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Can We Make a Difference? Prejudice Towards Asylum Seekers in Australia and the Effectiveness of Antiprejudice Interventions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 March 2015

Anne Pedersen*
School of Psychology and Exercise Science, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
Lisa K. Hartley
Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
Address for correspondence: Anne Pedersen, School of Psychology, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150, Australia. Email:


Over the past few decades, Australia has implemented increasingly restrictive measures to try and deter the arrival of asylum seekers. In our article, we review what is known in the literature about the antecedents of prejudice against asylum seekers. We outline 11 mechanisms, or variables, as being particularly important. We then draw out the practical implications as they relate to antiprejudice interventions. Within the research and implications, we discuss our own experiences of working directly with asylum seekers over the past decade and in running antiprejudice interventions. We conclude that even though the situation is bleak in Australia at the time of writing this article (at the end of 2014), we must continue with attempts to combat the demonisation of asylum seekers both on an individual level and a structural level.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2015 

Although there is a great deal of negativity about asylum seekers in the Australian community (Markus, Reference Markus2013), not all Australians feel this way (Gosden, Reference Gosden2012; Pedersen & Fozdar, Reference Pedersen and Fozdar2010). For example, there are a small band of asylum-seeker advocates and activists who have fought against the harsh regime — some for years (Godsen, Reference Gosden2012). This is the case even given the fact that the stressors involved in this movement are great (Surawski, Pedersen, & Briskman, Reference Surawski, Pedersen and Briskman2008). We argue that that the community — or elements of it — can change the system (e.g., Pedersen, Kenny, Briskman, & Hoffman, Reference Pedersen, Kenny, Briskman and Hoffman2008), and some advocates have tackled this by way of antiprejudice interventions, believing that a bottom-up approach may be useful. However, we believe that it is important to base any interventions on research. Community psychology researchers argue that community action is more effective when it is integrated with and informed by research (e.g., Dalton, Elias, & Wandersman, Reference Dalton, Elias and Wandersman2007).

In our article, we look at how attitudes towards asylum seekers might be changed more positively. To do this, we look at the research — both domestic and international — examining the correlates of prejudice against asylum seekers. We extend the excellent Australian review conducted by Haslam and Holland (Reference Haslam, Holland., Bretherton and Balvin2012) by updating the research and focusing on antiprejudice interventions and the general guidelines of antiprejudice by Pedersen, Walker, Paradies, and Guerin (Reference Pedersen, Walker, Paradies and Guerin2011). We also incorporate our experience of working with asylum seekers and on asylum-seeker issues. Both authors have been working with asylum seekers in and out detention for over a decade and have been researching issues relating to asylum seekers during that time. We hope that this review may help antiprejudice practitioners in their efforts to reduce prejudice towards asylum seekers. We outline 11 major mechanisms, specifically, rebutting false beliefs, not automatically assuming that participants who are negative about asylum seekers are simply racist, choosing emotions wisely, noting the importance of values, acknowledging similarity and difference between asylum seekers and the wider Australian community, the importance of consensus or social norms, the perception of threat, high levels of nationalism, dehumanisation, Islamophobia, and contact.

Australian Political Context

As touched on above, Australia has a troubling history when it comes to people seeking asylum in Australia. For more than 20 years, Australia has implemented increasingly restrictive measures to try to deter the arrival of asylum seekers. Since 1992, this has included a policy of mandatorily detaining all asylum seekers who arrive without a valid visa. The vast majority of such arrivals were asylum seekers arriving by boat. Between 1996 and 2007, under the Coalition government, further policies designed to deter and punish the arrival of asylum seekers by boat were implemented (see Fleay, Reference Fleay2010). These included the expansion of detention centres in remote locations within Australia, and offshore on Nauru and Manus Island, and the introduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) to all asylum seekers who could access Australia's refugee protection procedures and were found to be refugees (Briskman, Latham, & Goddard, Reference Briskman, Latham and Goddard2008; Hartley, Pedersen, Fleay, & Hoffman, Reference Hartley, Pedersen, Fleay and Hoffman2013). The then Prime Minister John Howard's quote, ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’ (Howard, Reference Howard2001), became the catch-cry of the conservative government.

When the Labor government were elected late in 2007, they adopted a national platform that included a call for asylum-seeker policies that were more humane (Fleay, Reference Fleay2010), and soon after the election they removed TPVs (Hartley et al., Reference Hartley, Pedersen, Fleay and Hoffman2013). However, as increasing (albeit relatively small compared to other countries) numbers of boats of asylum seekers began to reach Australian shores in mid-2012, the Labor government began to abandon its commitment to more humane asylum-seeker policies and brought back more punitive policies, such as offshore processing and the continued use of immigration detention in Australia. This was despite the fact that offshore processing, even more than onshore processing, involves refugee human rights violations (Briskman, Reference Briskman2012; Isaacs, Reference Isaacs2014).

Since the Coalition government regained power in 2013, asylum-seeker policy has become progressively more punitive. This has included the implementation of a militarised operation called ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ (Cameron, Reference Cameron2013; Weber, Reference Weber2013), which has involved Australian naval personnel turning back 429 asylum seekers on 15 boats, mostly to Indonesia (Medhora & Doherty, Reference Medhora and Doherty2015) and prevented the arrival of 45 other boats with the assistance of authorities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (Griffith, Reference Griffith2014). Other measures include denying access to family reunion for refugees who arrived by boat until they become Australian citizens, and denying asylum seekers who arrived by boat access to government-funded legal assistance. Most recently, the government passed a controversial bill that includes the reintroduction of TPVs, the removal of asylum seekers’ access to independent reviews of their refugee claims, and the stripping of references to the United Nations Refugee Convention in domestic law (Morton, Reference Morton2014). Australia has been recently criticised for human rights violations with regard to asylum seekers (Human Rights Watch, 2015); as they said, the Australian government has failed to ‘respect international standards protecting asylum seekers and refugees’ (p. 75).

There is strong evidence that punitive-based policies harm asylum seekers. For example, research indicates that TPVs are extremely damaging for people's mental health (e.g., Davidson, Murray, & Schweitzer, Reference Davidson, Murray and Schweitzer2008). Furthermore, the negative impact of immigration detention on the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers is well established (e.g., Silove, Phillips, & Steel, Reference Silove, Phillips and Steel2010). Other research highlights this (Briskman et al., Reference Briskman, Latham and Goddard2008; Coffey, Kaplan, Sampson, & Tucci, Reference Coffey, Kaplan, Sampson and Tucci2010). In essence, the implementation of punitive policies means punishing asylum seekers who have already reached Australia by boat in an attempt to prevent others reaching our shores. As noted by Hartley and Fleay (Reference Hartley and Fleay2014), this constitutes policy as punishment rather than an attempt to deal with asylum seekers in line with our obligations under international law.

There has also been a great deal of negative media coverage of asylum seekers who attempt to arrive to Australia by boat (McKay, Thomas, & Blood, Reference McKay, Thomas and Blood2011; Sulaiman-Hill, Thompson, Afsar, & Hodliffe, Reference Sulaiman-Hill, Thompson, Afsar and Hodliffe2011). Linked to this, political discourse is also often harsh (Rowe & O’Brien, Reference Rowe and O’Brien2014). Some research finds a link between prejudice against asylum seekers and political rhetoric, especially by conservative governments (Pedersen, Watt, & Hansen, Reference Pedersen, Watt and Hansen2006; Suhnan, Pedersen, & Hartley, Reference Suhnan, Pedersen and Hartley2012). Indeed, evidence suggests that many people in the Australian community are prejudiced towards asylum seekers and support the implementation of even harsher asylum policy (Dorling, Reference Dorling2014). A recent study by Markus (Reference Markus2013) found that fewer than one in five respondents agreed that asylum seekers arriving by boat who are found to be refugees should be eligible for permanent settlement. He notes that this represents an increase in negative sentiment since 2011. He also found that there was little understanding of why asylum seekers try to come to Australia by boat; the most common reason given was that they were coming ‘for a better life’ (p. 40). This belief is in direct contrast to the figures provided by the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) on protection claims finalised over the past 5 years, which highlight that the vast majority of asylum seekers who arrived by boat have been found to be refugees (DIBP, 2013).

Antiprejudice Intervention Mechanisms

Before commencing any antiprejudice intervention, there needs to be a very clear definition of terms by practitioners. Our research indicates that participants very often do not know the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker. This needs to be elucidated at the very beginning of any intervention and is something that is invariably re-examined throughout. Then, throughout the intervention, we attempt to consider the following 11 major mechanisms.

1. Information or Rebutting False Beliefs

There are a large number of false beliefs, or myths, about asylum seekers to Australia. We describe three very common myths; specifically, the illegality of seeking asylum, asylum seekers are queue jumpers, and that asylum seekers are safe in countries such as Indonesia.Footnote 1

The illegality of seeking asylum is a common myth. In fact, Markus (Reference Markus2013) found that it was the most common theme in his survey of Australian community members. A number of other research studies have similarly found this belief to be common among community attitudes (e.g., McKay, Thomas, & Kneebone, Reference McKay, Thomas and Kneebone2012). Yet it is not illegal to seek asylum; in fact, most ‘illegals’ are British and US visa overstayers (Wilson, Reference Wilson2012). As argued by Cameron (Reference Cameron2013), asylum seekers are portrayed as the aggressor rather than people desperately needing asylum. The political rhetoric reported through the media has played on this myth (Klocker & Dunn, Reference Klocker and Dunn2003; Pedersen et al., Reference Pedersen, Watt and Hansen2006).

Another very common myth is that asylum seekers are queue jumpers (Pedersen, Attwell, & Heveli, Reference Pedersen, Attwell and Heveli2005; Pedersen et al., Reference Pedersen, Watt and Hansen2006). The notion of a queue jumper rests of the idea that there is ‘the right way’ to come to Australia: to join in a ‘queue’ in a refugee camp and waiting to be resettled to a third country. However, this idea does not reflect the reality of refugee movements or international law. First, international law does not require refugees to seek asylum in the first country they reach (McAdam, Reference McAdam2013a). Second, when one looks at the countries in Australia's region, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, and the travel routes that asylum seekers take, it is readily apparent that those en route from countries such as Iraq, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan cannot claim protection in a country that has ratified the United Nations Refugee Convention unless and until they reach Australia (McAdam, Reference McAdam2013a). Third, the number of refugees awaiting resettlement far exceeds the very few resettlement places that are available globally. This means the resettlement system works much more like a lottery than a queue (Refugee Council of Australia, n.d.). This perception of queue jumping also contributes to Australians feeling that the system is unfair. Language such as ‘illegal’ and ‘queue jumpers’ is important as it can influence the perception of asylum seekers as negative or positive (e.g., Augoustinos & Quinn, Reference Augoustinos and Quinn2003; Van Gorp, Vettehen, & Beentjes, Reference Van Gorp, Vettehen and Beentjes2009).

Another myth is that asylum seekers are safe when they arrive in Indonesia or Malaysia so travelling to Australia is unnecessary (Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, 2014; Hoffman, Reference Hoffman, Perera, Seal and Summers2010, Reference Hoffman2012). As highlighted above, unlike Australia, these countries are not signatories to the United Nations Refugee Convention and as such do not have the legal or administrative framework to provide for the protection of refugees (Mathew & Harley, Reference Mathew and Harley2014). This means that refugees are constantly vulnerable to being arrested and detained by authorities as they are considered to be ‘undocumented’ migrants. Detained refugees can be imprisoned and punished through whipping and deportation. They are also vulnerable to extortion (Mathew & Harley, Reference Mathew and Harley2014).

Accepting such myths as true is problematic on a range of levels. One very disturbing element of them is that the more prejudiced people are, the more they accept false information as being true (Suhnan et al., Reference Suhnan, Pedersen and Hartley2012). This relationship is likely to be bidirectional; if people are prejudiced, they are more likely to believe negative reports about asylum seekers. Yet somebody who does not have strong prejudiced attitudes to begin with can be influenced by what is seen by them as unfair. Thus, in any antiprejudice intervention, false beliefs must be dealt with. It is worth noting, however, that it is unlikely that simply giving information will turn around prejudice. As found by Gringart, Helmes, and Speelman (Reference Gringart, Helmes and Speelman2008), giving people accurate information about older people did not decrease negative attitudes towards them. Thus, giving information alone is not enough.

Indeed, as Guerin (Reference Guerin2003) argues, attempts to establish the ‘truth’ of a situation may be ineffective in itself as the ‘truth’ is not what the person in question is really interested in. In the asylum seeker context, it may simply be part of a bigger resentment about asylum seekers, and the myths simply back up their position. And, as found by Croston and Pedersen (2012), people who disagree with your view are likely to discredit the source of the information. But that does not mean that false beliefs should not be challenged.

There are so many myths that have been outlined in numerous online publications (e.g., Parliament of Australia, 2013); it is not possible to outline them all, so it is best for practitioners to give a few pertinent examples based on past research, such as those outlined in Croston and Pedersen (Reference Croston and Pedersen2013). It is also important to make the points as simple as possible; however, if somebody would like more information, point them in that direction. For example, the facts surrounding the myth of asylum seekers being ‘illegal immigrants’ is extremely complex. Asylum seekers are in fact ‘unlawful non-citizens’, which is not a criminal offence; it is often difficult for participants to differentiate between the two concepts. We find it more useful to concentrate on why many conservative politicians feel the need to call them this. One quote that we find useful is that of McAdam (Reference McAdam2013b), who says:

The opposition's use of the term ‘illegal’ is designed to tarnish people's perceptions about the legitimacy of asylum seekers’ claims. It is language that dehumanises and criminalises. Invoking it is either ignorant or deliberately mischievous, since the act of seeking asylum is not a crime, but the right of every individual.

Furthermore, when giving the information, it would be helpful to do so gently, so as not to make people defensive about their position (see point 3, Emotion). In our experience, a significant number of people firmly believe the myths and it is difficult for them to let go of these beliefs. We find it beneficial to stress that the false beliefs are in the common language of our country, and it is not surprising that many people are not aware of the true facts.

Given the complexity of the issues surrounding this area, and the fact that many antiprejudice practitioners may not have all the information at their fingertips, do not be afraid to say ‘I don't know — can I get back to you on that point’. We have found that intervention participants do not have a problem with this approach; however, they do have a problem with workshop leaders trying to bluff their way out of a difficult question.

Finally, our participants have informed us that it would be useful to be able to practise responses to myth busting and/or racist talk. Contradicting the people that you care about is often not easy to do; it can be very disruptive to social relations (Guerin, Reference Guerin2003; Nelson, Paradies, & Dunn, Reference Nelson, Paradies and Dunn2011). Guerin (Reference Guerin2003) further argues that when a person is combatting myths, it is helpful to frame replies in such a way that they incorporate stories instead of simply giving facts, as this often stops the conversation. Thus, having the tools to deal with addressing false beliefs — or prejudice/racism for that matter — would be very useful.

2. Negative Attitudes Towards Asylum Seekers Do Not Equate to Racism Alone

Community surveys indicate that there is a difference between how humanitarian (resettled) refugees and asylum seekers are perceived (Hartley & Pedersen, Reference Hartley and Pedersen2014; Markus, Reference Markus2013). Not only do Australians react with more prejudice to asylum seekers than humanitarian refugees, they also report higher levels of anger against asylum seekers, fear of them, and feelings of threat from them (Hartley & Pedersen, Reference Hartley and Pedersen2014). Similarly, Murray and Marx (Reference Murray and Marx2013) found that American participants reported more perceived realistic threat from ‘unauthorized immigrants’ (p. 336; in our words, ‘asylum seekers’) compared with authorised immigrants. Verkuyten (Reference Verkuyten2004) similarly found a difference between asylum seekers who were either political or economic asylum seekers. He found that sympathy effected a more lenient policy support for political asylum seekers, while anger predicted harsher policy support for economic asylum seekers.

Thus, to say that the negativity of many Australian people is down to ‘racism’ is not the full picture. If this was the case, there would have been no significant difference between the two groups in the above studies. Haslam and Holland (Reference Haslam, Holland., Bretherton and Balvin2012) note that people supportive of asylum seekers may rebuke the Australian community for racism or xenophobia. Although there is a kernel of truth in the ‘racism hypothesis’, by itself it is an unsatisfactory and simplistic explanation when examining individual attitudes. However, this does not mean that there is no individual or structural racism involved in the treatment of asylum seekers. There undoubtedly is (see Pedersen, Clarke, Dudgeon, & Griffiths, Reference Pedersen, Clarke, Dudgeon and Griffiths2005).

As will be elaborated upon below, we have found in our antiprejudice interventions that it is less than useful to accuse participants of being racist. People often switch off in these circumstances and do not absorb what is being discussed. Other authors have made a similar point. For example, Guerin (Reference Guerin2005, p. 49) argues that talking about ‘racists’ and ‘racism’ is essentially just like racist talk. That is, it involves positing that there are particular characteristics of an individual or a group (‘blacks are violent’, ‘racists are bad’). Indeed, as he suggests, ‘racists’ are a diverse group too. Instead, Guerin suggests that people look at the context of racist behaviour. Furthermore, the vast majority of people do not see themselves as being racist. Research from the Challenging Racism Project found that across Australian states/territories, 8% of approximately 12,000 respondents in phone surveys reported themselves as racist compared with 83% who acknowledged that racism exists in Australia (Dunn, Forrest, Burnley & McDonald, Reference Dunn, Forrest, Burnley and McDonald2004).

3. Emotion

The emotions that practitioners attempt to tap into and attend to during the intervention need critical thought. There are a number of different emotions linked with prejudice against asylum seekers, and we discuss four that we have found to be important in antiprejudice interventions (guilt, empathy, fear and anger).

Collective guilt about asylum seekers has been found to correlate with support for a more lenient asylum-seeker policy (Hartley & Pedersen, Reference Hartley and Pedersen2007). However, this does not mean that setting out to make participants in an intervention feel guilty will work. Indeed, previous research suggests that guilt is a self-focused emotion (Leach, Snider, & Iyer, Reference Leach, Snider, Iyer, Walker and Smith2002). It is further argued (Iyer, Leach, & Crosby, Reference Iyer, Leach and Crosby2003) that guilt only works with restitution policies (e.g., monetary compensation) as this restores feelings of decency for the outgroup's predicament. We also argue that guilt can be counterproductive in trying to shift opinions (Pedersen et al., Reference Pedersen, Paradies, Hartley and Dunn2011); similarly, shaming people is likely to be ineffective (e.g., Every, Reference Every2013).

Research finds that empathy (both dispositional empathy and empathy specific to asylum seekers) is linked with decreased prejudice (Pedersen & Thomas, Reference Pedersen and Thomas2013). Empathy is also related to support for more lenient policy regarding asylum seekers (Hartley & Pedersen, Reference Hartley and Pedersen2007). Thus, it would be beneficial for antiprejudice practitioners to show the human face of asylum seekers in any intervention. It is likely that longer interventions are more useful than short ones. As found by Spiteri (Reference Spiteri2013), empathy for asylum seekers did not develop immediately. This is the authors’ experience also.

Much thoughtful discussion is often necessary for empathy to grow. One powerful way in which this can be done is through sharing asylum-seeker stories (see also point 11, Contact, below). As Malin (Reference Malin1999) puts it, have participants ‘walk in somebody else's shoes’. Our preference would be — linked to the preceding paragraph — to take a relatively ‘gently-gently’ approach; in other words, not shaming or humiliating people in an attempt to make them ‘walk in the shoes’ of marginalised groups. We are aware that other people use other approaches (e.g., Jane Elliot's famous blue-eye/brown eye experiments). We are simply saying this is our preference, based on both the existing research and our experience.

Linked with the previous section on false beliefs, it is important to deal with people's fears about asylum seekers: real or perceived. For example, when a number of asylum seekers were first housed at the South Australian Inverbrackie Alternative Place of Detention, there were grave concerns by many of the residents at Inverbrackie. However, researchers found that with the detention centre came an increase in employment and an increase in local expenditure. Furthermore, there was no reduction to either access health care or the services themselves, and prejudice levels decreased (Every et al., Reference Every, Whetton, Rainbird, Abdul-Halim, Procter, Thompson and Sebben2013).

In another study, people who were more prejudiced against asylum seekers also had a higher fear of terrorism (Pedersen, Watt, & Griffiths, Reference Pedersen, Watt, Griffiths, Colic-Peisker and Tilbury2007). However, no asylum seeker has ever been convicted of terrorism charges, although at the end of 2014 there were approximately 40 primarily Tamil refugees suspected of involvement with a terrorist organisation being held in indefinite detention without any terrorism charges being brought against them (see Saul, Reference Saul2012). With respect to the relationship between prejudice and the fear of terrorism, asylum seekers are not given protection if they do not pass rigorous security checks (DIBP, 2013).

Information to address perceptions such as these may help to allay people's fears. As a result, attitudes may become more positive.

Anger against what is seen as a ‘lenient’ asylum-seeker system has been found to relate to support for restrictive policy regarding asylum seekers (Hartley & Pedersen, Reference Hartley and Pedersen2014). Thus, antiprejudice interventions need to be aware in advance that levels of anger may be relatively high (on both sides of the political fence). As many practitioners know, having hecklers in the audience or classroom setting can be disruptive and this is worse when one is unprepared. It is a challenge indeed to achieve a balance in this regard, as free speech is also important. If the practitioner is unaware of the grievances of participants, they cannot be dealt with. However, in our experience, most interventions involve participants from all walks of life, not simply the mainstream ‘white’ population. Too much ‘free speech’ has the potential of being extremely hurtful to participants of marginalised groups.

In short, a number of emotions are important predictors of both prejudice and support for restrictive asylum seeker policy. It is our view that it is better to concentrate on emotions such as empathy; as noted, attacking people who have a prejudiced view is likely to backfire (Pedersen et al., Reference Pedersen, Paradies, Hartley and Dunn2011). Similarly, Every (Reference Every2008) believes that it is more beneficial to be reasonable and moderate. We acknowledge that this is sometimes easier said than done.

4. Values

Research finds that one's personal values play a very large role in attitudes towards asylum seekers. For example, one study using the function of attitude literature found that values were the most important reason people gave as to why they held the attitudes they had about asylum seekers — both positive and negative attitudes (Pedersen, Watt, & Griffiths, Reference Pedersen, Watt, Griffiths, Babacan and Gopalkrishnan2008). In other words, their attitudes were linked with deeply held values and beliefs, such as how they believed people should behave towards one another and/or their beliefs upholding principles of justice in Australia.

It may be useful for antiprejudice strategists to target people's more positive values. For example, with respect to taking action against prejudice, Plous (Reference Plous2000) suggests that you could target the offender's egalitarian self-image where possible; for example, ‘I’m surprised to hear you say that, because I’ve always thought of you as someone who is very open-minded’. In a recent Australian study (Pedersen & Thomas, Reference Pedersen and Thomas2013), there were two primary themes noted by participants that we suggest antiprejudice strategists could use in interventions. The first was an acknowledgment of Australians’ privilege: we are able to walk down the street without being bombed and to generally keep our families safe. The second theme related to our common humanity (also see Nickerson & Louis, Reference Nickerson and Louis2008) and the importance given to family. Regardless of our cultural background, love of family is universal (also see Goodman, Reference Goodman2007).

5. Emphasising Similarity and Difference

Related to the previous mechanism, as Pedersen and Thomas (Reference Pedersen and Thomas2013) note, it is important to discuss differences between different social groups as well as similarities (see also Pedersen et al., 2011). In a British study, it was found that emphasising both similarities between groups as well as differences was influential in an increase in positive attitudes (Cameron, Rutland, Brown, & Douch, Reference Cameron, Rutland, Douch and Brown2006). Trying to assume that ‘we are all the same’ is impractical, as well as factually problematic. For example, people from a refugee background are often subject to particular traumas in their pre- and post-migration journeys that many people in the mainstream community are not subject to. Of course, while some Australians will suffer traumas such as these, they are not the usual experience of most Australians. We believe that it is important that these differences are acknowledged.

6. Consensus

Research finds that prejudice is significantly linked with perceived levels of consensus — the higher the prejudice against asylum seekers, the more people believe that other people share their views. These views are not accurate; research finds that non-prejudiced people are more likely to able to accurately estimate the level of support of their opinion in the community (Pedersen, Griffiths, & Watt, Reference Pedersen, Griffiths and Watt2008). This finding has been replicated across other cultural groups; for example, Indigenous Australians (Watt & Larkin, Reference Watt and Larkin2010), and with regard to asylum seeker policy (Hartley & Pedersen, Reference Hartley and Pedersen2006). Another study found a positive relationship between prejudice and perceived cultural norms to reduce the number of asylum seekers (Louis, Duck, Terry, Schuller, & Lalonde, Reference Louis, Duck, Terry, Schuller and Lalonde2007).

We have found in our interventions that a relatively common criticism directed at antiprejudice practitioners is: ‘You academics are stuck in your ivory tower — the rest of the community doesn't agree with you.’ It is worth mentioning to participants who espouse this view that the research finds that people who are highly negative about asylum seekers are likely to overestimate the prevalence of their views. As found by Czopp, Monteith, and Mark (Reference Czopp, Monteith and Mark2006), when racist people are confronted with their views, this successfully reduces the likelihood of prejudiced and stereotypic responses at a later date. In short, giving intervention participants the correct consensus information may prove beneficial. Indeed, one participant in one of our projects said that the consensus information given was the most powerful information that she took away from the unit. Having said that, we find that different information affects people in different ways. This stresses the need not to use one strategy or tap into one mechanism alone.

7. Threat

A number of studies have shown the relationship between the perception of threat and prejudice towards asylum seekers. For example, both perceived realistic threat (such as threat to the economy) and perceived symbolic threat (such as threat to community values) related to prejudice against asylum seekers, although realistic threat was the stronger predictor of the two (Schweitzer, Perkoulidis, Krome, Ludlow, & Ryan, Reference Schweitzer, Perkoulidis, Krome, Ludlow and Ryan2005). Another study found a significant relationship between instrumental and structural threat with three measures. Specifically, the perception of threat was linked with behavioural intentions to reduce the number of asylum seekers, prejudice against asylum seekers, and willingness to speak out about asylum-seeker issues and vote with that issue in mind (Louis et al., Reference Louis, Duck, Terry, Schuller and Lalonde2007). Murray and Marx (Reference Murray and Marx2013) found that realistic, symbolic threat and anxiety predicted prejudice against asylum seekers. Suhnan et al. (Reference Suhnan, Pedersen and Hartley2012) found that symbolic and ‘realistic’ threat factored into one threat scale, and this scale correlated positively with prejudice against asylum seekers (Suhnan et al., Reference Suhnan, Pedersen and Hartley2012).

The perception of threat is a vexing and contradicting issue. Asylum seekers are often perceived as being in competition for scarce resources (Schuster, Reference Schuster2003), which relates to perceptions that they are a ‘realistic’ threat. On the one hand, asylum seekers and refugees have been accused of taking the jobs of ordinary Australians (Refugee Council of Australia, n.d.). Yet evidence suggests that asylum seekers and refugees are less likely to secure ‘good jobs’ (Junankarand & Mahuteau, Reference Junankarand and Mahuteau2005), with one third of employed refugees working as labourers, which is three times the rate of the general population (Hugo, 2012). Other low-paid, low-skilled, and low-status labour markets where refugees tend to gain employment include security and meat processing (Fozdar & Hartley, Reference Fozdar. and Hartley2013). One such example was the meatworks in Young, New South Wales. Here, the regional economy boomed as a result of the arrival of Afghan refugees from the Hazara ethnic group (Stilwell, Reference Stilwell2003). While it is true that newly arrived refugees have higher unemployment rates and a lower earning rate that other immigrants, it is important to note that second generation refugees have higher levels of labour market participation than the general population (Hugo, Reference Hugo2011). This aside, there are many reasons for higher unemployment rates in the initial period (see Fozdar & Hartley, Reference Fozdar. and Hartley2013, for a review) and they need to be discussed in any antiprejudice intervention. As noted by Hugo (Reference Hugo2011), a lack of work experience and referees, a lack of English proficiency, and mental health issues relating to pre- and post-migration experiences can impede employment prospects. Furthermore, prejudice and discrimination faced by employers is another significant barrier (see Colic Peisker & Tilbury, Reference Colic Peisker and Tilbury2006). Of course, these economic issues are a simplified analysis of the issue; they are all linked with ideology.

In contradiction of the above, another common misperception relating to perceptions of ‘realistic’ threat is that refugees receive more welfare support than Australian pensioners. This is factually incorrect and should be discussed in an antiprejudice intervention. Currently, asylum seekers who have been released from immigration detention and live in the Australian community while they wait for their refugee claims to be proceeded, receive minimal financial support, equivalent to 89% the lowest rate of unemployment benefits. This rate is only 55% of the amount calculated as the Henderson Poverty Line (Hartley & Fleay, Reference Hartley and Fleay2014). For some 24,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat from August 2012 to July 2013 and who now live in the Australian community, until December 2014 were also denied the right to work, fostering a life of poverty and despair (Hartley & Fleay, Reference Hartley and Fleay2014).Footnote 2 In this regard, highlighting the extremely difficult financial and mental hardships asylum seekers face while living in the Australian community would be important to integrate into an intervention.

It is worth mentioning the exorbitant cost of Australia's deterrent-based policies. According to the 2014 Report of the National Commission of Audit, it costs $239,000 a year to keep one asylum seeker detained in mainland detention centres and more than $400,000 to detain an asylum seeker in offshore detention. By contrast, it costs less than $100,000 a year to hold an asylum seeker in community detention and less than $50,000 for them to live in the community on a bridging visa while they wait for their claims to be processed. While there is no research that investigates discussion about the costs associated with punitive policies as a way of shifting attitudes, it may be an important point to make, as appealing to people's compassion alone does not appear to have worked.

With respect to the relationship between symbolic threat and prejudice, how to deal with this is multifaceted. One place to start may be to provide accurate information on this point. For example, many people believe that Australia receives many more asylum seekers compared to other Western nations (Croston & Pedersen, Reference Croston and Pedersen2013). This is not the case and may add to people's fears about losing Australia's identity. Furthermore, as noted previously, it is important not only to discuss the differences between people seeking asylum and settled Australians, but the similarities of all people. The issue of perceived threat is clearly a complicated issue to deal with in any antiprejudice intervention and again, is linked to giving accurate information. It is clearly a source of great concern to many Australians, regardless of the accuracy of such fear.

8. Nationalism

Research indicates that people who have very high levels of Australian nationalism are more prejudiced against asylum seekers. However, there are some exceptions with respect to other marginalised groups; for example, one study found that nationalism correlated with modern prejudice against Indigenous Australians but not with old-fashioned prejudice (Pedersen & Walker, Reference Pedersen and Walker1997). Another study found no bivariate correlation between nationalism and attitudes towards immigrants; instead, the relationship was indirect through other variables (e.g., the belief that a group can only benefit at the expense of other groups; dehumanisation; contempt and lack of admiration; Louis, Esses, & Lalonde, Reference Louis, Esses and Lalonde2013).

However, other research finds that people who report being high in nationalism also score high on prejudice against asylum seekers (e.g., Pedersen et al., Reference Pedersen, Attwell and Heveli2005). In another study, it was found that support for harsh policy about asylum seekers was related to high levels of nationalism (Verkuyten, Reference Verkuyten2004). Fozdar, Spittles, and Hartley (Reference Fozdar, Spittles and Hartley2014) recently found that nationalism was significantly linked to flying the Australian flag on one's car on Australia Day. Furthermore, flag-flyers also scored high on prejudice against asylum seekers, Muslim Australians, and Indigenous Australians. The relationship between prejudice and nationalism is stronger when people believe that the community feels the outgroup is a hostile force (Nickerson & Louis, Reference Nickerson and Louis2008), which links in with the ‘consensus’ section outlined above.

What this implies with regard to antiprejudice interventions is that the issue of nationalism is complicated and that a full discussion about what it means to be Australian would be beneficial. There are many ways that nationalism can be looked at. For example, some research differentiates between nationalism (the belief that one's county is superior) and patriotism (pride in country without the need to derogate outgroups; Li & Brewer, Reference Li and Brewer2004). Similarly, other research differentiates between nationalist attachment (this involves being attached to ingroup members but can involve criticism of such) and glorification (this involves rejecting outgroups) (Roccas, Klar, & Liviatan, Reference Roccas, Klar and Liviatan2006). Bernden, Thomas, and Pedersen (Reference Bernsden, Thomas and Pedersen2014) found that while attachment did not relate to prejudice against asylum seekers, there was a significant positive relationship between glorification and prejudice. A similar pattern was found with the two forms of nationalism and collective action intention on behalf of asylum seekers. In short, there are a number of different ‘nationalisms’ that can be exclusive of asylum seekers or inclusive (Every & Augoustinos, Reference Every and Augoustinos2007), so the ‘baby’ — nationalism — should not be thrown out with the bathwater. Having pride in one's country does not need to exclude other groups and this should be discussed within any intervention.

9. Islamophobia

Asylum seekers come from a range of nationalities and religions. While some recent asylum seekers are Muslim — for example, the Hazaras from Afghanistan — many are not. Many asylum seekers who have arrived in recent years are Tamils from Sri Lanka, who tend to be Hindu or Christian rather than Muslim. Yet asylum seekers are often perceived to be Muslim (Haslam & Holland, Reference Haslam, Holland., Bretherton and Balvin2012), so Islamophobia is another vexing related issue. Indeed, there is a significant correlation between prejudice towards asylum seekers and prejudice towards Muslim Australians (e.g., Pedersen, Reference Pedersen2010). Similar to the problem that many people over-estimate the amount of asylum seekers that Australia receives, there is a misconception about how many Muslim Australians there are. Safi (Reference Safi2014) reports that Australians think there are nine times more Muslims in Australia than is really the case.

We once again return to the issues of providing correct information — this time about Muslims (see Edmund Rice Centre, 2006). It is well documented that a significant proportion of Australians have negative views about Muslims (e.g., Dunn, Klocker, & Salabay, Reference Dunn, Klocker and Salabay2007) and this number has increased since 9/11 (Sheridan, Reference Sheridan2006). However, some Australians limit these views to extremist Muslims (and non-Muslims, for that matter; Pedersen & Hartley, Reference Pedersen and Hartley2012). Thus, in an antiprejudice intervention, it would be helpful to talk about what it means to be Muslim, the diversity of Muslims in Australia, and the myths associated with Islam.

10. Dehumanisation

Asylum seekers are often seen as less than human (Haslam & Pedersen, Reference Haslam, Pedersen, Lusher and Haslam2007) and this is encouraged by a great deal of the political rhetoric in the media (Rowe & O’Brien, Reference Rowe and O’Brien2014; see also Esses, Medianu, & Lawson, Reference Esses, Medianu and Lawson2013; Esses, Veenvliet & Hodson, Reference Esses, Veenvliet, Hodson and Mihic2008, with regard to media representations of asylum seekers). For example, in an analysis of representations of asylum seekers in Australia, the media was found to regularly show asylum seekers as large groups, with a focus on boats, as opposed to individuals (Bleiker, Campbell, Hutchison, & Nicholson, Reference Bleiker, Campbell, Hutchison and Nicholson2013). Similarly, newspapers have been found to actively dehumanise asylum seekers, frequently referring to them as ‘illegals’ and the like (Klocker & Dunn, Reference Klocker and Dunn2003).

A powerful example of political leaders and the media dehumanising asylum seekers was the ‘Children Overboard’ scandal, when the Howard government asserted (falsely) that there was evidence that asylum seekers to Australia threw their children over the side of the boat just before the 2001 election. An example of a media headlines was ‘Overboard: Boat People Thrown Children Into Ocean’, and John Howard was quoted as saying ‘I don't want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don't do that’ (Marr & Wilkinson, Reference Marr and Wilkinson2003, p. 189). In these two sentences, asylum seekers are collectively demonised and dehumanised: no decent human being would do such an act, which in fact they did not. There are many examples of statements by Howard government ministers framing asylum seekers as ‘not one of us’, and thus dehumanising them. For example, alongside Howard portraying asylum seekers as being people who throw their children overboard, they were people that we did not want here as Australians were compassionate and humane people (Papastergiadis, Reference Papastergiadis2004). This government was perceived as being a strong government and it could be argued that this helped them win the federal election. There was also a policy that involved keeping the human face of asylum seekers from the press (Marr & Wilkinson, Reference Marr and Wilkinson2003).

Unfortunately, this dehumanisation did not end with the previous Coalition government. As Cameron (Reference Cameron2013) argues, there are significant similarities between the two major political parties when examining their rhetoric about asylum seekers. This process of dehumanisation has also been found to be involved in organisations that work with asylum seekers in detention. For example, some of the guards at offshore detention centres call asylum seekers by their number rather than their name (Isaacs, Reference Isaacs2014). Images of World War II concentration camps come to mind. Following on from this, often the press does not show asylum seekers as human beings needing assistance (there are exceptions, of course — for example, journalists such as Phillip Adams and David Marr). Given that the press often cites government sources, this is not surprising. Haslam and Holland (Reference Haslam, Holland., Bretherton and Balvin2012) explain the psychological purpose of dehumanisation thus:

Dehumanisation can serve a number of psychological functions, such as legitimating harsh policies and distancing the self from other people's misery. By perceiving asylum seekers as lacking human qualities, morally questionable behaviour towards them can be seen as justified and appropriate. If they are less human than us, then normal moral restraints do not apply and the sorts of punitive and coercive treatment that we usually reserve for animals can be meted out without compunction. In addition to rationalising harsh treatment, by dehumanising asylum seekers we can protect ourselves from the full empathic comprehension of their suffering. (p. 117)

Indeed, research does find a relationship between dehumanisation and prejudice (Esses et al., Reference Esses, Veenvliet, Hodson and Mihic2008). Other research finds that prejudice against asylum seekers is linked with moral disengagement, which could link with dehumanisation. Bartlett (Reference Bartlett2014) found that moral disengagement was significantly related to prejudice and harsh policy stance. Greenhalgh, Watt, and Schutte (Reference Greenhalgh, Watt and Schutte2014) found a significant correlation between moral disengagement and prejudice. The relationship between moral disengagement and prejudice in these two Australian studies is strong and consistent.

So, how does this affect antiprejudice interventions? We would suggest that it is very important to humanise asylum seekers. This links in with the emotion section above (point 3); in particular, empathy. In our experience, although providing accurate information is part of the challenge, attitude change appears more profound when people can relate to the personal stories. As refugee advocates for some time, both of the authors often use humanising stories and, where appropriate, invite former asylum seekers to talk with the participants. However, we note that many people who have gone through the detention process simply want to get on with their lives rather than relive it in antiprejudice interventions. We have also found that some refugees would prefer the general public not to know that they came by boat; they know how harsh community attitudes often are about asylum seekers, and they do not want the stress involved in explaining themselves or their decisions. There are other options rather than refugees speaking to participants directly, and we cover this in more detail in the following section.

11. Contact

We have suggested that humanising asylum seekers is essential in antiprejudice interventions, and one way of doing this is through intergroup contact. The importance of contact has been known for at least 60 years. Allport's (Reference Allport1954) original contact hypothesis posited that there are four conditions necessary for contact between groups to reduce prejudice: equal status between groups, common goals, cooperation between the groups, and contact should be sanctioned by authorities. Indeed, Pettigrew and Tropp (Reference Pettigrew and Tropp2006) in their meta-analysis of prejudice/contact studies found that most studies (94%) showed a negative relationship between prejudice and contact; in other words, the more contact people had with ‘outgroups’, the less prejudice they reported.

As can be seen in the asylum-seeker situation, some conditions for attitudes to become more positive are simply not there. As noted above, successive Australian governments have sanctioned negative attitudes rather than positive ones through policy and political discourse. Also, unfortunately, recent research indicates that even though positive intergroup contact was three times more prevalent in the community than negative contact, negative contact was more influential (Graf, Paolini, & Rubin, Reference Graf, Paolini and Rubin2014).

These issues aside, contact can be helpful both in the school and community situation. Every et al. (Reference Every, Thompson, Rainbird, Whetton, Procter, Abdul-Halim and Sebben2014) investigated the impact of detention facilities in South Australia. They found that asylum seekers in the community, regardless of the hostile reaction when they first moved to the Adelaide Hills, created an enriched environment for school learning as well as positive experiences. Contact with an ex-asylum seeker also produced positive outcomes in a university educational intervention.

But there are other ‘contact’ options if the antiprejudice practitioner cannot introduce an asylum seeker, or ex-asylum seeker, to participants. One alternative is to show DVDs to the participants. For example, we have used the DVD Mary and Mohammad, which was a half-hour Compass story screened on October 13, 2013. This deals with an older Australian woman who at the outset is antagonistic towards asylum seekers and who meets a Hazara refugee (Mohammad) from Afghanistan. Her views turn around completely (Compass, 2013).

Are Antiprejudice Interventions Effective?

We have noted what we consider to be 11 important factors or mechanisms relating to prejudice against asylum seekers to Australia. However, little research has been conducted on the efficacy of interventions based on these antecedents of prejudice towards asylum seekers. This highlights the need for further research to evaluate the effectiveness of particular mechanisms and strategies. Nevertheless, there is some tentative evidence that interventions work — at least in the short term.

First, we consider some research on attitude change and children. In a British study, it was found that when children were told a story that involved extended contact with a refugee and were also encouraged to focus on a common ingroup identity (in this case, their school) as well as characters’ memberships in subgroups (in this case, refugee and English), positivity to refugees increased (Cameron et al., Reference Cameron, Rutland, Douch and Brown2006). In another study, schoolchildren who attended a school in Malta were introduced to a group of asylum-seeker children from Africa (Spitera, Reference Spiteri2013). Before the intervention, many students were hostile to asylum seekers. During the intervention, which involved meeting African asylum seekers, all students applied critical thought to the issue, expressed empathy for the asylum seekers, and appeared to be looking for ‘universal truths’, and not just comparing Malta with other countries (p. 53).

Positive results have also been found with adults. For example, asylum-seeker attitude change has been found in the university setting. Specifically, after a semester of teaching cross-cultural issues, one study found a significant increase in positivity towards asylum seekers (Pedersen, Paradies, Hartley, & Dunn, Reference Pedersen, Paradies, Hartley and Dunn2011). Also, participants were significantly more likely to speak out against prejudice; in particular, inaccurate information about refugees in the community (i.e., that refugees get more government largesse than pensioners). Positive outcomes have also been found in the community. For example, in one study, attitudes towards asylum seekers were assessed after a 5-week weekly seminar with a group of older Australians (average age 72 years; Hartley, Pedersen, & Dandy, Reference Hartley, Pedersen and Dandy2012). Results indicated an increase in positivity towards asylum seekers after an antiprejudice intervention using many of the principles outlined in this article. Furthermore, participants were asked whether the teaching principles (similar to those outlined in the present study) were seen as important. The participants said that all the principles were important and that they were followed by the lecturers. In one study outlined above (Pedersen et al., Reference Pedersen, Paradies, Hartley and Dunn2011), it was also found that positive attitudes relating to Muslim Australians can be increased through antiprejudice interventions; as noted previously, there is a conflation between ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘Muslim’.


Bringing together the above, we argue that there are benefits of basing interventions on research rather than what seems intuitive. Furthermore, it is not helpful to use just one strategy (e.g., giving information). As noted above, quite often the different strategies work in conjunction with one another (e.g., empathy with contact). In short, we need more than one strategy. Also, practitioners need to be strategic. Even though there are times when one feels the urge to confront participants with what we perceive are racist attitudes, the research indicates that this is less than helpful. We note, however, that it is sometimes very difficult to do this and we will not always be successful. We also suggest that short interventions are not as helpful as longer ones. There are times when the information is new and almost shocking to participants. We remember one student who seemed upset saying at the end of an intervention, ‘But why didn't I know?’ These interventions are difficult for many students, and the more time they have to process the information, the better. There are also questions that they may have as they are contemplating the issues, and having the option to ask the workshop leader this question in person can only be helpful. Changing prejudiced attitudes is not an easy task.

Another issue could be whether we have the right to try to change attitudes. Again, this is a vexed issue. However, as found by Habtegiorgis, Paradies, and Dunn (Reference Habtegiorgis, Paradies and Dunn2014), there is a direct relationship between racist attitudes and racial discrimination. Thus, we believe that any attempts to change prejudiced and racist attitudes for the better are morally sound. But what we would also argue is that it is not right, or constructive, to try to force attitude change (‘You must think as I think’). All we can do is to present an alternative to mainstream (often prejudiced) information to the participants and tell them that is what you are doing.

We acknowledge that we have concentrated on individual psychological attitude change. And that is important — especially if one believes as we do that not only do social structures affect individuals, but individuals can affect social structures (see also Bronfenbrenner, Reference Bronfenbrenner1979). However, it is very important to note that governments are implicated with regard to negative social norms about asylum seekers (Nickerson & Louis, Reference Nickerson and Louis2008; Pedersen et al., Reference Pedersen, Watt and Hansen2006). Indeed, a common thread through this review is the rhetoric of the government reported through the media, which is often negative and espouses false beliefs (e.g., Klocker & Dunn, Reference Klocker and Dunn2003). Having said that, there are journalists who speak out in support of asylum seekers; for example, Phillip Adams (see Pedersen & Fozdar, Reference Pedersen and Fozdar2010).

A large degree of power clearly rests with people with vested interests in keeping the asylum-seeker issues alive. For example, it is argued that asylum-seeker information, and misinformation are fed into electoral campaigns (Marr & Wilkinson, Reference Marr and Wilkinson2003). However, we are not completely powerless, although we may feel this way at times. We can use alternative social media such as Twitter and Facebook. While this is dismissed by some people like Prime Minister Tony Abbott as ‘electronic graffiti’ (Snowden, Reference Snowden2015), this will go some way to balancing anti-asylum seeker media differentials. One could join social networks such as church and faith groups, as well as larger organisations such as Amnesty International and NGOs. In essence, social change is needed, and individual attitude change is important. However, the asylum-seeker issue needs to be tackled from a number of angles.

Refugees contribute greatly to Australia (Refugee Council of Australia, n.d.; Hugo, Reference Hugo2011; Stilwell, Reference Stilwell2003), and this is more possible when they are welcomed by other Australians. The situation is somewhat bleak in Australia at the time of writing this article (at the end of 2014). However, we argue that we must continue with attempts to combat the demonisation of asylum seekers both on an individual level and a structural level. Indeed, the only other option is to do nothing and that situation is even more untenable than fighting the seemingly impossible.

We would like to end with this quote by Schuster (Reference Schuster2003):

At a time when ‘common sense’ dictates that borders must be controlled, it is incumbent on those who know how futile the exercise is, and the damage that it does, to speak out against these controls, to engage with the spurious arguments of governments and the — sometimes — genuine but ill-founded fears of the public. (p. 255)


We thank Eugene Arthurs and the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on an earlier draft, although we take full responsibility for the content of our paper.


1 For more information about myths, see Andrew Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law (n.d.) and Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (2014).

2 Legislative changes made on 5 December 2014 now make it possible for the Minister to grant work rights to asylum seekers living in the community while they await the outcome of their case. However the process for obtaining work rights is administratively difficult and thousands of asylum seekers are still yet to have had their bridging visa renewed which would formally grant the right to work.


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