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'Refugees Not Welcome' Australians Say

Published in The Bulletin, cover date September 25, 2001

The Tampa boat people crisis reflects a dramatic turnaround in Australians' attitudes toward refugees. In 1979 the majority of Australians (53%) were in favour of accepting Vietnamese boat people but today a massive 68% adamantly oppose refugees arriving on our shores.

Only 20% say "accept the refugees" while 12% are undecided and most approve of the Government's handling of the refugee problem, according to a Roy Morgan International Poll conducted in Australia, New Zealand, US and UK.

This represents a fundamental shift in attitude since June 1979 when Morgan Poll found 53% of Australians said the Government (L-NCP) of the day should accept the refugees arriving in Australia from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia by boat. Only 28% said "put the boats back to sea", and 19% were undecided. At that time only 39% considered the L-NCP Government was doing a good job of handling the refugee problem.

Surprisingly, despite the Federal Court of Australia ruling that the Government acted unlawfully in detaining refugees on the Tampa, and ordering the boat people to be returned to the Australian mainland, only 19% of Australians agreed the Tampa boat people should be returned to Australia now -76% said "no" and 5% were undecided.

An important aspect of the Tampa debate has been the way the rest of the world perceived Australia's actions.

This Roy Morgan International Poll shows no clear evidence of international criticism - indeed opinion as to whether Australia should accept the refugees or put the boats back to sea is fairly divided in the UK (42%-45% in favour of putting them back to sea). In New Zealand, more favour putting them back to sea (38%-43%) while in the USA more favour Australia accepting the refugees (34%-25%) but a large 41% were undecided.

These are the results of a Roy Morgan International Poll conducted September 12-16 in which nation-wide cross-sections of people aged 18 and over were surveyed by telephone in Australia (853 interviews), New Zealand (526 interviews), USA (567 interviews) and UK (510 interviews). 

Should Australia accept the refugees?

People surveyed were asked:

"Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the refugees arriving in Australia by boat. Do you feel the Australian Government should accept those refugees arriving in Australia by boat, or put those boats back to sea?"

  Australia New Zealand USA UK
  % % % %
Accept refugees 20 38 34 42
Put them back to sea 68 43 25 45
Undecided 12 19 41 13

Should Australia accept refugees arriving in
Australia or be put those boats back to sea?
Analysis by Gender and Age
  March
1979*
Sept.
2001
Men Women 14-24 25-34 35-49 50+
  % % % % % % % %
                 
Accept 53 20 20 19 26 21 21 15
Put back to sea 28 68 67 69 61 68 67 71
Undecided 19 12 13 12 13 11 12 14
                 
  100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100

Should Australia accept refugees arriving in Australia or be put those boats back to sea? Analysis by Voting Intention
  March
1979*
Sept.
2001
L-NP ALP Aust.
Dem.
The
Greens
P.Hanson
One Nation
Ind./
Others
No
Answer
  % % %   % % % % %
                   
Accept 53 20 8 28 31 53 7 13 6
Put back to sea 28 68 80 58 54 35 85 76 78
Undecided 19 12 12 14 15 12 8 11 16
                   
  100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
* In 1979 the boat people were primarily from Indo-China


Australians who felt the Australian Government should accept the boat refugees were influenced mainly by humanitarian concerns and the tribulations these people had experienced.

When asked: "Do you feel the Australian Government should accept those refugees arriving in Australia by boat, or put those boats back to sea?" typical comments of those in favour included:

"We have humanitarian requirements under the United Nations to accept refugees".
"They are obviously going to great lengths to escape".
"They deserve basic human rights".
"They are in danger of being killed in their country".

Many Australians who did not want the refugees accepted criticised the refugees for trying to enter via the "back door", "jumping the queue'" and not using the correct procedure. Some said accepting the refugees might worsen the country's already high unemployment rate.

The terrorist attack in America brought about a new attitude that considerably coloured many opinions. They included:

"Look what happened today in America. We don't know who they are and they are a violent race".
"They are fanatical people".
"The Muslims just bombed America".
"What if boat people blow our buildings up? We need to protect our country against terrorist attacks".

Australian Government and leaders handling of the refugee problem

People surveyed were asked:

"Overall, do you feel the Australian Government is doing a GOOD job or a POOR job in handling the refugee problem?" 

  Australia New Zealand USA UK
  % % % %
Very good 23 13 6 23
Fairly good 42 32 22 19
Total good 65 45 28 42
         
Neither good nor bad 7 6 4 11
         
Fairly poor 13 20 4 13
Very poor 13 18 2 16
Total poor 26 38 6 29
         
Can't say 2 11 62 18

People surveyed were asked:

"Do you approve or disapprove of the way Mr Howard is handling the refugee problem?"
"Do you approve or disapprove of the way Mr Beazley is handling the refugee problem?"
"The Minister for Immigration is Mr Ruddock. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Mr Ruddock is handling the refugee problem?" 

  Mr Howard Mr Beazley Mr Ruddock
  % % %
Approve 70 21 46
Disapprove 24 40 24
Can't Say 6 39 30

The way Mr Howard is handling
the refugee problem?
Analysis by Voting Intention
  Sept. 12-16
2001
Total
L - NP
ALP Aust.
Dem.
The
Greens
P.Hanson
One Nation
Ind./
Others
No
Answer
  % % % % % % % %
                 
Approve 70 91 54 48 32 75 75 73
Disapprove 24 6 39 45 53 22 15 9
Undecided 6 3 7 7 15 3 10 18
                 
  100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100

The way Mr Beazley is handling
the refugee problem?
Analysis by Voting Intention
  Sept. 12-16
2001
Total
L - NP
ALP Aust
Dem.
The
Greens
P.Hanson
One Nation
Ind./
Others
No
Answer
  % % % % % % % %
                 
Approve 21 18 29 16 9 16 14 12
Disapprove 40 55 24 42 35 63 49 16
Undecided 39 27 47 42 56 21 37 72
                 
  100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100

The way Minister for Immigration Mr Ruddock
is handling refugee problem?
Analysis by Voting Intention
  Sept. 12-16
2001
Total
L - NP
ALP Aust
Dem.
The
Greens
P.Hanson
One Nation
Ind./
Others
No
Answer
  % % % % % % % %
                 
Approve 46 65 31 28 11 43 49 38
Disapprove 24 9 35 53 40 23 21 9
Undecided 30 26 34 19 49 34 30 53
                 
  100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100

When asked: "Do you approve or disapprove if the way Mr Howard is handling the refugee problem?" those who approved of his handling of the problem (the majority) emphasised that he had taken a strong stand. They explained:

"He is standing firm and not budging".
"He made a strong stand to protect us".
"He's the only Australian Prime Minister who has stood up to illegal immigration".
"He's thinking about the consequences".
"He has an eye on the future as well as today".

However, many of those who disagreed said the Prime Minister was using the issue for political advantage due to the approaching election.

Their comments included:

"He's using the situation for personal advantage. "
"The GST killed him and he's using this issue for the election".
"He's not addressing the basic problem, which starts in Indonesia".
"It shows a lack of moral courage."
"It's a political issue more than a humanitarian issue".
"He's not doing our image any good".

The Federal Court Ruling

People surveyed were told: "As you probably know, boat people picked up by the Norwegian vessel, the Tampa, are now being sent by the Australian Government to Nauru and New Zealand for processing. The Federal Court of Australia has ruled that the Government acted unlawfully in detaining the refugees on the Tampa, and has ordered the boat people on the Tampa be returned to the Australian mainland."

And asked: "In your opinion, should the Tampa boat people be returned to the Australian mainland now, or not?" 

  Australia New Zealand USA UK
  % % % %
Yes, returned to mainland 19 44 33 41
No 76 44 25 41
Undecided 5 12 42 18

Should the Tampa boat people be returned to Australia? Analysis by Gender and Age
  Sept. 12-16
2001
Men Women 14-24 25-34 35-49 50+
  % % % % % % %
               
Yes 19 21 18 26 18 20 17
No, not 76 75 77 72 76 76 77
Undecided 5 4 5 2 6 4 6
               
  100 100 100 100 100 100 100

Should the Tampa boat people
be returned to Australia?
Analysis by Voting Intention
  Sept. 12-16
2001
Total
L - NP
ALP Aust.
Dem.
The
Greens
P.Hanson
One Nation
Ind./
Others
No
Answer
  % % % % % % % %
                 
Yes 19 10 26 29 45 18 12 11
No, not 76 87 68 61 40 82 85 77
Undecided 5 3 6 10 15 - 3 12
                 
  100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100

The Morgan Poll is conducted by the 
ONLY Australian or New Zealand member of the Gallup International Association.
No other public opinion poll taken in Australia or New Zealand 
has this qualification.