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Refugees, Limbo and the Australian Media

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It seems that more often than not, refugees and asylum seekers are associated with the notion of ‘limbo’. This terminology is used to illustrate situations in which people are unable to access systems that would alleviate their ‘standstill’ lives. In other words, when it is said that people are in limbo, it is understood they have a sense of hopelessness. Specifically, in the media, at least three examples of ‘limbo’ are often used: limbo as a physical space, limbo as a type of legal conflict or legal irreconcilability and metaphysical limbo or the type of limbo that exists in one’s mind. Unfortunately, the refugee experience is so commonly associated with the idea of limbo that it appears to be the central space that refugees ‘belong’—presumably, due to the inaccessible or unpreventable nature of their predicament, they are unable to escape their life in limbo. However, it is important to understand that limbo does not simply ‘exist’. It is something that is created. In the case of Australia, refugee limbos appear as certain types due to the restrictive nature of the Government’s laws and policies. This article explores the usage of the term ‘limbo’ in the media in order to draw attention to its overwhelming presence and map specific types of discourse and ideologies. Further, it is shown that limbo should not be considered something which is out of our control or something inherent in the refugee experience but instead, is a tool used by governments to restrict refugee access to the border and systems of protection.

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    For example, see John Howard’s rejection of multiculturalism and the introduction of ‘Australian Values’. According to Howard, “the truth is that people come to this country because they want to be Australians. The irony is that no institution or code lays down a test of Australianness. Such is the nature of our free society.” However, despite this suggestion, the Howard Government introduced an Australian Values Test as part of its immigration procedures. See John Howard [7]. One might also note the change of name of the Department; from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs changed its name to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and then, in late 2013, to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

  2. 2.

    See also Markus [10].

  3. 3.

    “Sending a clear message” to people smugglers (read ‘boat people’) was a theme repeated often during the Rudd Government. Subsequent Australian Governments employed similar rhetorical statements. See also Richardson [13].

  4. 4.

    These Standards of Practice most definitely applied to the periods that are considered in this analysis. In fact, they remain the most current Standards of Practice used by the Australian press. However, it should be noted as a point of clarity that recent developments in Australia, led by the Abbott Government, have made arrival by boat an illegitimate means through which to seek asylum. Instead, all boat arrivals are intercepted and sent to Nauru and Manus Islands for processing.

  5. 5.

    See Fiona McKay, Samantha Thomas and R Warwick Blood [16]. The Australian Press Council has also recently warned that terms such as “illegal immigrants” or “illegals” may constitute a breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice. The council stated: “The legal status of people who have entered Australia by boat without a visa is complex and potentially confusing. Their entry is not legally authorised but is not a criminal offence”. See Australian Press Council [15].

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    Fairclough in Gale [8].

  7. 7.

    Using Factiva, I identified 649 articles between the years 2001 and 2002 that contained the words ‘limbo’ and ‘refugee’; many of them containing both the words in the headline. Of these, 150 related to Australia. It is interesting to note that of these, 91 contained the word ‘boat’ and 67 contained a reference to ‘Tampa’. Limbo has been used to describe the refugee experience before this period but there seems to be a sharp increase of ‘limbo’ in Australian media specifically after the Tampa issue.

  8. 8.

    At this point in the article the author references: Amy Slaughter and Jeff Crisp [25].

  9. 9.

    However, this claim is only qualified through statistics regarding the ratio of settled refugees to the host country’s population.

  10. 10.

    Further, media representations of Australia’s own attempts to warehouse refugees are discussed later in this article.

  11. 11.

    In Dante’s Divine Comedy there are two limbos; one that lies just inside the gate of Hell and another that forms the first ‘ring’ of Hell ‘proper’. As such, limbo can be a place outside of both Heaven and Hell, but in some instances it may still have qualities which are ‘hell-like’.

  12. 12.

    To review UNHCR’s statistical data mentioned here, see UNHCR [42].

  13. 13.

    Guideline 2.

  14. 14.

    Guideline 3.

  15. 15.

    Article 9.

  16. 16.

    However, to date, no person has been processed at these detention centres.


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Hightower, B. Refugees, Limbo and the Australian Media. Int J Semiot Law 28, 335–358 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-014-9382-9

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  • Asylum seekers
  • Refugees
  • Australia
  • Limbo
  • Media
  • Detention
  • Refugee camp