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Hard Hearts: A critical look at liberal humanitarianism in refugee support movements

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  • Humanitarianism
  • Asylum Seekers
  • Activism
  • Economics
  • Linguistics
  • Political Science


Increasingly, political responses to asylum seekers and refugees have become more punitive and exclusionary in many receiving countries. This hardening reflects a broader shift to the right: toward an emphasis on national security and borders, on economic rationalism, and monoculturalism. How can people who are campaigning for less exclusionary policies and laws respond? We review an ethnographic case study in the town of Woodside, South Australia and the first author’s discursive research on the political speeches of Australian politicians. These suggest that pragmatic interventions emphasizing win/win solutions and mainstream appeals are useful. Two of these interventions, which we review in this paper, are: 1) creating social and economic benefits for both asylum seekers and residents in the communities in which they are housed, based upon an evidence base developed by establishing the social and economic impacts of asylum seeking; 2) using discourse and rhetoric that presents arguments and interventions made on behalf of asylum seekers as practical, pragmatic and moderate. These strategies are focussed on enacting broad-based change via appeals to the mainstream, which is not the goal of all advocacy or activism, and is not appropriate in all circumstances. The interventions that we propose for community engagement also require that we reconcile the sometimes conflicting needs of asylum seekers and refugees and the residents of communities in which they are housed, which is not always possible. Despite these limits to the applicability of these strategies and interventions, our research suggests that they can create positive changes in attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees.

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