With Christmas Island full to the gunwales, the boatpeople issue is set to re-emerge, and language will play a crucial role in this political debate

In the long-running controversy about people-smuggling, language often has been misused to disguise what is going on. Instead of relaying the facts about people-smuggling, carefully chosen words are creating an entirely false impression. George Orwell would be turning in his grave.

We have long debated the term “illegal arrivals”. Unfair labelling was the call, and most people now use the bureaucratic “unauthorised boat arrivals” or the less precise “asylum-seekers” – less precise because there is an important distinction between these asylum-seekers and those camped in, say, Sudan; namely that the former have circumvented normal processes and arrived on our shores without visas.

When people downplay the boat arrivals issue by trumpeting the numbers of asylum-seekers who arrive by plane they neatly skirt around this point: that those arriving by plane arrive legally, with visas in hand. They may illegally overstay those visas and then claim asylum, but the fact remains they arrived legally, with authorities knowing who they were and where they came from.

Orwell believed language should be used to simply and directly convey what we mean. He identified that sloppy use of language could contaminate political debate, and vice versa: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

And so it is that every few days or so we are alerted to another boat load of asylum-seekers being intercepted by Australian customs or navy patrols. This is a most misleading use of the English language. The skippers of these people-smuggling boats know exactly where they are going and what they want. They head for Australian waters, usually near Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island, and their aim is to be met by an Australian vessel and taken for processing.

Whatever individual Australians think about changes to our border protection regime, rest assured the smugglers and their customers know the new rules: no trip to Nauru; no detention in the desert; no temporary protection visa; three months maximum in the Christmas Island centre; then off to mainland Australia with a visa.

So these boats and their passengers are not intercepted by Australian vessels, they seek them out. To say they are intercepted is to say I was intercepted at the Martin Place station in Sydney yesterday by the train to Central. Lucky I had a ticket ready.

The latest example of this came on Thursday. Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor issued a formulaic media release saying, “Border Protection Command today successfully intercepted a suspected irregular entry vessel.” It went on to say that the group of 47 people would be taken to Christmas Island where they: “will undergo security, identity and health checks. Their reasons for travel will also be established.”

To save the minister some time, allow me to suggest their reason for travel was to get to Christmas Island and receive visas to live in Australia.

The same formulation was used two days earlier for a group of 57 people, three days earlier for a boat with 47 people on board, four days before that with 13 people, two days with 45, and again just six days earlier for a vessel with 50 on board. Five days before that there was another arrival, but this time the media release trumpeted: “Border Protection Command Rescues 45 people.”

This underscores the point. When the boats are not intercepted in good time, they ring for help and arrange a rescue. You will not be surprised that, according to the minister’s media release: “The people on board the vessel have indicated they wish to come to Australia and will be taken to Christmas Island.” These announcements are farcical.

There is a bit of self-censorship of these arrivals going on in the media, so that quite often the arrivals receive little or no coverage. But, when they do, the government’s language is usually repeated by journalists and it gives a false impression. Newspapers, websites and radio bulletins proclaim that “Australian authorities intercepted the boat” or that a boat “has been intercepted”.

Whether we agree with the government’s policies or not, let’s not create the impression that our vessels are out there intercepting unauthorised boats, preventing them coming to Australia. Let’s not pretend these rendezvous are not welcomed by the asylum-seekers. Let’s not confuse rescues and interceptions with successful deliveries of asylum-seekers into the hands of Australian authorities.

This is not to say the Australian personnel don’t have a difficult and dangerous job. As we have seen, confusion and miscommunication can have disastrous consequences, especially when the expectation is a simple tow to Christmas Island.

But let us be clear. The only intercepting that occurs is at Christmas Island if arrivals are found not to be legitimate asylum-seekers.