Asylum Discourse in New Zealand: Moral Panic and a Culture of Indifference

Rachel Bogen & Jay Marlowe

The publication of our paper occurs at a time of unprecedented movements and numbers of forced migrants totalling almost 60 million people. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees notes that in 2014 approximately 42,500 people were displaced each day.

More than a million Syrian refugees have come to Turkey in the last year alone. Almost one in four people in Lebanon are from a refugee background. Germany is preparing for an estimated 800,000 asylum seekers this year. And it is estimated that 7000 people entered Macedonia last Wednesday – nearly the equivalent of the total number of quota refugees that New Zealand has resettled in the last 10 years.

Last week, the New Zealand Government agreed to take an additional 600 Syrians above the usual 750 refugee annual intake over the next 2.5 years. Whilst this commitment is welcome, New Zealand lags behind many other countries in terms of the number of refugees it resettles on a per capita basis (less than 1 person per 1000) placing us about 88th in the world.

The New Zealand based media currently present the plight of asylum seekers coming to Europe on a daily basis and these global issues have even become part of the country’s political imagination and debate. Every political party now officially endorses an increase of our annual refugee quota with the exception of the governing National Party. It seems for the first time in a number of years that the lived experiences of and adversities faced by forced migrants have entered the public consciousness. How long this will continue, however, remains unclear.

The paper presented was accepted before the intense international debates about asylum had really begun. However, our basic premise remains the same. With the exception of the last several weeks, the issues around asylum and refugee settlement have largely been excluded from public and political debate. Few people can distinguish what the differences between a migrant, refugee and asylum seeker might be (along with other terms such as statelessness, internally displaced, trafficking, etc). The fact that New Zealand has no land based borders and is surrounded by the Tasman Sea means that it is ‘insulated’ from mass arrivals of asylum seekers by boat (note that a boat has never arrived) or other means. Such geography illustrates how our country can even afford to debate whether we increase our annual refugee quota by several hundred people or not.

Our paper maintains that recent law changes in New Zealand allowing for the detention of a “mass arrival” of asylum seekers reflect a concerning international rhetoric and associated policy trend in Australia and the United Kingdom towards those seeking asylum. This paper argues that, although the New Zealand public has not (yet) reached a “moral panic” that is prevalent within international contexts, there are concerns about a “culture of indifference” in relation to asylum seekers. By providing a policy analysis about asylum seekers and an examination on the associated discourses utilised in international contexts, this discussion presents the New Zealand context through the process of risk signification. The paper discusses how the social work profession can respond to this culture of indifference through addressing collusion (often through silence) with oppressive asylum policies, the need for stronger advocacy and action, and the associated role of social work education.

Bogen, R., & Marlowe, J. (2015). Asylum discourse in New Zealand: Moral panic and a culture of indifference. Australian Social Work, 1-12. doi:10.1080/0312407x.2015.1076869 Read the full paper here


Jay Marlowe is a senior lecturer in the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work, University of Auckland, New Zealand. Jay has received a Marsden grant to continue his extensive research into the resettlement and experiences of refugees in New Zealand. The Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, is recognised as the blue ribbon standard for research funding and this is the first time that a refugee-focused study has been awarded a grant with funding of this scale.

Titled, “Resettled but not reunited: refugees and transnational belonging through digital media”, Jay’s study will focus on how refugees can now freely (re)engage with their global networks as increasingly affordable and accessible Internet streaming transcends well-defined territorial borders with overseas family and friends.

“The research will provide new knowledge about how resettled refugees reconnect with their transnational networks through social media,” Jay says.

Rachel Bogen has been a postgraduate student and researcher in the school.

About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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