Reflecting on my research and interaction with the refugee and asylum seeker issue so far throughout the semester, I was able to see a clear trend in my interest in public dissatisfaction with the Australian government’s current immigration policies, most particularly in regard to offshore processing centres. Passionate discourse around the inhumanity of the current detainment of 442 persons on Nauru and 854 persons on Manus Island reveals a growing level of discomfort amongst the Australian public. Social media hashtags such as #BringThemHere and #CloseTheCamps exemplify such sentiment.
With this key idea in mind, I then collaborated with my classmates in a group brainstorming session. Focusing firstly on refugees in detention, a number of themes recurred and became evident in our language and mapping, including mistreatment, trauma, ethics, injustice, accountability, secrecy, protest and outrage.
Focusing next on attitudes towards refugees in a more broad sense, our mapping revealed a huge dichotomy of sentiment, with recurring themes of fear, racism, selfishness and boundaries contrasting with generosity, empathy, compassion and acceptance. This reinforced to me the polarising nature of the issue and the resulting strength of opinion and sentiment from both sides of the argument.
Defining the problem statement
In light of this, I decided to keep my focus narrowed to those expressing dissatisfaction towards offshore detention policies, and used a series of framing questions to shape my problem statement.
- Who does the problem affect?
Most primarily, public dissatisfaction with immigration policies affects the future of the refugees and asylum seekers to whom such policies apply. Secondly, the issue affects the communities, jobs and everyday lives of Australian citizens. Further to this, public dissatisfaction affects the Australian government, most particularly its votes, its policymaking and its reputation. Lastly, the issue affects foreign governments and citizens, in their perception of Australia as a government and a people.
- What are the boundaries of the problem?
The boundaries of such growing public dissatisfaction are complex and networked. Secrecy and lack of media access, combined with leaked reports of deplorable conditions and incidents of abuse, represent a significant boundary. Attached to this, ethical concerns exist regarding the detrimental psychological and mental consequences of indefinite detention.
Another boundary presents itself in the form of Australia’s international obligations, based on not only the human right to seek asylum, but also on the government’s signature of the UN Refugee Convention.
At odds with this boundary is yet another boundary: the agenda of the Australian government. Despite announcing plans to close the Manus Island detention centre (with no specified date), the possibility of bringing current detainees to Australia for settlement has been firmly ruled out. Neither of the two major parties possesses the will to grant these 1296 persons residency and protection in Australia.
Perhaps the most significant boundary of the issue is the displacement crisis itself, without which there would be no influx of refugees to begin with. Such migrations of scale inevitably bring risks along with them, regarding the receiving country’s economic stability, cultural identity and safety.
Due to the range of opinions present within the citizen body, public dissatisfaction with the government’s immigration policies can arguably never be fully resolved.
However, when focusing on the issue of offshore detention, resolution of the issue could look like closure of the camps, resettlement of the 1296 persons Australia, and thus a successful end to protests and campaigns such as #CloseTheCamps and #BringThemHere.
If offshore detention is not addressed, the volume of the outrage is only likely to increase. If the camps are closed, but the refugees are not allowed to settle in Australia, our country’s international reputation and relations will arguably be damaged, by the government’s unwillingness to exercise compassion towards those whom they have undoubtedly mistreated.
- When does the problem occur? When does it need to be fixed?
The expression of public discomfort with offshore detention procedures is only increasing as time goes on. The recent leakage of the Nauru Files has further amplified the demand for action. This issue needs to be addressed by the government immediately, so that those detained may be granted protection and the hope of a new life.
- Where is the problem occurring?
Whilst the root of passionate anti-detention sentiment is being caused by the detainment occurring on Manus Island and Nauru, the resulting problem is occurring in the disconnect between the will of the government and the will of many passionate Australians. Furthermore, my previous Twitter scraping exercise revealed that this sense of dissatisfaction extends beyond the borders of our own country, with users from a multitude of other nations expressing disdain for Australia’s offshore detention situation.
- Why is it important that the problem is fixed? What impact does it have on all stakeholders?
From the perspective of campaigners against offshore detention, the camps must be closed for the sake of morality, ethics, and an end to refugee mistreatment and trauma. From the perspective of the government, fixing the problem will stop what has become a major economic drain. Furthermore, relations with Papua New Guinea will be improved.
On the converse, relations with Nauru are likely to worsen if the camps are closed, as the small country will no longer receive support and funding from the Australian government. Most importantly, the closing of the camps will be most beneficial for the detainees themselves, who hope for permanent protection and settlement in Australia or elsewhere, in order to build a new life.
Summary of 5 possibilities
This framing of the problem statement brought to light a number of possibilities for the development of a design response.
- Visualising and deploying public will in order to bring about political change.
Using either data visualisation or generative design practices, there is great potential to harness passionate public sentiment expressed on social media (both Australian and international). Thoughtful formatting and deployment of such discourse could do much to increase government attention, concern and action towards the issue of offshore detention. Possible formats could include a generative Twitter bot, a graphic data visualisation, or a cartographic Google Earth map.
- Investigating language used in the refugee and asylum seeker debate.
Once again using data visualisation and/or generative design practices, there is interesting potential to highlight and analyse the dichotomy of attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers, with particular focus given to language and semantics. Does one side of the argument have more of a tendency to use derogatory language or verbally abuse other actors in the debate? This could reveal interesting insights regarding the social interactions between those who do not agree.
- Investigating the trajectory of social media sentiment.
On social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, passionate arguments created by one user are often disseminated with momentum across circles and groups of users all over the world, using re-tweet or sharing functions. Once again using data visualisation practices, interesting potential lies in the idea of mapping the trajectory of online statements, as well as the resulting breadth, or lack, of unique thought amongst the digital community.
- Highlighting the inhumanity of indefinite detention
An increase in public support and for the closure of offshore detention centres may be achievable through the poignant communication of aspects of the issue. By highlighting details such as the ever-increasing time elapsed in detention, the personalities and aspirations of those detained, or the secrecy of the government, emotion and outrage may be evoked amongst the public, thus increasing the potential for change.
- Gathering the opinion of the wider community regarding detention
Writing letters to local MPs is often a time-consuming process. Petitions, on the other hand, are quick and easy, yet usually not pervasive or wide-reaching enough to gather the signatures of all those who care about the issue. Here lies potential for a generative system or service design, in which a petition or pre-written letter is integrated into an aspect of daily life, so as to be exposed to a larger percentage of the population, whilst still being simple and convenient.
Draft Proposal: Generative System / Visualisation
Collecting and visualising support for #CloseTheCamps using participatory practices
Thanks to the pervasiveness of richly networked digital communities in contemporary society, it is easier than ever to share your personal opinion and show support for a cause. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter provide a place for discussion to be initiated and disseminated like never before. However, with this proliferation of digital self-expression comes an element of detachment and distance. Proclaiming your views within the circle of your limited digital community has little resonance in your real, physical, day-to-day life.
In the case of Australia’s current offshore processing policies, many Australians take to social media to express their frustration and outrage regarding the inhumane and indefinite detention of innocent asylum seekers. However, it can be argued that there are just as many who do not. Whether they are not opposed to the issue, unaware of it, or simply not one to post their opinions online, social media is not an exhaustive indicator of public opinion within a geographical community.
In order to measure the opinions of my local community regarding offshore detention, I propose to create a generative petition system using Opal card gates at train stations throughout the Sydney region. By attaching a sign to half of the open Opal gates reading “Close The Camps: Tap here to sign” (or similar), commuters and public transport users will be offered the choice to show their support in a very physical and immediate manner.
By placing the interaction within a part of their existing daily routine, the users are not inconvenienced and are thus highly likely to participate. Furthermore, the system also holds potential to engender change in this portion of the community, by bringing the issue to their attention in a way that is not reliant on the political positions (or lack of) of their online friends and followers. Those who may have been previously apathetic towards the issue are now prompted to make an active decision, or at least think about the situation in more depth as they continue their commute.
Applied over a number of days and locations, this system will provide a data set rich with potential for both campaigning and visualisation. Using an algorithm to collect the number of taps registered through each gate, a quantitative petition is generated, pertaining to both time and geographical location.
This then has the potential to be visualized using an automated program, forming a live, active petition in support of closing refugee camps. If brought to the attention of the Australian government, this sort of participatory system could potentially affect policymaking and create change, as the scale of public support for the closure of the camps is expressed and reinforced by the daily movement of commuters throughout the city.