Some Australians wrongly believe asylum seekers and refugees in this country are given a $10,000 lump sum, Nike shoes and preferential treatment for public housing, according to research that also found religious prejudice against Muslims is largely driving negative attitudes towards the newcomers.
The University of Melbourne study also revealed many people concerned about the “Islamisation” of Australia were “unshakably convinced” Muslims were universally overpowering Christian traditions, such as Christmas cards and the singing of carols in schools, despite having no such direct or second-hand experiences.
The qualitative research involved 10 focus group discussions in metropolitan, regional and remote locations in NSW, Victoria and Queensland between August 24 and September 3 last year.
The researchers said, based on previous opinion polls, voters who held strongly negative views on asylum seekers far outnumbered those with strongly positive views, and that the Australian public largely supports the Turnbull government’s tough stance on “unauthorised” boat arrivals.
The focus groups, involving 80 people, revealed the single most important driver of negative attitudes towards asylum seekers was “religious prejudice”, sometimes expressed as concern about the “Islamisation” of Australia.
This involved two views: seeing Islam as a religion intolerant of non-Muslims, and seeing Islam as synonymous with the terrorism threat.
The researchers heard “countless anecdotes – none based on first-hand evidence” that public places such as schools and shopping centres had abandoned Christmas carols and nativity plays to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities, and that ordinary people sent “happy holidays” cards rather than Christmas cards to avoid offending Muslims.
“Doubtless instances occur of all these phenomena, but those who wish to believe in a nascent Muslim ascendancy assert that they happen everywhere,” the research said.
Late last year, the Victorian Labor government was accused of trying to secularise schools by banning the singing of Christmas carols. The government strongly rejected the claim, saying Christmas decorations and carols were allowed at schools, but if visiting groups wanted to “sing religious songs” it must be done before or after school or during lunch, to avoid proselytising.
Racism towards asylum seekers mostly seen to be from “the Middle East” played a lesser role in negative attitudes, as did “materialist anxieties” that newcomers received preferential treatment for services such as public housing and welfare.
The study found this factor most prevalent among people who were themselves struggling – primarily blue-collar workers and people in western Sydney.
One focus group participant said: “They are running around in new Nike shoes. They had all been given a place, you know … You have homeless people that haven’t even got a place in Sydney, yet these people just walk in get a place [and] $10,000, new shoes.”
A refugee resettlement service told Fairfax Media that asylum seekers living in the community received partial Centrelink benefits and help to find affordable rental housing in the private market, usually in outer suburbs, and may receive furniture and clothes donated by community groups.
Refugees received a package of basic household goods and were eligible for Centrelink benefits, and were helped to find private rental accommodation. Neither group received $10,000.
The study also found there was scant knowledge of Australia’s international legal obligations to people seeking asylum – leading to a general readiness to accept labels such as “illegals” and “queue-jumpers”. It found support for boat turnbacks and offshore processing was conditional on there being no other way that was more fair and humane, while still minimising deaths at sea and ensuring proper screening of entrants.
The research was designed and conducted by Dr Denis Muller, senior research fellow at the university’s Centre for Advancing Journalism.
It concluded that a more constructive public debate on the asylum seeker issue required the correction of misconceptions and knowledge gaps, the promotion of community tolerance and respect, and more discussion over whether Australia was doing enough to help alleviate the world’s humanitarian crisis.