority made comments such as:

"I migrated here from England in 1966 and we had to go through numerous medical examinations and had to apply to come to Australia ... people should not be allowed in without following the right procedures and through the right channels".

Similarly, another participant noted:

"The asylum seekers need to be sent home. The navy should use the boat people as target practice". Our results indicate that Australia is not the 'accepting' multicultural society we often pride ourselves on.

Section 2: False beliefs about asylum seekers

In another research area, a great deal of mis-information is found about the amount of benefits Indigenous people receive (e.g., 'Indigenous people only have to pay a few payments under a hire-purchase agreement for a car, and the government will meet the remaining costs') (e.g., Pedersen & Griffiths, 2002). Research also finds a strong link between such false beliefs and negative attitudes. And just as there are false beliefs about Indigenous Australians, there are also false beliefs about asylum seekers. For example, the Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community and the Refugee Council of Australia outline a number of such myths; we describe three here that were used in our study.

queue jumpers

'Asylum seekers are queue jumpers': the truth behind the "queue jumpers" is that there are no queues for people in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to jump as there are no Australian consulates within the surrounding nations.

cashed up

Another myth is that 'asylum seekers must be "cashed up" to pay people smugglers'. This is incorrect; often, families fleeing persecution have a network of people supporting them financially (and - regardless of this - money does not negate people's legitimacy).

government handouts

A third myth is that 'Australia provides asylum seekers with all sorts of government handouts'; this also is incorrect. Asylum-seekers receive little financial help until they are recognised as refugees, when they have much the same entitlements as other Australians. Furthermore, if they only have temporary protection visas, they have less entitlements in some instances; e.g., they have no rights to access social welfare benefits (Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, 2002).

We originally intended to use false beliefs to predict negative attitudes. However, this did not prove possible as there was too strong a correlation between negative attitudes and false beliefs. In other words, attitudes toward asylum seekers and false beliefs seemed much the same construct. Interestingly, this correlation was much stronger than the correlations found in previous studies between false beliefs and negative attitudes against Indigenous Australians.

Why might this be the case? Apart from the fact that the actual false beliefs were different in content, one likely reason is that very few people in Perth would actually 'know' an asylum seeker. Thus, they may form their opinions more readily on false beliefs and what they heard from other sources rather than direct knowledge. In fact, some of the written comments by participants backed up this viewpoint. For example, a number of respondents indicated that they knew very little about the real situation:

"To be honest the only information that I have about asylum seekers situation has been picked up from media representations".

Many respondents held one or more false beliefs; this was particularly the case with the question regarding asylum seekers being 'illegal' (approximately two-thirds of participants were incorrect in this regard). The prevalence of false beliefs about asylum seekers has troubling implications in Australian society as they can create and/or maintain social inequality (Jones, 1997).

If attitudes toward asylum seekers are to be modified, it would seem imperative that relevant false beliefs be shown for what they are. In fact, Batterham (2001) not only found a significant relationship between prejudice against Indigenous Australians and false beliefs, but also found that debunking such false beliefs reduced the reporting of prejudiced views.

It is up to our politicians to set the record straight here, as well as concerted efforts by individual people to contradict such beliefs. A good place to start for information about false beliefs is a publication called "Rebutting the Myths" produced by Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community Education and "Myths about Refugees" by the Refugee Council.

This poses the question: 'what comes first, the chicken or the egg?' (here, negative attitudes or false beliefs). Do negative attitudes have a flow-on effect where people process new information through prejudiced or non-prejudiced eyes? Or do false beliefs about asylum seekers produce more prejudiced attitudes? It is likely that this relationship works in both directions.

Section 3: Prediction of negative attitudes against asylum seekers

We were interested in the relationship between negative attitudes and factors such as education, gender, age and political orientation (left or right wing). We were also interested in the relationship between negative attitudes and psychological factors such as nationalism (a pride in being Australian) and self-esteem.

Results indicated a significant relationship between self-esteem and negative attitudes. In other words, people with relatively high levels of self-esteem were more negative about asylum seekers. However, this relationship was very small. Additionally, extremely high numbers of people reported high self-esteem. Thus, prejudice reduction does not revolve around increasing people's self-esteem; indeed to do so may do more harm than good. Three additional variables significantly predicted negative attitudes:

  1. The higher the levels of formal education, the less negative attitudes. This result supports past research, and indicates the need for education, although clearly it is worth noting that formal education beyond secondary school is not the only educational avenue. Nevertheless our results indicate that formal education is a step in the right direction. As one participant noted,

    "I strongly believe the general Australian public is very ignorant of refugee issues. Much more education is needed for the general public to better understand the complexity of the issues and to be more sympathetic to their plight".

    We argue that it would be beneficial for the community at large to be better informed about the reasons asylum seekers flee their country of origin, and the problems that they currently face, as well as the false beliefs which circulate relentlessly around Perth at this time.

  2. Negative attitudes were linked to right-wing political orientation. Our finding is not unexpected. Similar results have been found in previous research regarding negative attitudes against Indigenous Australians and other cultural groups outside Australia, and may be due to the left and right essentially reflecting the different attitudes toward equality. Traditionally, right-wing political parties focus on benefiting specific groups or 'classes' (usually middle to upper class). Left-wing political parties aim to benefit all Australians not just the upper classes. In fact, many respondents did view this situation from a political viewpoint. For example,

    "Shut the detention centres down, they are inhumane. Sack Howard and Ruddock for consistent breaches of human right conventions."

    An alternative view was:

    "They should be returned immediately with no handouts. Australians do not want these fanatics here to ruin our way of life - government should listen to voters and take a stronger stand".

  3. National identity was linked with higher levels of negative attitudes. The relationship between negative attitudes and nationalism may be due to people striving to maintain or enhance group identity (in this case, nationalism), and resorting to hostile attitudes in order to achieve this need.

    Alternatively, it could also be argued that issues such as this become a conflict when people see asylum seekers in terms of their social identities. Regardless of the causal relationship, the positive relationship between the negative attitudes and nationalism supports other findings.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, there were two major findings that emanate from the present study.

First, attitudes toward asylum seekers related to social variables such as political orientation and education. Australia - a very individualised nation - often overlooks the social in favour of the personal. The study of prejudice often becomes individualised, with social structures under-emphasised. Our results indicate that people should recognise negative attitudes as a social problem, not merely an individual problem (although it is also an individual problem). In this study, education did make a difference, as did political orientation. However, in taking into account the wider social picture, we cannot overlook the variables that affected attitudes toward Indigenous people and issues at an individual level: false beliefs and national identity. Thus, both social and psychological issues are relevant.

The second major finding - and in our view the most important from a practical viewpoint - was that a large proportion of the Perth community expressed negative attitudes toward asylum seekers which appear to be largely based in false beliefs. Given this very strong relationship, it would appear that a lot of work on preventing misconceptions about asylum seekers is necessary before Australia can call itself a just and accepting multicultural society. To do this, we need bottom-up strategies (i.e., individual people speaking up) and also top-down strategies (the support of those in authority).


Batterham, D. (2001). Modern racism, reconciliation and attributions for disadvantage: A role for empathy and false beliefs? Paper presented at the 2nd Victorian Postgraduates in Psychology Conference, Swinburne University of Technology, 24th November, 2001.

Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (2002). Fact sheet on temporary protection visas. Retrieved from the Web on 19 June 2003.

Edmund Rice Centre for Justice and Community Education (2002). Debunking the myths about asylum seekers. In J. Healey (Ed.), Australia's Immigration Debate: Issues in Society (pp. 29-31). Rozelle: The Spinney Press.

Jones, J. J. (1997). Prejudice and racism. Sydney: McGraw-Hill.

Pedersen, A., Clarke, S.,. Dudgeon, P., & Griffiths, B. (in press). Attitudes toward Indigenous-Australians and asylum-seekers: The role of false beliefs. The Australian Psychologist.

Pedersen, A., & Griffiths, B. (2002). Project summary: Attitudes toward Indigenous-Australians: The effect of empathy, guilt, and social factors.

Refugee Council of Australia (2002). Myths about refugees. Retrieved from the Web 28/3/2002.